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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has come to Chicago. The Gene Siskel Film Center is presenting most of the 21 films, curated by Mr. Scorsese and restored with the help of his Film Foundation, now through July 3 as part of the traveling show that audiences in 18 lucky cities (so far) in the U.S. and Canada will have a chance to view. Pharaoh, an Academy Award nominee, is a film that, up to now, has been treated very poorly. The long, rather slow film has been available almost exclusively in truncated, dubbed, or faded versions and as hard to see, even in a bastardized version, in Poland as it has been in the rest of the world. The new DCP version reveals the majesty of this adaptation of Bolesław Prus’s late 19th-century novel about the fictional Ramses XIII at the fall of the 20th dynasty and New Kingdom of Egypt. Although I can’t be sure, the story appears to be based on the reign of Ramses VIII, a pharaoh who ruled for no more than two years and about whom almost nothing is known—the perfect blank canvas for a writer whose complaints about the authenticity of most historical novels allowed him to provide the best available information about ancient Egypt at the time without needing to worry in the least about being accurate about his characters.
In what is surely one of the best prologues to a film I’ve ever seen, the opening credits roll over a parched patch of earth as the clashing, atonal score of Adam Walachinski sounds. The portentousness of this introduction finally resolves as a pair of dung beetles push a round turd from one side of the screen to the other, battling to possess it. A functionary’s face rises into the frame, and he runs the length of several regiments to the high priest Herhor (Piotr Pawlowski) to inform him that the sacred scarabs are in the direct line of the advancing troops. Herhor orders the troops to go around the beetles to avoid trampling them, to the protests of Ramses (Jerzy Zelnik) and the despair of a Hebrew slave (Jerzy Block) who spent 10 years digging a canal that Herhor now tells the troops to fill in so that they can advance. This opening perfectly communicates on both symbolic and literal levels the clash between governmental and religious leaders, the latter a frequent whipping post for director Kawalerowicz, as well as the puniness of their struggle in the face of the vast, uncaring forces of nature and history.
Ramses is a young, ambitious man who craves his own military command and the chance to wrest control of Egypt from the priests who have both the confidence of his parents, Osiris-Ramses XII (Andrzej Girtler) and Nikotris (Wiesława Mazurkiewicz), and control of a vast cache of gold held in the temple labyrinth for a “time of great need.” Ramses has modern ideas, believing in science and in using the gold to better the lives of ordinary Egyptians and pay for a first-rate military force to help Egypt regain its stature and power on the world stage. Instead, he must go to Dagon (Edward Raczkowski), a sleazy Phoenician merchant, to borrow enough money to pay the soldiers to whom he rashly promised bonuses. Thus, when Ramses XII dies, the stage is set for a power struggle between the new pharaoh and the priests.
Pharaoh provides a heady mix of stunning visuals and set pieces that bring this ancient world of sand and superstition vividly to life, while at the same time concentrating on its intimate human drama with an expositional style that has much in common with Shakespeare’s works—indeed, the scene with Dagon seems almost directly lifted from The Merchant of Venice. Contrasting it with C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which was reviewed below by Rod, is a useful exercise because Pharaoh actually conflates its story with the story of Passover while making obvious reference to the Nazi Holocaust to form a continuum of Jewish suffering that, while much more understated, actually packs a powerful punch.
Whereas DeMille, the grand showman, created a world so fantastical that his film is a legend in its own right, Kawalerowicz creates an almost alien and primitive world in which the power of myth and ritual is real and rather terrifying. The entrance of Ramses XII to court is handled with great chanting and solemnity, his every move as stiff and controlled as a hieroglyph. A complete believer in his own place in the divine line of Egyptian pharaohs and thus seeing the priests as enablers of his strength, he puts down young Ramses’ earthly concerns about being denied a military command with a simple, but crushing authority that the heir to the throne, no shrinking violet himself, cannot oppose. Ramses XII’s final ritual—his burial—is a dread affair, with female mourners leading the procession down a passageway to his tomb with wrenching wails, turning to face the walls to allow the funeral bier to pass them as a downward shot lends a claustrophobic angle to the scene; while we do not see these retainers locked in the tomb to serve their lord in the afterlife, the implication is there.
At the same time, Kawalerowicz takes pains to suggest that the priests are charlatans. After the opening scene, Ramses meets Sarah (Krystyna Mikolajewska), a beautiful Jewish slave who came out to the desert to see the army, and has her brought to the palace as his mistress. She gives birth to a son who, during Ramses’ absence, she names Isaac at the insistence of the priests. With this evidence of his son’s Jewishness, Ramses demotes Sarah to servant of Kama (Barbara Brylska), the priestess-mistress chosen for him by the priests, who seduced him in her temple by appearing and disappearing as if by magic (or, if you prefer, cinematic magic tricks).
Later, when the Egyptian people are induced by Ramses to storm the temple labyrinth, Pentuer (Leszek Herdegen), a prophet sympathetic to Ramses, tells him that an eclipse of the sun is about to occur. Herhor mounts the high wall of the temple labyrinth and stretches his arms to the sky, and the day goes dark. While the populace panic, screaming and running from the scene or digging in the sand to try to hide themselves, Ramses reminds himself to elevate the priests who study the sky to a higher position at court, deflating a dramatic moment with his modern mind. This eclipse, along with a bit of hyperbole from Nikotris that the water has turned to blood, as well as the murder of Sarah and her son, Ramses’ firstborn, echo the plagues visited upon the Egyptians by the god of the Hebrews that DeMille gave so much divine force.
The Hebrews themselves are hardly seen, apart from Sarah and the canal digger. The former seems much beloved of Ramses, but there is no salvation for her or her son inside the palace walls. The canal digger, told he and his family would be freed once the canal was finished, commits suicide following the order to fill it in. The echo of the slogan of Auschwitz, “Work Makes (You) Free,” certainly cannot be mistaken by a modern audience, and the image of the man hanging from a tree limb outstretched above the canal looks less like a suicide than a lynching—it is an image that comes to haunt Ramses, and with the counsel of Pentuer, a peasant elevated to priest, sets him on a course of public welfare that ensures his reign will be a short one.
There are moments that, in DeMille’s hands, would provide entertainment and thrills of the highest order. Sarah sings a Hebrew song to Ramses. Ramses drives his chariot through the desert. Ramses’ army attacks an Assyrian force many times its size and wins. Ramses and Hebron (Ewa Krzyzewska), the fiancée of Ramses’ right-hand man Tutmosis (Emir Buczacki), flirt while Tutmosis hovers nearby. Tutmosis, sent to arrest Herhor and Mephres (Stanislaw Milski), another high priest, is speared in the back by a traitor to Ramses. I can just hear the music punctuating each exciting moment, every footfall sure and rapid, a grin of pure abandon on Ramses face as he races to his destination. In Kawalerowicz’s film, however, each scene is as life itself. A scene of troops running up and down sand dunes shows it to be a slow, clumsy affair. Tutmosis doesn’t clutch himself and keel over as sinister music signals his death—he twists and squirms as his attacker continues to jab him, taking forever to succumb. Sarah sings a slow lament with her back to the audience, as though praying at the Wailing Wall. The complete lack of prudery in the film normalizes Ramses’ promiscuous sexual appetites and frees the other characters from jealousy. And driving a chariot takes concentration—it’s not a ’50s hot rod. Each of these scenes is beautifully realized by the stellar cast and DP Jerzy Wójcik, but we feel as though we are actually part of the scene rather than voyeurs looking for some thrills.
Kawalerowicz offers brutal reality on a personal level as opposed to mass slaughter. Ramses makes good on his vow to take 100,000 Assyrian hands, as baskets of severed hands from the fallen enemy soldiers are carried off the field of battle. A captured Assyrian horse becomes the target of one, then another, then another spear as Ramses gets his men into a fighting spirit. A confederate of Ramses who says he knows the path to the treasure chamber gets hopelessly lost in the labyrinth before taking poison upon his capture. Ramses shoots birds with arrows with the superstitious notion that if he hits each target, he will get what he wishes for. I can’t but think that this is how ancient Egyptians lived, and Kawalerowicz took great pains to stick as close to the historical record as possible, even building a boat for a scene on the Nile according to 4,000-year-old plans.
Kawalerowicz combined shooting at Łódź studios with location shooting in Uzbekistan and Egypt. The latter location provided him with some strangely poetic moments: Ramses laments that he will never build his own grand tomb to stand with the pharaohs of ages past as we look at the Great Pyramids, their outer skins ragged and time worn, a head of an ancient pharaoh toppled to the ground. These details make the story more lamentable, the greatness of this civilization—like all great civilizations—perishable. Even before his demise, Kawalerowicz seems to suggest, Ramses is already finished.
I was utterly captivated by the use of wigs in this film—Mazurkiewicz even went so far as to shave her head to wear one as it must have been worn in ancient times. Apart from the opening credits, music is only used diagetically, which cannily prevents us from soaring above the drama. The entire cast, led by a regal and rash Zelnik as the strong core of the film, is superb, communicating a great deal with a single look or movement. The villians, particularly Dagon and Kama, were a bit stereotypical, but not distractingly so, nor were Ramses and his compatriots glowing paragons of virtue. None of us will ever have the chance to experience life in ancient Egypt, but thanks to Pharaoh, we can at least imagine this remote time and its concerns. Moreover, Kawalerowicz has given us another approach to epic filmmaking that allows for our empathy and participation. With so few filmmakers working in this manner, the return of this film to its full glory is a welcome addition to the library of world cinema.
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Director: Cecil B. DeMille
By Roderick Heath
Legend has it that young film director Cecil B. DeMille arrived by train at a Midwestern location to shoot his debut project, The Squaw Man (1914), only to find a rainstorm was drenching the locale. DeMille decided to head on to the end of the line and film in the outskirts of Los Angeles, where some film production was already taking place and the climate was almost always favourable. The result of this miniature, comically fateful Exodus was the founding of another promised land, Hollywood, as America’s film capital. DeMille’s subsequent career all but defined the public’s idea of Tinseltown’s evolution from dusty backdrop to powerhouse industry, whilst his name became synonymous with what was, until the rise of special-effects-driven blockbusters, the biggest of cinematic genres: the costume epic. But DeMille, consummate showman, was always ready to change genres and modes when he sensed audiences were tiring of certain material. His original forte was sexy melodramas about temptation and punishment, like The Cheat (1915); later, he transferred the impulses he explored and exploited onto ostensibly more elevated material in religious dramas, like his first tilt at The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). DeMille was cunning, ardent, and hypocritical all at once: his parties had been the wildest in Hollywood in the ’20s, and he nailed down his audience appeal by flooding the eyes with sensual gratification whilst preaching in the ear.
DeMille’s best work usually made such clashes his subject, like the Christian martyr tale in The Sign of the Cross (1932), that gets the audience off on seeing faith tested with pleasures and terrors of the flesh that correlates this voyeurism with the sexual and sadistic impulses of Nero’s Rome. With films like Madam Satan (1930) and Four Frightened People (1934), DeMille tried to examine his audience’s fantasies in a more upfront fashion, with heroines desiring to transform themselves in liberating situations, but both flopped. So it was back to such self-consciously legendary historical films like Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935), and then, as he sensed post-Depression audiences were getting more parochial, equally mythical studies of U.S. history like The Plainsman (1936), Union Pacific (1939), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). After WWII, DeMille, who retained such status he was Hitchcock’s only rival for audience recognition amongst directors, revived the religious epic with Samson and Delilah (1949), proving that on the cusp of the 1950s, the audience again wanted lush escapism mixed with a fine patina of supercilious morality. DeMille’s instincts proved prescient again as the historical melodrama, usually with heavy religious themes, found natural symbiosis with the new widescreen and Technicolor-blazoned super-cinema that Hollywood was using to retaliate against TV’s growing threat. Coming off one of his flattest films, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) (of course, the one that gained him his lone Oscar), and 40 years after The Squaw Man, DeMille tackled, in his mid-70s, the largest and most ambitious of his epics, a redo of The Ten Commandments. At a budget of more than $13 million, it was the most expensive movie of its time and one of the biggest money-makers of any time.
The Ten Commandments is the sort of film that now tends to be appreciated with a smirk. With its blazing colour, stylised acting, florid dialogue, and commitment to telling its story in the most magnified and unequivocal of fashions, DeMille made a film that’s proved gold for satirists and camp enthusiasts ever since, and defined one ideal of old Hollywood cinema so thoroughly that everything that followed seemed like reaction. Wood for the trees, however; DeMille wasn’t trying to make On the Waterfront (1954), but its absolute opposite in stylistic terms, and it’s a version of cinema that demands much more respect than it usually receives. It approaches a defiant extreme in manipulation and sublimation of technique and human elements to the iconographic tale DeMille was telling, and yet, of course, DeMille’s take on Old Testament material is a version of a moral melodrama that reaches across the breadth of ’50s American cinema, including On the Waterfront, as a character hears the irrepressible call of his conscience that will lead him into a terrible power struggle.
DeMille’s achievement is close to what another silent cinema hero, Sergei Eisenstein, had managed with his Ivan the Terrible diptych (1946, 1959), tossing out the rules for realistic drama they had only half-heartedly played by since the coming of sound. Both men were surely remembering the likes of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) in turning past mythology into totalised conceptualism. DeMille’s reputation as a maker of big movies went further than his penchant for huge sets and large casts: every aesthetic element in them was rendered in an outsized manner. DeMille’s visual style was replete with a grand salon artist’s framings and arrangements of elements, as well as deep-focus shots emphasising space and physicality. His cultural armoury referenced Victorian genre painting, Wagnerian operatic staging, primitive and early civilisation art forms, cubism and art deco decorative and dance styles.
DeMille’s approach was perfect for portraying Old Testament myth for the benefit of mid-century audiences: the very anti-realism of it painted a palpable dream past where all-powerful deities casually part seas and god-kings battle with shamanic heroes for overlordship of humanity. The opening lays out DeMille’s iconographic talent in all its loud glory, his own inimitably stentorian voice reciting “Let there be light!” over shots of crepuscular-rifted clouds and perverse snapshots of massed slaves hauling monumental statues. Egyptian royalty and guards are arrayed like the friezes on tomb walls, as Ramses I (DeMille regular Ian Keith), scared by omens that proclaim the birth of the prophesised deliverer of his Hebrew slaves, is talked into massacring all their newborn. This slaughter is communicated with perfect economy in a dissolve to a dead-eyed mother sitting next to a cradle with a soldier, sword covered in blood, retreating from his murderous work. Yochabel (Martha Scott) saves her lad by setting him adrift on the Nile, and has her daughter follow his reed basket to make sure he finds a safe landing point. He certainly finds that, as he is rescued by Bithiah (Nina Foch), the Pharaoh’s daughter and a recent widow, and claimed as her gift of consolation from the gods. Exodus’ famously sketchy narrative until Moses, as Bithiah dubs him, leaves his gilded royal life to stick up for his people, is here fleshed out as a tale of adoptive familial strife. As a grown man, Moses (Charlton Heston) competes with Ramses (Yul Brynner), son of Bithiah’s brother Seti (Cedric Hardwicke), the next Pharaoh, for Seti’s favour.
Moses returns from war both as venerated patriotic hero and wise leader, having brought back the King of Ethiopia (Woody Strode) and his sister as allies. With Ramses having fallen behind schedule in building Seti’s “treasure city,” Seti gives the job to Moses whilst ordering Ramses to discover if the Hebrew messiah is alive, as the slaves hope. Ramses would almost be reduced to the Jan Brady of religious epics in contending with his cousin’s constantly recapitulated excellence, except that he’s so swaggeringly arrogant he scarcely doubts for a second that, sooner or later, his birth-imbued status will win out. Between them as a love interest is Nefertiri (Anne Baxter), dissemblingly referred to as the “throne princess” to disguise the prickly detail that she is Ramses’ sister and, as per ancient Egyptian custom, expected to marry her brother. Nefertiri’s preference for Moses is understandably unabashed. Moses’ innate decency almost gets him into trouble, however, as he’s appalled by the Hebrew slaves’ treatment. This comes to a head when Yochabel, employed as a grease layer to smooth the movement of enormous blocks of stone, is almost crushed; stone artisan Joshua (John Derek) saves her life by assaulting a foreman, and Joshua’s girlfriend, waterbearer Lilia (Debra Paget), calls Moses to intervene. Realising that the slaves are too malnourished and exhausted to work effectively, he has grain seized from priestly granaries to feed the slaves and gives them a day off each week. This allows Ramses to impugn his loyalty, but Seti is so impressed by the progress Moses makes that he declares him his heir.
Say what you will about DeMille’s boldface dramatic style, far from getting lost in pageantry and swagger or in religious and cultural vagaries, The Ten Commandments puts sketchy holy writ and gargantuan cinematic trappings at the mercy of immediate human drama. Sexual desire, jealousy, righteous anger, the nature of political might and worthiness of it, genetic versus emotional loyalty, family love, family hate—all are mixed together in a brash and muscular manner in the film’s first hour. Howard Hawks and William Faulkner blanched at the problem of what a Pharaoh sounded like, but DeMille and his battery of screenwriters charge right in with fake poeticisms and would-be arcane turns of phrase mixed with colloquialisms: one of my favourite moments tweaks the disparity, as Seti, listening to a litany of glorifying titles recited by a high priest, mutters to Nefertiri, “The old windbag!” In a manner so different to many modern spectacle films, the humans are never lost amidst the epic—quite the opposite in fact, as Seti’s city reshapes the world to reflect an individual’s ego back at him, something Seti himself is above but which Ramses is all too willing to accept as natural law. The dialectic continues through the film as Moses comes into contact with a greater power and uses it to pound that grand world back into clay. DeMille partly achieves this because his actors, particularly the titanic bodies of Heston and Brynner, are treated like landscapes in themselves. The two actors understand this well, playing with intense gestural and postural acuity that rapidly steps between the friezelike and the dancelike.
Moses’ journey from the very edge of his society to the centre and back again culminates in two murders, each an act of faith and love, but for sharply divergent ends. Nefertiri kills Memnet (Judith Anderson), Moses’ and Ramses’ former nurse, when she threatens to reveal Moses’ true identity to Seti, whilst Moses, when he discovers that identity, makes his first act of liberation the killing of Baka (Vincent Price), the self-indulgent governor of the slave town of Goshen, when he attempts to whip Joshua to death. Nefertiri kills nominally for love, but really to sate her own ego, whilst Moses does so not just to save a man, but also as a kind of declaration of war and identity. Nefetiri, initially merely a spoilt brat with a likeable streak of bravado, not so slowly disintegrates into an unstable egotist. Whilst beefcake masculinity covets the screen, Baxter’s gloriously arch turn as Nefertiri (all together now: “Oh, Moses, Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”) fits neatly into DeMille’s penchant for featuring wilful, transgressive women. She is indeed more complex than her predecessors and resolves in an image of tortured union as its own perdition. DeMille inverts the gender format of The Sign of the Cross as pagan tart tries to seduce adamantine man of faith even as Moses transforms into a prematurely wizened patriarch and enemy of the state. Whereas Samson and Delilah only works in fits and starts, as Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr failed to build the necessary over-the-top lust, Baxter keeps The Ten Commandments percolating on a level of erotic excess. She also gives the film jolts of impudent malice throughout, particularly in the second half, as Ramses’ confident alpha masculinity, expressed through his repeatedly stated intent to possess both Nefertiri and the crown, crumbles in the face of both Moses’ miracles and, worse, Nefertiri’s contemptuous jibes that fulfil the task of hardening Pharaoh’s heart via a process of relentless emasculation.
Downfall for Moses waits just around the corner, as Nefertiri hurls Memnet to her death from her balcony, and then meets Moses still gripped by a skittish mania that gives her deed and the reason behind it away. Moses heads to Yochabel’s home, where he learns the truth of his origins. DeMille milks Yochabel’s and Bithia’s converging, but polarised maternal grieving, but strikes an ingenious and graceful note as Moses contends with the radical shift in awareness, but ponders just how much he hasn’t changed. His subsequent self-immersion in the mean life of the Hebrew slaves brings him into contact with brutality and perversion as an old man who protests his humanity to a guard is casually murdered, and Lilia is lecherously picked out by Baka for forced prostitution. Such corny, but memorable vignettes give the film a moral context that resists reduction to mere theatre, in part because DeMille stages them vividly—the grimy mud clinging to Moses and the old man and the smear of red blood the guard wipes off the straw-chopper he used as a weapon, the maelstrom of intently oblivious activity around them—and because, like so many creative people who had lived through humanity’s worst epoch, DeMille seems to have had recent likenesses in mind.
Moses’ early triumphs culminate when he shows Seti his grandiose new city, complete with colossi and obelisks, impressing his surrogate father with gratification of the ego on a cosmic scale. Moses’ and DeMille’s showmanship conflate here as curtains are brushed back to reveal scales of achievement hitherto unimaginable, doubling as DeMille’s first real acknowledgment of the new vista and reach of the widescreen format. DeMille emphasises Moses as exemplar of all worldly virtues—great warrior, super-stud, loyal scion—before he’s transformed by sacred calling, DeMille’s way of assuring his audience that religion’s not for sissies or those merely fond of contentiousness. Whereas Quo Vadis? (1951) and The Robe (1953), immediate predecessors in the religious epic stakes, look today fascinatingly like metaphorical soul-searching for a United States talking through its split personality of conscientious citadel and newborn empire, DeMille disposes of the disparity by portraying the religious leader as titanic conqueror, terrifying his enemies with displays of force. But DeMille also keep in focus a notion fundamental to much religious mythology, that of the son of wealth and fame who abandons all for a higher calling: once he hears the call of suffering and oppression, Moses cannot ignore it or his own nature, whilst his intelligence and propriety prove as valuable, if not moreso, when he finds new roles to play. His status as accidental race traitor is counterpointed with Baka’s Hebrew underling Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), who volunteers himself to Ramses as the man to turn up the messiah. Dathan does just this, albeit through a stroke of luck at seeing Moses kill Baka, and he reaps the rewards of collaboration, down to taking possession of Lilia, who gives in to sexual blackmail to prevent Joshua from being killed.
Amidst this vast tapestry, DeMille’s attention zeroes in on the minute as well as the enormous aspects of mythic texture, like the scrap of Levite cloth that had been his blanket in the escape raft: Memnet uses it as proof of her story, and Moses finds the larger cloth it came from draped over his birth mother. Later, it’s given to him as an ironic cloak of princedom over the desert, along with the staff that was part of his manacling, from Ramses. This is, of course, the equivalent of a superhero’s costume finally coming together, as he’ll come back in his tribal livery with the staff transformed into a magic weapon. I also enjoy some of the physical business employed, like Seti and Nefertiri playing a board game called “Jackals and Lions” in a mood for gamesmanship, with Seti irritably snapping off the head of a Jackal; the trinket slides across the floor to be imperiously snapped up by an entering Ramses, setting the scene for his scooping up the spoils of his birthright. Or, Ramses, prodding Moses over his acts of supposed betrayal, counting them off as he adds weights to a scale, to which Moses retorts by placing a brick on the other tray to emphasize that dead slaves make no bricks. Baka and Dathan both make a point of picking out a flower for Lilia to wear when she’s first presented in chattel finery to them: Baka chooses a warm-hued bloom in sensual anticipation, whilst Dathan appends a white flower, depicting his delight in inevitably soiling her innocence. Moses is ritually cleansed by ordeal in the desert after losing everything, after DeMille offers one of his most concertedly iconic shots of Moses marching slowly into the desert away from a marker stone, facing the external and internal wilderness.
DeMille’s voiceover gets particularly flowery in describing Moses’ torments as he crosses the desert, but lo, masculine fantasy awaits, as he makes it to the well of Sheikh Jethro of Midian (Eduard Franz), whose soccer team of daughters tend to sheep nearby. Moses proves he hasn’t lost his touch as he beats up a bunch of bullying goatherds (damn dirty Amalekites!) who try muscling in on the well, earning him a place under Jethro’s tent. Love blooms between Moses and the odd one out amongst Jethro’s deliriously horny brood, the sober Sephorah (Yvonne De Carlo), in purple but uniquely lush dialogue aiming for Song of Solomon-esque rhapsody. After Moses has married her and they’ve had a son grow halfway to manhood, Joshua, having escaped captivity, turns up dangling rags and chains, forcing Moses to remember the continued state of his fellows. This stirs Moses to at last take the challenge that’s been before him for years, to climb Mt. Horeb and find if his God really lives there. The genuinely weird encounter with the Burning Bush, which causes even Moses to crumple like a fig in awe, segues into Moses returning to Sephorah and Joshua looking like history’s first stoner guru high on his particular, fiery weed. Whilst the parochial school teachers were all nodding in approval, what secret seeds did this film place in the psyches of a generation of psychedelic artists and dropouts, as well as quiet fortitude in the minds of civil rights campaigners?
For all his delight in the profane, DeMille’s Episcopalian faith was strong, and shared that dual instinct in common with much of his audience. He had a troubled relationship with his own half-Jewish identity, but the fervency of feeling that troubling status stoked in him contradicted his stance as Hollywood’s conservative stalwart, as his films indulge many racial caricatures (as they strike us now) but also often have a broad, apolitical, humanist punch. He had no trouble shooting parts of the film in Egypt in a time of vocal Arab nationalism because the local authorities remembered The Crusades with appreciation. As DeMille himself puts it in his personal appearance as emcee at the opening, his version of The Ten Commandments is unexpectedly political, positing the question of whether individuals are “free souls under God” or the property of the state and dictators like Ramses. The Book of Exodus is often troublingly chauvinist, with the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jordan is par for the course in claiming the Promised Land. DeMille and his battery of screenwriters, including the son of DeMille’s former production partner, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., and Æneas MacKenzie, the Damon Lindelof of ’50s epics, tweak and twist Torah lore and blend it with details from the Koran and some pure pizzazz from popular novels. DeMille’s Passover is inclusive, as Bithia and her Nubian servants join Moses and his family to avoid the final plague whilst Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam become, respectively, easily led and xenophobic. If modern takes on figures of Judaic and Christian tradition like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Noah (2014) look precisely at the fault lines between faith and practice by studying the doubt of the individual hero in the face of eternal forces, DeMille takes the more old-fashioned tack: Moses never doubts himself, his God, or his purpose once he finds it, though he is wrenched by the awesome forces he is given to direct others, and appalled by the imminent, brutally ironic curse he knows Ramses’ arrogance has brought upon his people.
The long set-up of Moses’ exile and return, and the portrait of a world of such outsized power and ignominious humanity is, of course, a long set-up for the biggest takedown conceivable, and DeMille goes to town portraying the various calamities the new-minted, vastly changed prophet wields. DeMille downplays the shock of Moses’ return to Ramses and Nefertiri, though, in a scene that mirrors Nefertiri’s earlier, easy seduction of Moses back to the courtly life, she now fails as the purposeful man declares her “the lovely dust through which God will work his purpose.” Now that’s a chat-up line. But Nefertiri’s new-stoked ardour turns to vindictiveness when Moses not only rejects her, but humiliates her husband and finally, if incidentally, causes her son’s death along with that of all the other Egyptian first-born in a bleak mirroring of the opening slaughter. This act finally breaks Ramses’ will, and he releases the Hebrews. The sequence of Exodus’ commencement lets DeMille do what he did best, stage a vast number of extras heading out into Sinai, stretching the screen’s capacity to hold detail to the limit, a flood of humanity following a suitably spectacular and momentously archaic opening as men blow into horns to announce freedom and great events, framed against colossal walls and vast horizons. Stanley Kubrick, with Spartacus (1960), and David Lean, in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), notably tackled similar scenes with an almost competitive gall and still came off a close second, whilst George Lucas and Richard Marquand had the sequence quoted for the kick-off of the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi (1983).
DeMille is rarely noted as a visual stylist, and yet a pictorial genius is in constant evidence throughout the nearly 4-hour film, essayed via Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. No shot is dead or merely functional. DeMille had experimented with fusing dance, theatre, art, and a blankly rectilinear cinema in Madam Satan, with its Zeppelin musical sequences that create moving canvases of cubist action, and similar flourishes are scattered throughout his career. But in The Ten Commandments, he makes these elements the keynote of his visual style, emphasising ritualistic and self-consciously antique qualities in the drama, most notable such in moments as when Ramses declares war on the fleeing Hebrews: the supporting cast swoop in, arrange themselves in rough geometry mimicking tomb wall paintings, and Ramses in centre frame stands in a X pose as his armour is placed upon him. DeMille reserves these formalised images, however, always for the Egyptians, or Moses’ power contests, whereas the Hebrews move in brawling, organic masses or arrange into vignettes from Renaissance art, as when Moses at the table during Pesach references Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and awed Hebrew women watch the Red Sea part in studied triptychs. Vying with the more spectacular images in the film as the most memorable is the eerie prelude to the nightmarish Pesach, as the “angel of death” appears as a ghoulish green mist that spreads across the sky like a great gnarled hand, watched in silent wonder by Joshua, who endeavours to save Lilia by painting ram’s blood on the door of Dathan’s villa. Joshua then makes his way through the night to Moses’ house, and pauses at the threshold so they can listen to the moans of the dying and bereaved. The rest of the Pesach scene passes with a use of sound that’s as great as the visuals.
The Ten Commandments has its DNA scattered right through modern spectacle cinema, particularly in its influence on Steven Spielberg, who acknowledged the debt outright in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) with a clip, George Lucas, who recast DeMille’s titanic sensibility for the Star Wars series, Richard Donner, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Roland Emmerich, and Ridley Scott, all of whom have subscribed to DeMille’s desire to stretch cinema to breaking in portraying the fantastical. One of DeMille’s distinguishing gifts, which not all of his followers possess, however, was a sense of how to employ structure and metaphoric emblems, knowing that effect was not special without the velocity of narrative necessity behind it. The Ten Commandments uses its special effects, provided by John P. Fulton, a veteran of fantastic cinema who had worked on the Universal horror films, with a sense of mounting awe and verve. At first they’re used to portray massive, but very human-driven works, in the making of the treasure city, but they are employed to signal a divine presence as Moses stares up Mt. Horeb with its crown laced in an infernal glow.
Finally, as Moses brings down plagues on Egypt, the effects get a little creakier as they strain to portray checklist miracles, like the Nile turning to blood and fiery hail falling on Ramses’ rooftop patio. Then, of course, is the scene we’ve all been waiting for, as Ramses, worked to frenzy by grief and Nefertiri’s goads, rides out with his charioteers to exterminate the Hebrews caught on the edge of the Red Sea. Moses and God, of course, have it covered, as a giant pillar of fire holds back the charioteers whilst the ocean splits and parts to let the Hebrews flee. The power of this sequence doesn’t just lie in the ostentation of Fulton’s effects, but in the intricate staging that transforms it into cinematic demagoguery. Elmer Bernstein’s scoring is particularly important, propelling the images of Ramses preparing for and launching into battle, and careening toward the Hebrew camp. Images and words crash in upon Moses from every angle—from Ramses and from Dathan, who, forced to leave with his nominal fellows, wants to lead the slaves back to Ramses for a great reward. Clouds blacken and boil, winds rise, and the sea peels back upon itself in one of the great goose-flesh moments of cinema.
The second climax of the film sees Moses watch the eponymous commandments being carved in rock by Yahweh manifesting as a whirlpool of fire, whilst the Hebrews are whipped up by Dathan into a splendiferous orgy. This sequence could have been a comparative throwaway or diminuendo after the Red Sea, but is rather the cherry on the top of the great teetering cake. The onscreen depravity is quite nakedly pitched as everyone’s idea of a good time in the last and most enjoyable example of DeMille’s two-facedness, offering a sprawl of collegiate naughtiness whilst chiding it in a voiceover that almost begs satiric delight from the audience. But DeMille keeps other, purposeful notions in focus for all the pleasant carnage. He depicts the inevitable, explosive self-indulgence of a recently freed and exultant populace threatening to devolve into not just idolatry but human sacrifice, a surrender to a past Moses is supposed to be leading them away from. He comprehends the significance of the tablets’ carving as a creation of a new level of civilisation, a time of written law that cements mutuality as the key to future society and promises the wrath of God to keep it in place. DeMille crosscuts between carnal frenzy and transcendent rite, Moses cowering against a rock as stunning power quite literally carves the word of God in stone, perfectly visualising that basic, primordial image of communion between human and deity against a stark landscape, whilst the whirling fire matches the spiralling dance of the rioting Hebrews depicts another extreme.
DeMille gains the desired tone of something having run badly out of control, of sublimely self-destructive surrender to chaos not through the actual depiction of depravity, but rather from a mounting sense of madness derived by the maelstrom of actors churning before his camera, swallowing the individuals in the crowd. One of my favourite throwaway moments of the dizzying collage of images here is Carradine’s hangdog Aaron bleating, “Dathan and the others made me do it!” when another Hebrew accuses him of ruining them all by helping Dathan make the idol. Another is when Robinson’s performance hits lunatic grandeur as he happily avenges himself on Lilia by nominating her as sacrifice to the golden calf, and then sings and chants like a pimped-out druid in rapturous delight at his gift as the anti-Moses, the wizard of sin, as Lilia screams, “Are you insane?” from her prostrate perch above her absurdly fickle fellows intending her death. Moses struts in, and, seeing his profound mission already despoiled, has the mother of all hissy fits, hurling the commandments to explode in fire and brimstone on the golden calf and open a chasm that swallows Dathan and his ilk. The coda offers another splendiferous set of images as Moses, called to meet his maker, bids farewell to family and successor Joshua, and climbs back up the mountain to be illuminated in a shaft of light. Like so much of the film, this moment is utter cornball on one level, and yet perfect in another, an authentic vision of heroic stature that transcends dull reality and transfigures human nature.
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Director: John Carpenter
By Roderick Heath
I can remember when loving John Carpenter’s The Thing was still a rather lonely business. Carpenter’s remake was largely dismissed and derided upon release, chiefly for its gore, but also for its defiantly, disturbingly corporeal take on what had been a considered a very clean-cut alien invader fantasy when filmed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby in 1951. But the intensity and intelligence of the film’s revision of the original to speak to a new era slowly gained traction, to the point now where it’s widely considered Carpenter’s best film. In the 32 years since its release, it’s become a significant cult film and rite of passage for young fans of fantastic cinema, as well as something rare in motion picture history. Standing with the likes of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), The Thing proved that remakes could, in apt and imaginative hands, be taken seriously in their own right, not eclipsing a predecessor, but rather providing it with a potently evolved progeny.
Moreover, Carpenter’s take had claims to precedence over the original film as a more conceptually faithful adaptation of former Astounding Magazine editor John W. Campbell’s feted 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster, Burt Lancaster’s son, took Campbell’s original notion of a shape-shifting alien and made it their version’s reason for being, whilst maintaining the essential, classic set-up of a remote polar base under siege by a thing from another world. The result is as tough, harsh, and near-abstract in its elisions and uncertainty as any big-budget film ever made.
For Carpenter, The Thing was a troubled achievement. The young film student who, with some UCLA pals, had pieced together Dark Star (1974) with duct tape and hobby glue became the hugely successful hero of low-budget independent film with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1979), and Escape From New York (1981). Armed with millions of Universal Studios’ dollars, he made a film that has become both a fixed pole of excellence in his oeuvre, but was also the culmination of a seemingly inexorable career rise that was halted by the film’s weak financial performance and constantly frustrated thereafter.
Although The Thing was the first film for which Carpenter had not written either the script or the score, both provided instead by Lancaster and Ennio Morricone, respectively, with large contributions by special-effects wizards Rob Bottin and Dick Smith, the film is marked on all levels by Carpenter’s innate sensibility: the salty, plebeian mood of its characters, the sense of isolation and besiegement by forces beyond human control, the sustained mood of eerie dislocation. Even the unnerving electronic throb of Morricone’s scoring mimics and augments Carpenter’s familiar effects in music perfectly, spelling out lingering dread even as the viewer comprehends a stunning snow-crusted vista. Lancaster, had previously penned The Bad News Bears (1976), and whilst The Thing proved to be his last screenplay, his dialogue is almost endlessly quotable in its salty fashion, swiftly painting character and milieu. A brief prologue of a spaceship tearing out of the void and crashing into Earth’s atmosphere segues into Carpenter’s only direct nod to the original film, recreating the indelible image of the title seeming to burn or rip through a black field.
The concision of the original film’s metaphors for the paranoid new frontiers of the Cold War give way to something very different, an insidious process of breakdown and infiltration: whilst still “alien,” the Thing here is not a convenient Other, but a force lurking within familiar bodies, warping, perverting, and disassembling the given reality of the humans who contend with it. Gone, too, is the conflict of cold science and hot militarism in the original, reorganised (but not actually replaced) by different versions of survival impulse: here, the scientist, as in the original, endangers the team, but with the very different purpose of protecting the rest of the world and thinking about larger pictures than the mere frame of personal survival. Carpenter only offers a brief picture of his Antarctic explorers before chaos visits their midst, because that’s all he needs to paint the group and individual dynamics: the clashing temperaments, the huddled group and the self-exiled cowboy R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), black and white, rebels, bohemians, and company men—all echoes back to Dark Star and its portrait of men sent out on an absurd, isolating mission that has broken down not merely patterns of prescribed behaviour, but also individual personalities. Here there’s a subtle distinction between the hard-hat workers there to keep the machines running and the scientist nerds, but this soon dissipates in the face of individual responses to threat, as all characters are revealed, in their varying ways, to be both helpless in the face of such adversity but also often sneakily resilient and leadership roles are reassigned according to temperament and situational wit rather than societally imposed standards.
Carpenter’s innate respect for individualism is clearly at play here, but also placed in telling conflict with other urges—herd instinct and mutual responsibility. The camp’s inhabitants are all men, isolated in the first week of winter, to keep watch upon the Antarctic ice seemingly for the sake of it: commander Garry (Donald Moffat), helicopter pilot MacReady, blasé radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites), camp cook Nauls (T. K. Carter), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), biologists Blair (Wilford Brimley) and Fuchs (Joel Polis), geologist Norris (Charles Hallahan), meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney), and mechanics Palmer (David Clennon) and Childs (Keith David). Priceless, and precise vignettes of personal adaptation and maladaptation, from MacReady getting pissy with his computer’s chess programme and tipping a drink into it for revenge, to Nauls torturing Bennings by playing Stevie Wonder through the night, and Palmer and Childs getting high whilst watching VHS copies of old “Wheel of Fortune” episodes. This collection of men threatening at first appearance to break into distracted, preoccupied islets of coping with their isolation and the hell that is other people, are shocked back into reality by new circumstances. The narrative is propelled by the loss of individuality, as members of the team are assimilated down to the finest detail, for the purpose of perfect chameleonic disguise. Yet the innate certainty of some of the characters, like MacReady, that they’re still human provides the closest thing to certainty in the often opaque narrative.
The film’s pitiless logic distinguishes it, and moreover, the very narrative is about that logic, from the moment the husky dog that is actually the Thing’s last vessel reaches the U.S. National Science Institute Base 4, relying on the inability of the humans to recognise it as a threat so that they kill the last person who might’ve stopped the monster—the apparently mad Norwegian who’s chased it in a helicopter from his own devastated base. One of the cleverest revisions of both short story and original film was this narrative remove of having the Thing discovered not by the characters at the centre of the tale but by their predecessors in a chain of bleakly self-replicating events that mimic the Thing’s method of reproducing itself. The circumstances of its discovery, its thawing, and just what it originally looked like are all left to the imagination. There’s no causative immediacy for the American team, then, only an outlandish proliferation of mysteries and instabilities, the horror of a situation where, by the time they become properly aware of just what’s going on, they might be powerless to halt.
The confrontation with otherworldly forces finally comes when animal-loving Clark locks away the foreign dog in a kennel with the camp’s own, only for the arrival to split apart and reveal itself as a spidery mass of tissue that begins absorbing and replicating the other animals in a grotesque display of corporeal invasion and perversion. “I don’t know what it is,” Clark says to his campmates when they come running, “But it’s weird and pissed and off, whatever it is.” This is about the limit of what we come to learn about the Thing, apart from its relentless drive to survive in what fashion it can now that it’s found a new host world. Carpenter turned stomachs with his willingness to show the Thing going about some of its business, a rare segue into outright revulsion for the director. And yet it also came with the thrill of seeing something genuinely original and nightmarishly convincing, as well as viscerally intriguing in trying to capture just how a very different life form might behave, something most scifi cinema shies away from. This also sets up some of the best shocks in cinema history, like the infamous moment when the belly of a man apparently dying of heart failure suddenly opens like a massive pair of monstrous jaws, and the eruption of a dish full of blood that signals the crewman least you least suspect of being infected is, in fact, the Thing.
One of the greatest qualities of The Thing, however, is its embrace of ambiguity in the situation not merely to excite the audience with mystery but as a dramatic end—and not in that schematic manner of more gimmicky films. In spite of the endless attempts of fanboys to parse the film’s deliberate obscurities and unsolved mysteries, Carpenter’s filmmaking maintains teasing force. Characters disappear, their fates unclear, and one, famously, turns up again to leave the finale tingling with unanswerable angst. One of the disappointing aspects of Carpenter’s later work is his decreasing patience with setting up and deploying his effects, a surrender to adolescent glee in jokey violence and dime-store horrors, where the hallmark of his early work was the relentless control he wielded over camera and mood, that reached a height here. Camera movements analyse empty space in a manner reminiscent of Mario Bava, with some of Carpenter’s most memorable shots here depicting nothing, only wandering the halls of the station, suggesting unseen presences. Sometimes the camera takes on points of view in peering into corners and picking out patches of horror lit by torches with a sense of elision that gives a constant feeling of never quite seeing all.
Glimpses of things hellish are brief and stunning, like when Windows enters a storeroom where moments before Bennings had been working, and is confronted first by gruesome traces of blood and slime, and then looking over to where Bennings is in the grip of the monster, now a caricature of a human form swathed in tentacles. Carpenter sets this scene up with a deliberate nod to a similar scene in The Fog, which itself remixed another moment in Halloween. Whereas in Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, the threat was an Other clearly defined in nature but rendered close to abstract in concentrating on the reactions of his heroes to threat, here the film’s story offers the most perfect metaphorical reduction of Carpenter’s interest in this theme (barring perhaps the more comic, but equally sharp hypnotism of They Live, 1988) in that Other is now Us. Carpenter might have taken some licence from the flesh-twisting and rupturing of David Cronenberg and Alien (1979), but an equally close ancestor could be Salvador Dali’s “Landscape with Soft Beans,” with its famous image of a two-headed rock man trying to rip himself apart, often referred to as a premonition of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, civil war is what The Thing portrays, a disintegrating body politic, making the film at one with Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. But the microcosm serves Carpenter better than many of his more sprawling takes on the theme.
The care taken with lighting, shooting, and acting that the big budget allowed Carpenter undoubtedly helped bring all this to a fine edge, though his early films had no lack of such craft. The narrative and the characters accept a situation where the precise limitations of threat dissolve and leave only taunting vagaries about the degree to which any of them cannot only be sure they can kill a Thing that can reproduce to the smallest molecule, but be sure of being human themselves and of surviving. The tension between individual and group reflexes of survival is beautifully studied in contemplating the Thing and the Humans, where for each, the temptation to go it alone is exposing. Faced with the necessity of group action, MacReady comes in from the cold, but finds himself almost killed in a roundelay of mistrust and power plays in which who the best man to lead against the monster becomes a genuinely vexed question. Where earlier Palmer had mocked official leader Garry in pondering “when El Capitan was gonna get to use his pop gun,” Garry hands over that pop gun when he comes under suspicion of sabotaging a potential test for identifying the Thing. MacReady’s reaction to his computer beating him at chess seems almost bratty and childish, but is quietly rhymed later when Blair watches his own computer mapping out the Thing’s replication pattern, calculating that the entire Earth could be infected by it in 25,000 hours. Blair obeys the computer logic and reaches for his gun; MacReady rebels and leads. MacReady’s observations of the Thing during one of its rampages realises that the alien is just like the group of humans fighting it, composed of unruly components that react blindly when threatened. This realization gives him a tool to uncover it.
The Thing is a grinning death’s head of a film, coolly, relentlessly sarcastic and laced with cruel swerves of fate, from the opening scene where the Norwegian, played by producer Larry J. Franco, accidentally blows up his fellow survivor with a grenade meant for the infected dog and then getting shot after his warnings in his uncomprehended language are taken for lunatic ramblings. A similarly contradictory mania grips Blair, the camp’s biggest brain and the one everyone looks to for answers, who devolves into a ranting, axe-wielding madman is because he’s the first to comprehend the extent of the danger. Deciding that the entire camp must be quarantined, he smashes up MacReady’s helicopter and Windows’ radio, robbing both men of purpose, in effect, and then spurring them to opposite reactions. Windows makes a play for individual defence, running to get himself a gun but only precipitating a leadership crisis as Garry is implicated by circumstance, whilst MacReady takes up the mantle as “somebody more even-tempered” than the aggressively querulous Childs.
MacReady, in Campbell’s story a gnarled, elemental hunk likened to a bronze statue, is here a spiky, faintly asocial cowboy who possesses the right mixture of chilly readiness and native intelligence to take an effective stand against both the monster and his own crewmates. He’s the ideal hero for the circumstances, though Carpenter and Russell would later collaborate to disassemble his perfection for laughs in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). First contact, historically laced with devastating plagues—here, between man and alien—is no different as virtually from the moment the dog arrives at the station, the men are doomed. This is not to say their fight is worthless, as MacReady, the most genuine survivor amongst the crew recognises: just as Blair does half the job of closing off the men’s chances for escape, so the rest of them close off the Thing’s chances.
Dean Cundey’s widescreen photography aids inestimably in creating contrasts early on between hermetic exteriors and microcosmic interiors, shooting David Lean vistas in the unerringly crisp ratio, opening the film proper with a view of an ice-fringed cliff wall and the helicopter that appears as a tiny dot, like Omar Sharif’s appearance in the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Like Lawrence, such expanse becomes a prison. But the frames are often oblique and distance. Scenes shift with dreamy dissolves. High-flying helicopter shots offer primal expanses that contain essential nothingness. Life is only possible within the fragile human abodes, which become temporal traps.
Beautifully unusual as exposition and tension-building, too, is the way backstory is drip-fed. MacReady and Copper venture out to the Norwegian camp in the hope of saving lives, instead finding a ghostly ruin littered with signs of violence, a huge, suggestively shaped block of ice that something has clearly broken out of, and piles of incinerated corpses that seem to have been warped together like the most perverse visions of surrealist art. Video footage purloined from the Norwegians gives clues to what they found, and Carpenter wittily reproduces the iconic shot from the original film of the men marking out the shape of a buried and frozen flying saucer, albeit once removed, glimpsed like the original film as a fuzzy relic on a black-and-white screen.
The actual spaceship, which MacReady, Norris, and Palmer seek out, proves to have been partly incinerated by the Norwegian attempt to extract it, and to have been frozen in the ice for 100,000 years, a nasty birthday present from the universe for whoever found it. That’s become a rather common motif of scifi cinema since this film, and perhaps marks out the long shadow of Nigel Kneale on Carpenter’s work with its obsession with primeval atavism, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) equal mark on the genre as a whole in looking to a distant past as key to present calamity. In any event, Carpenter’s precise use of quiet and space to create his nerve-jangling mood segues into scenes where all hell memorably breaks loose, particularly in the aforementioned sequence in which Norris is revealed to be a Thing by Copper’s cardiac shocks. The shocks stir the beast within to snap off the doctor’s arms before distorting and ripping apart, an id-beast with Copper’s face dangling from the ceiling whilst Norris’ head detaches, grows legs like a spider, and crawls away, stirring Palmer’s immortal motto, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” And, of course, the sustained tension of the scene in which MacReady puts his idea into practice whilst holding the crew at gunpoint—or, rather, flamethrower-point—by poking petri dishes filled with each man’s blood, having realised the Thing’s peculiar nature means that every part of it is, in essence, a separate entity, and the blood of a Thing ought to react. MacReady resorts to such measures after he falls under suspicion of being a Thing himself, locked out in the blizzard by Nauls and forced to shoot Clark when he tries to ambush MacReady with a scalpel.
The sequence that follows is a marvel not just of unerring construction, but also of dramatic byplay, as the specific characters react to each twist, from Childs taunting MacReady over Clark’s proving to be human after mocking the test as a crock of shit, to Nauls’ queasy expression as his test comes around and then his intense, hawkish look once he’s freed and holds the flamethrower himself, and Garry’s veneer of patience giving way to a hilarious final eruption of anger. In between, the startling revelation that Palmer, the classic least likely suspect, is a Thing, transmogrifying gruesomely, with skull splitting into toothsome halves that crunch on Windows and stumbling out into the polar dark whilst burning like a roman candle. At the point where victory seems possible for the men, however, new calamity forces them to contemplate extinction, as they venture out to test Blair, but find him vanished and a half-built alien spaceship under the tool hut, hinting that Blair’s been assimilated and their survival mission has literally been undermined. The simultaneous, mysterious venture of Blair into the snowy dark and the breakdown of the camp’s engine signal that the Thing now wants to refreeze and wait for a rescue party, demanding that MacReady, Garry, and Nauls burn their little world down to flush out the Thing at the inevitable cost of their own lives.
Arguably the film gives in to a less sophisticated brand of monster movie shtick in its climax, as the complete Thing, an obscene hodgepodge of assimilated animal and human parts, erupts from the floor to attack MacReady and release King Kong’s old roar. MacReady tosses dynamite at it with regulation action-hero pith and a sub-Bond kiss-off line. And yet the foreboding and disorientating effects extend right to the end, too, in the glimpse of more cringe-inducing corporeal invasion as the Blair-Thing assaults Garry, fingers sliding under the skin of his face and fusing solidly with it, whilst Nauls vanishes. Most memorable of all is the very coda, which embraces bleak, yet humorously deadpan stoicism of a brand that feels all too apt in the land of Scott and Shackleton. Childs and MacReady, on the edge of death and with one or both of them an alien by now, sit by their burning world, doing what a couple of working stiffs do when there’s nothing more to do—drink J&B. MacReady’s last line, “Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while…see what happens?”, ends the tale on the most low-key, yet utterly perfect note of exhausted acquiescence, MacReady’s tiny, appended laugh signaling he sees the cosmic joke in it all.
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Director: Michael Curtiz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
What do you get when you cross a pre-Code women’s film with a gangster film and a screwball comedy? The deeply convoluted, but entertaining The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, of course, and the comic/tragic tones of the movie fit the occasion of the showing I attended. After the owner of the Patio Theater announced that he was throwing in the towel on making a go of the 1927 movie palace his family has run for three generations, the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s booking of Molly Louvain proved to be the one that brought down the curtain for the last time. A packed crowd came to say farewell, as well as to see this energetic pre-Coder and hear Christine Rice, author of Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, discuss the film star and sign copies of her book.
In the cartoon before the feature, the NFCS seemed to make a comment on the loss of yet another vintage theater. Scary Crows (1937) shows a flock of crows completely decimate a farmer’s field while his girlfriend laughs at him. This utterly unfunny Columbia Pictures cartoon lent a depressing air to the evening that was slow to dissipate. But dissipate it did under the blinding hyperactivity of Lee Tracy and the equally blinding blonde wig of his costar Ann Dvorak wrestling with an adaptation of the play Tinsel Girl by Maurine Watkins, the author of the play that formed the basis for the film Chicago (1927).
Some of the elements Watkins brought to Chicago are present here, too—a Chicago setting, a rapacious press corps headed by Scotty Cornell (Tracy), a woman at the center of a crime, a man who’s a chump for the woman. It’s hard to know if Tinsel Girl had a straightforward story, but first-time adapter Edwin Gelsey, who would go on to pen some classic films of the 1930s (Gold Diggers of 1933, Flying Down to Rio ), created a gumbo whose flavors are a bit off.
When we meet Molly Louvain (Dvorak), she’s out with her rich beau Ralph (Don Dillaway) celebrating his birthday with a walk in the woods and, as we learn much later, a tumble in the hay. Ralph tells Molly he intends to keep her a secret from his family no longer by inviting her to his birthday party that evening. Molly, a cashier at a cigar counter whose mother abandoned her when she was seven, runs home and gussies up for her “big break.” There we are introduced to two of her suitors, wet-behind-the ears bellboy Jimmy (Richard Cromwell) and traveling salesman/crook Nick (Leslie Fenton), as well as Molly’s legs and lingerie in peek-a-boo shots common to most pre-Code films. When Molly arrives for the party, spending her last 95 cents on the cab ride, Ralph has been whisked away to New York by his mother, never to appear in the movie again. A dejected Molly, a seduced and abandoned woman now, descends the front stairs. Although we aren’t shown it, she takes up with Nick, a man who’s as rotten as she feels herself to be.
The film jumps three years in one minute. Director Curtiz shoots a series of license plates from different states to shorthand the itinerant life Molly leads with Nick, ending with one from Illinois—natch, the couple ends up in Chicago. Molly puts her adorable, two-year-old daughter Ann Marie (Jackie Lyn Dufton) in the care of a mother of nine (Claire McDowell), because she and Nick have fallen on hard times. Molly is working as a taxi dancer at the Roseland (apparently, a popular name for dance halls of the time), and Nick makes ends meet as a stick-up man.
Miraculously, Molly runs into Jimmy, now a college student, at the Roseland. When they exit to get a nightcap, Nick accosts them and forces them into a stolen car while he holds up a store. With the cops in pursuit, Nick gets plugged and mortally wounds one of his pursuers, while a panicked Molly drives away, fearing arrest. Although he survives, we never see Nick again. His influence is felt, however, through second-hand dialogue that reveals he has implicated Molly as the head of a robbery ring. Molly dyes her hair blonde and hides out with Jimmy in a boarding house where Scotty lives. The intrigue of the hunted woman and a headline-hungry reporter who is looking for her living under the same roof and, indeed, falling in love, pilots this film to its rapid conclusion.
At a mere 73 minutes, Molly Louvain leaves so much out that it’s hard to make sense of the characters, let alone the plot. It was not obvious to me that Molly had sex with Ralph, though perhaps a ’30s audience would see the clingy kissing and declarations of love as suggestive enough. I wasn’t even sure Ann Marie was Ralph’s daughter—she could just as easily have been Nick’s. As played by Dvorak, Molly doesn’t have a hard bone in her body. She slouches, smokes, and drinks like a hard case, but our sympathies never stray for a moment, particularly as she tries to do the right thing for her child and constantly pushes Jimmy away to keep him out of trouble. Similarly, although Jimmy keeps saying that Nick’s no good, we can’t see his assessment as anything but jealousy. Nick seems a little slick, but that’s kind of expected from a salesman, and he’s utterly charming with Molly. Possibly the fact that Dvorak and Fenton met and fell in love on this picture—they were married for 13 years—sabotaged Fenton’s tough-guy routine. His disappearance less than halfway through the picture took some of the air out of the drama he and Molly could have generated in a confrontation; it also cleared the decks for Tracy’s character to run roughshod over the picture.
Not that I’m complaining. Tracy, an actor I run hot and cold on, is at his best in Molly Louvain. A dynamo of almost acrobatic moves (watch him answer a candlestick phone by flipping the earpiece into his hand with one deft shake), his rapid-fire repartee is fairly mesmerizing. He and Dvorak spar with the best of the screwball couples destined to be together, though Scotty plays their romance as take it or leave it—he’s got an offer to go to Hollywood to write for pictures in his back pocket and a string of broken romances he’d be happy to continue with Molly. “When something takes a hold of you and goes right through you, you don’t care what anyone thinks—you go,” Molly says helplessly as Jimmy tries to keep her from running off with Scotty. Tracy has a similar effect on the audience.
The film features some great set pieces. A small moment has Molly sneak past a sleeping bathroom attendant to pour some peroxide of hydrogen into a sink to dunk her hair in. Even when pretending to be asleep, Louise Beavers manages to get a gentle laugh that is capped when the newly blonde Molly wakes her and gives the bewildered Beavers a tip. I enjoyed the riot of newspaper reporters, led by Frank McHugh, moving between the press room and the chief of police’s office, with a blustering beat cop played by Guy Kibbee trying to keep them in line—“Hogan’s Heroes” obviously took a cue from pictures like this. Perhaps my favorite moment was the Roseland scene. The city street, teeming and raucous, is joined by Jimmy and his college chums out on the town. The fresh-faced lads contrast beautifully with the glamor girls in the Roseland, the one time when Dvorak’s good-time gal routine plays true. Cromwell is awfully good as a straight arrow, and his boyish good looks add to the effect.
When the film plays the mother love card, it descends straight into weepy territory, the power of which overcomes even Scotty’s detachment. Will Molly, set to face prison for a crime she never knew was happening, find freedom and happiness with Scotty and Ann Marie? My greatest hope was that she’d lose that awful dye job!
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Director/Screenwriter: Ivan Sen
By Roderick Heath
In an unnamed town on the fringes of the desolate Australian interior where half-hearted suburban tracts abut soul-wearying, bone-dry flatlands and stony hills, a truck driver discovers the corpse of a teenage aboriginal girl named Julie stashed in a drain under the highway where the ominously named but completely dry Massacre Creek sometimes flows. Called out to investigate the crime scene is Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an indigenous policeman newly returned to the district after being trained elsewhere and promoted to detective. His roots are old and deep in the locality, starting with his father, a famed stockman who seems to have died of alcoholism. He finds himself confronted by laxity bordering on contempt by his colleague Roberts (Robert Mommone), whilst his sergeant (Tony Barry), dully lets him investigate but won’t treat the occurrence as an overriding priority. Mystery Road fills Swan’s return to his homeland with evil portent and dissonant messages.
Swan’s colleagues, particularly the drawling, mordant Johnno (Hugo Weaving), are an odd bunch, and the feeling that something’s going on with everyone around him looms inescapably. Local crime has apparently gotten out of control; Johnno is supposedly on the brink of a major break in a drugs case, which the sergeant seems more interested in. Whilst it quickly becomes apparent that the two cases are going to intersect, Swan has to feel his way in the dark, but soon begins to suspect that local pastoralist Bailey (David Field) and his son Pete (Ryan Kwanten), both swaggering racists, might be involved in both cases, and that they might have powerful friends in the illicit drug trade.
Mystery Road is a work of artisanal intimacy for Ivan Sen, serving as director, writer, editor, music composer and producer—whatever else you can say about it, it’s clearly a work of concentrated and individual personality. Sen’s debut film, Drifting Clouds (2002), was a classic variety of an earnest young filmmaker’s first work, a quasi-neorealist tale of two indigenous teenagers travelling from the far fringes of the outback to the city, dogged by racism, romance, and pursuing police. Sen’s formal gifts were strongly evident, but the film was hampered by poor acting and dialogue. Still, Sen became, for a brief moment, a media darling. Armed with youth, leading-man looks, and aboriginal heritage he’s happy to make the subject of his art, he seemed exactly what Aussie screen culture needed and wanted at the time. Sen dropped out of sight for several years in the aftermath, but returned to screens with Fire Talker (2006), a documentary about Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, and the barely released features Dreamland (2009) and Toomelah (2011). With Mystery Road, Sen has reclaimed some of his early promise, and his pretences are better served by how he incorporates his socially conscious interest in rural prejudice and his familiarity with indigenous characters caught between worldviews. The best aspect of the film is that the flexibility of the noir tale as a tool of milieu portraiture plays readily into Sen’s plan, as he deftly describes the psychic harshness of the town, with its air of eerie isolation, inverse claustrophobia sparked by the surrounding flatness, the wayward and dissolute state consuming everyone, and particularly the young aboriginals.
The sharpest moment of racial conflict comes when Swan interviews the taciturn farmer Bailey who quietly needles Swan by mentioning how young aboriginal kids keep stealing things from his property. Swan replies with disingenuous obtuseness, by admiring the expanse of Bailey’s property (“as far as you can see”) and congratulating him on having something to leave to his kids, a remark both men know is actually about whose land it was originally. Bailey’s property lies near Massacre Creek: keeping a vigil close to the murder site, Swan spies an interaction between two men in a car and the driver of a truck stopped on the highway that looks awfully like a drug pickup and payoff. Swan follows the car to a shack on Bailey’s property and is stricken with electric fear and paranoia. It’s very clear something evil’s going on beyond the immediate exigencies of Swan’s case, as the local police force is still smarting after one of its one, Bobby Rogers, was killed in an unsolved shooting a year earlier. As Swan digs, he talks to the dead constable’s wife Peggy (Samara Weaving), who believes he was called out on the night of his death by a fellow cop because of the way he was speaking. But who the cop was and why he called remain mysteries. Early in the film, Swan sits in glum silence at a farewell dinner for an older cop on the force as the sergeant voices his determination to “stop the rot,” because “for some us, it’s the only home we’ve got.”
Home is a troubling concept for Swan, who’s triply alienated as an aboriginal lawman held in disdain by both the local youths (“We shoot coppers ’round ’ere,” a tyke on a bicycle informs him) and many colleagues and townsfolk. He lives in his family’s large, old house, and is starkly alienated from his former lover Mary (Tasma Walton), who has hit the bottle hard and lives in a seamy, fibre-cement house with his daughter Crystal (Trisha Whitton), who has joined the ranks of brooding, determinedly blasé teens with faces constantly in their cell phones. He recognises sadly that both have succumbed to the entropy that consumes everyone except those determined to resist it: “What happened to you?” he asks Mary in unconcealed disgust when he catches sight of her feeding coins into a slot machine, to which she ripostes with the classic reversal of many a damaged person: “At least I know my problems.” Mystery Road borrows a lot of cues from Westerns, but in some ways it’s a thematic reversal of the classic Western, where the lone lawmen’s private code represents the introduction of civilisation—here it often feels more like a rear-guard action. “For some people, this is already a war zone,” Swan ripostes to his boss’s baleful warnings about what the town might become if its theoretical delicate equilibrium is interrupted.
Swan searches for Julie’s missing cell phone, and finds it in the possession of another black kid on a bike: the kid exchanges it for an opportunity to fondle Swan’s pistol, which the policeman doesn’t begrudge him, after unloading it, of course. He understands that he has given the lad a bit of stature before his mates and an understanding of the compact force of the weapon: the lad fondles it like a holy icon that promises delivery from banality and boredom. Swan finds photos on the phone of Crystal, Julie, and another pal, Tanni (Siobhan Binge), confirming their close links, which might have extended to a particularly creepy rumour Swan’s heard, that the local teen girls prostitute themselves out to the passing truckies. The case then begins to creep ever closer and more cruelly close to home. After Tanni is found dead, killed in the same way as Julie, Crystal seems to be the inevitable next target. The girls have all been tied together by one of their illicit escapades, which pissed off the wrong people, a picture that begins to resolve after Swan interviews and almost beats up cocky weed dealer Wayne Silverman (Damian Walshe-Howling). Sen’s most intelligent and effective point about such places lies in the canny observation that almost any kind of sensation becomes welcome respite from tedium and economic deprivation, in addition to the special malaise of the indigenous folk still tied to ancestral lands but with their relationship to it and each other poisoned by a modern lifestyle grafted onto it. Sen repeatedly cuts to high overhead shots of the town streets that make the town look like an experimental moon base erected in a suitably raw location.
The best-adjusted younger person Swan encounters, Jasmine (Angela Swan), is kept on a short leash by a determined, religious grandmother (Lillian Crombie). But the lone figure of good cheer about the place is Swan’s uncle, Old Boy (Jack Charles), an older aboriginal man Swan pays for street gossip who promptly blows it on penny-ante gambling ring with a cheery kind of dissolution that delivers him from gnawing angst. Sen’s gift for drawing portraits of pained humanity fleshes out two of the film’s most striking scenes: when Swan goes to tell Julie’s mother Ashley (Jarah Louise Rundle) that her daughter’s dead, Ashley already looks like she’s survived a battle and scarcely bats an eyelid when she hears the news.
Another superlative vignette comes when Swan visits Mr. Murray (Jack Thompson), an aging farmer who reported seeing a severed hand in the jaws of a wild dog that might have belonged to yet another victim of the killer; Murray is quietly furious and heartbroken after wild dogs ripped apart his pet chihuahua. Thompson’s excellence here is both stirring and sad, as the former golden boy of Aussie acting, terribly misused by some directors lately, including Baz Luhrmann in Australia (2008), looks and sounds as old as the hills and effortlessly projects a grim wisdom. His wearied visage effortlessly projects metaphorical weight for Sen in portraying a land that exhausts us pitilessly: despite its brevity, it could well be the performance of Thompson’s career.
Mystery Road is, however, far from a flawless work. Sen’s ear for dialogue remains occasionally weak and largely humourless. Even as he tries admirably to create scenes charged with a constant—perhaps too constant—sense of elusive, cryptic menace, he undercuts the effect with clanger exposition lines like, “But then, your old man was the head stockman around here for ages,” when the sergeant comments on Swan’s eye for horse flesh. One significant hesitation of Mystery Road is that, like a relatively long list of Aussie films that try to crossbreed genre storytelling with artier postures (The Boys , Lantana , Animal Kingdom ), it thinks it’s being subtle when it’s actually all but beating you over the head with obviousness, from the sergeant sucking on an ice cream with gauche disinterest (apparently he couldn’t get donuts that morning) to the sign-posted place names, or Johnno, bathed in bloody red light leaning in on Swan and asking him what he’d do if he ever killed someone accidentally: it’s almost like a set-up for a “The Simpsons” gag. Such an emphasis on an even surface texture starts to feel phony after a while. Sen’s visuals quickly create a beautifully paranoid evocation of a far west landscape, and yet the sustained mood of ominous tidings, replete with charged silences, loaded conversations and red-herring characterisations, border on excess all the more for the attempts at minimalist rigour.
Moreover, the film isn’t particularly abashed about its obvious influences: the wedding of noir tale to racial themes strongly evokes In the Heat of the Night (1967), whilst the visuals shout out variously to Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah, and the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men (2007), as well as Cormac McCarthy in general. The emphasis on the spacious menace of the Aussie outback as a perfect place to set a murder mystery/horror film echoes Road Games (1980) and Wolf Creek (2005), and there are casual shout-outs to Friday the 13th (1980) and From Dusk ’Til Dawn (1996).
Aussie cinema’s long wariness of genre filmmaking has been easing lately, particularly since the ironic rediscovery and legitimisation of the “Ozploitation” trash epics of the late ’70s and ’80s. Mystery Road is also rather reminiscent of Bill Bennett’s lauded Kiss or Kill (1996), with which it shares a mesmerised fascination with the desolation and menace of the great expanses of the Australian outback, upon which it hangs a fairly standard, if obliquely told noir tale. In a similar fashion, Sen’s work suggests a certain pretentious queasiness about being a genre film. Unlike Bennett, at least Sen doesn’t feel the need to start off with a poetic quote to assure his audience that this is self-conscious, pop-art-like exploitation of pulp motifs. But the film’s title points to a knowing approach to the ritualised patterns underlying such storytelling that are, cumulatively, a bit fetid: a body is found at the outset near Massacre Creek, and later our hero arranges a rendezvous for a shoot-out finale at “Slaughter Hill—off Mystery Road.” Well, thank you for the road-map-cum-story-chart, Ivan.
Equally, a rather silly flourish introduced at the start and recurring throughout refers to the wild dogs that haunt the locality and chewed at Julie’s body. When the coroner (another Aussie movie veteran, Bruce Spence) reports back to Swan, he mentions that the saliva traces suggest some kind of “super dog,” which Swan dismisses as trivia; this weird, quasi-scifi stuff proves to be more laboured symbolism, particularly at the end when a violent clash segues into howling in the hills. More effective as visual explication of an interior theme is a scene in which Swan performs a bit of target shooting with his father’s vintage Winchester rifle, aiming not at empty beer bottles, but at full ones, his private declaration of war on the culture of oblivion-seeking around him. The authority of Sen’s visuals goes beyond mere pictorialism, but rather coherently charts mental and physical straits, sustaining both a sense of menace and blasted beauty in the soul-churning blaze of silhouetting sunsets and dawns, and the skewering brightness of days that offer no sanctuary. There’s a tingling sense of vulnerable solitude when Swan tracks the drug pickup back to Bailey’s place, and effective, clear-cut, visual exposition throughout to counter the murkiness of the dialogue. It’s good, too, that Mystery Road gives Pedersen the perfect star vehicle he’s needed for 20 years.
One particularly good sequence sees Swan tracking Silverman and witnessing his kidnapping and execution by the villains. Johnno’s actual place in the seeming conspiracy infecting the town remains moot, however, as his question about accidental killing seems to have been motivated by an experience that resulted in his outback exile and current, tight-lipped efforts to prosecute his own case. But he also solicitously rescues Silverman from Swan’s interrogation, which turns violent when Silverman makes a quip about Crystal. Johnno proves to know enough, at least, to prod Swan’s awareness that Crystal is the next target, a subterranean warning that sends Swan off in anxious search for the McGuffin. Said McGuffin drives the last part of the story, as Swan tries to head off further bloodshed, but instead reaps a shoot-out that makes up for some of the longeurs leading up to it. Sen takes the amusing and original tack of making most of his gunfighters terrible shots, with victory belonging not just to the best shot but to the coolest under fire. Sen pushes to the edge of farce with the crappy, point-blank marksmanship on display, whilst exchanges of long-range gunfire are depicted with exacting, thrilling verve keen to the specific difficulties of sniper marksmanship, whilst also, of course, fulfilling earlier glimpses of Swan’s skill. The very finish offers a break in the generally depressive landscape with a rather arbitrary, but thankfully restrained reunion that signals that Swan’s battles have not been in vain.
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Director: Keith Gordon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Writer Joyce Carol Oates called Scott Spencer, “the poet-celebrant of Eros.” As someone whose memory of his highly sensuous prose and love-mad teenagers is as vivid as it is some 30+ years after reading Endless Love, I couldn’t agree more. Spencer has written 12 novels in various genres—most recently, horror, under the pseudonym Chase Novak—but his elegant explorations into the depths of romantic love and obsession are nearly without peer. Even after two tries, Spencer’s celebrated vision of teen love hasn’t gotten the screen version it deserves yet, but his 1986 novel Waking the Dead is another matter. Keith Gordon, a director with a small, but impressive list of prestige television credits (“Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “Dexter,” “Homeland”) and at least one film that deserves a better reputation than it’s got, The Singing Detective (2003), is a veteran surveyor of the depths of human emotion. With Waking the Dead, he must navigate emotional commitments both personal and global. In the process, he gives us a much larger picture of what it means to be a good person than most films care to approach.
The opening sequence immediately announces the field of action on which Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) has been sparring with his girlfriend, Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), for the two tempestuous years of their love. Fielding watches the TV news in mounting horror as a report about a car bomb that killed two Chilean dissidents touring in Minnesota mentions that an American activist from Chicago was also killed in the blast. Sarah’s picture flashes on the screen, doubling the one on display near the television. Fielding squeezes his head as though to keep his skull from exploding and shrieks in jagged despair. From this point, the film toggles between 1972 through 1974, the years of Fielding and Sarah’s love affair, and 1984, when Fielding has taken his seat in the U.S. Congress.
Fielding and Sarah first meet at the office of his brother Danny (Paul Hipp), a counterculture publisher who hired her only the week before. Fielding’s attraction to her is immediate. When he asks her to dinner, she is a bit put off by his U.S. Coast Guard uniform, but agrees. At dinner, Sarah tells him she was educated at a Catholic convent school and is a committed activist for human rights. Fielding enlisted in the Coast Guard to build his resume as a patriot who has served his country; he intends to become a U.S. senator, though he confides to Sarah that he’d really like to be president. Fielding walks Sarah home, but she resists kissing him good night; however, moments after she enters her apartment, she opens her window and throws her keys down to him. Despite their unlikely pairing, their affair becomes a grand passion.
Leaving aside the chemistry between Fielding and Sarah, there is a sounder basis for their relationship. Both are dedicated to making the world a better place in part because of their early training. Fielding comes from a working-class family; his parents gave him a patrician name to match their hopes for his social mobility. His own observations of the needs of ordinary Americans drive him to become their representative in the halls of power. Sarah’s Catholic upbringing set her up for a life of service—indeed, she had ambitions to become a nun until puberty struck. When the pair met, American involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down and the Watergate scandal was about to surface, leaving behind massive disillusionment and the widespread radicalization of youths like Sarah. At another point in time, she might have welcomed Fielding’s ambition to reform the system from within, but her distrust of conventional solutions brings her into regular conflict with Fielding, and her clandestine missions to Chile to help opponents of its dictatorship escape have him feeling fearful for her safety and frustrated at not being the center of her universe.
By 1983, Fielding seems to have picked up the pieces and gotten on with his life plan. He is running for Congress with the backing of powerful politico Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) and the support of politically savvy girlfriend Juliet Beck (Molly Parker). Fielding seems to be headed for a major power trip with all the trappings, but he starts seeing Sarah everywhere, imagining that she is speaking to him from beyond the grave or, perhaps, may have used the bombing to draw attention to the plight of oppressed Chileans and gone underground to continue her work. Has he finished grieving? Is Sarah the “Jiminy Cricket” on his shoulder to keep him in line as he ascends the staircase of influence? Is she alive?
What is great about Waking the Dead is that it places the mystery of love ahead of the mundane whodunit of Sarah’s fate. In Spencer’s world, the intensity of the feelings Fielding and Sarah shared transcends the grave. Fielding misses Sarah horribly and is honest—and cruel—enough to admit it to Juliet when he agrees with her that if she walked out the door and disappeared, he’d forget about her in a matter of days. The sticking point between Sarah and Fielding is a greater love than what they feel for each other—the love of humanity that Sarah ultimately chooses over the private happiness she has with Fielding. Waking the Dead does justice to the passion many activist boomers cling to from the time when they felt most alive and committed to public action, while honoring the private losses many of them faced as the war took its toll.
Fielding proves to be the kind of boomer for whom private happiness tends to be more important, the kind who have taken over the country and given up the fight for the common good, if they ever had much fight in them to begin with. When his sister Caroline (Janet McTeer) and others suggest the Sarah would have been a liability to Fielding’s future, the careerist boomer priorities come plainly into focus, though, in fact, they’re right. Sarah is the braver of the two in recognizing that however she and Fielding differ in their approaches to helping others, humanitarian causes must be fought for on as many fronts as possible; she never discourages him from his path and tries to help him by attending networking cocktail parties with him—though she can’t help making a hash of them by insulting the influential businessmen and party functionaries he is trying to court.
The script by Robert Dillon, which preserves some of the best of Spencer’s writing, is smart and literate. The scrambled chronology isn’t really a problem, but Gordon may have been induced to dress his sets in clearly defined ways—warm hippie-style scored by Joni Mitchell for the early sequences and sleek modern scored to Brian Eno and David Byrne for the ’80s scenes. On the other hand, placing Connelly and Crudup naked in front of a roaring fire might signal it was the director’s lack of imagination that drew this overly defined line in time. Fielding’s visions tend to be fairly straightforward as well, with the repeat motif of a figure in a long tartan cape standing in the distance. One place where the hallucination is truly haunting is in an airport terminal—one Sarah becoming many Sarahs wearing capes and moving down a corridor like ghosts emerging from the other side.
This film could have been little more than a hectoring indictment of boomers—and maybe that’s just how it was seen by some audience members—if not for Jennifer Connelly, a gift to this movie almost as miraculous as Sarah herself. She hits every note right between the eyes, utterly convincing in her commitment to her cause and to Fielding, acting both completely vulnerable and strong with determination. Crudup nearly matches her, but he is somewhat hampered by having to portray a shallower individual. When her love reaches out to him with all the right words and feelings, he answers more often than not with a hungry sexuality. In their final scene together, tellingly, nothing but tears and touches pass between them, a sign of Fielding’s growth through great pain. This film, though fairly conventional in its attitudes, can awaken the romantic in all of us, but especially those of us who have lived in heady times and loved with all our hearts.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
By Roderick Heath
The myth of the Great Flood is one of the most famed and ingrained in the modern world’s cultural inheritance. The tale was probably sourced in the ancient Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, and spread along with cultural traffic to plant narrative seeds in Indian, Judaic, Arabic, Greek, and Christian traditions. But it also has doppelgangers in folk traditions the world over. The flood-prone nature of the Tigris-Euphrates region is often thought to have inspired the legend, but in contemplating just how widespread the story is, some have speculated whether the story doesn’t recall an oral tradition to the end of the last ice age. In the Western world, the version found in the Book of Genesis with its hero named Noah is, of course, the best known. The story contains within its brief narrative walls—about 2,700 words of Genesis—the demarcations of a profound cultural underpinning, the story of a simple, goodly patriarch who, blessed with divine mission, saves the natural world whilst the sinful are washed away in primeval retribution. What father has not seen himself at some point as steering family and charges through times of calamity, and what child doesn’t delight in the idea of the world’s creatures as private barnyard parade? It certainly stands with the most powerful tales in the Old Testament, including Moses as heroic liberator, David the giant-slayer, and Samson the sex-addled freedom fighter, all of whom take up Noah’s mantle to a degree as shepherd of the populace with differing degrees of success.
How one will respond to Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of this elemental tale will inevitably be coloured by personal scruple: many religious and irreligious folk alike will judge it both by its seriousness of intent and concordance with tradition, whilst others will look to it for much the opposite, insights that ransack that tradition and ask it to speak to different worldly concerns. Since he debuted with Pi (1997), Aronofsky has been one of the most visually and formally experimental of modern American directors, but also a violently awkward artist, one with little capacity to sort his best ideas from his worst ones. This has tended to make works like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and Black Swan (2010) at once stirring and excessive, visionary and ungainly. Noah fits into this strand well in some respects: it’s an outsized work of great ambition, driving along in adherence only to its creator’s singular ideas no matter how batty they seem. Aronofsky’s chutzpah aims at zones not penetrated in the genre since Martin Scorsese studied The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mythologies associated with living faiths are much more problematic to adapt than those springing from dead ones: no one minds Norse and Greek myths being remixed for big and noisy special-effects movies, as per recent Lord of the Rings and Clash of the Titans films, but Noah was the subject of studio angst as to how it would play to religious stalwarts and the crowd who lapped up The Passion of the Christ (2004), with its brutal and hypocritical take on Gospel.
In reaction to Mel Gibson’s paean to righteous suffering, Aronofsky offers parable laced with concepts imported broadly from extra-canonical Judaic lore, New Age spirituality and symbolism, deeply rigorous cultural enquiry, and CGI blockbuster cinema. His contemporary urges are pretty plain-spoken, making the flood an overt metaphor for climate change. Noah and his kin, descendants of Adam’s third son Seth, are all vegetarians eking out an existence in a world blasted by the rapaciousness of the descendants of Cain, who eat meat and have mastered technological arts. Such greenie fable-telling could have been a drag, but Aronofsky is at least restrained enough to let these elements speak for themselves. His real aim, it soon proves, is a rather more intimate contemplation of the impact of humanity’s capacity for both ferocity and creation. Noah (Dakota Goto) sees his father Lamech (Marton Csokas) murdered by Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), leaving Noah as the last Sethite. He grows to manhood in the shape of Russell Crowe, whose new-found capacity for biblical gravitas was well exploited in last year’s Man of Steel; here, he gets to do the real thing. He’s also reunited with his A Beautiful Mind (2001) co-star Jennifer Connolly, who plays Naameh, Noah’s wife. Noah, Naameh and their sons Shem (Gavin Casalegno) and Ham (Nolan Gross) maintain their foraging ways when Noah sees a flower bloom in an instant. An intimation of cosmic intent, this proves prelude to Noah’s dream of a world flooded over.
Sensing this is a prophecy sent by “the Creator” but unsure what it means, Noah sets out with his family across a cursed patch of land to reach the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) lives. The family, pursued by Cainites, save a young girl, Ila (Skylar Burke), the lone survivor of a massacred tribe. They also encounter the strange inhabitants of this corner of Creation, the “Watchers” or Nephilim, angels who tried to aid Adam and Eve but were cursed by the Creator for their intransigence; their naturally radiant forms are now encased in hulking stone sporting pathetic, vestigial wings and glowing eyes. The Watchers detest humankind, whom they tried to help but who hunted and killed many of them, and propose abandoning Noah and his family to die in the wilderness. One of the Nephilim, Magog (Mark Margolis), decides to help them however, and when Noah reaches Methuselah, the ancient shaman gives him an incantatory brew so that he can see his dream completely. This helps Noah grasp that his mission is to build a craft that will weather the flood and contain animal life. Methuselah gives him the last seed saved from Eden, and, when planted, this seed causes water to spring from the earth and colossal forests to grow in minutes to provide a source of wood for the ark. Building the vessel takes years, long enough for Shem, Ham, and Ila to grow to adulthood (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Emma Watson), and for Noah and Naameh to have a third son, Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll).
Aronofsky’s script, written with Ari Handel, is fascinating and original in its willingness to encompass such figures as the Nephilim, described vaguely as “giants” in the Torah but in Apocrypha like the Book of Enoch (where they are called the Watchers) as the sons of human women and angels, and envisioning Methuselah as a massively powerful prophet-sorcerer who is the last keeper of Edenic lore. He is seen in flashback wielding a flaming sword, perhaps inspired by Genesis 3:24’s mention of this totem as God’s barrier to Eden, to defend the Nephilim against the Cainites, striking the ground and releasing concussive shockwaves of magic that drive the wicked men back. His gifts also provoke one of the narrative’s major crises as he works magic that promulgates fertility in true shamanic fashion. One reason texts featuring the Nephilim and other figures of the Apocrypha lore are excised from the Torah and Bible does seem to be because they represent a more superstitious, fantastical edge to the old faith, as well as a possible rival moral schema, a notion Aronofsky exploits to a certain degree. The Watchers, distorted and aggrieved, stand between Creator and Creation, resenting both but finally looking for redemption, and finding it in fighting for the ark. There’s richness and brilliance in incorporating them into this tale. This, however, makes how they’re animated and portrayed the most awkward aspect of Noah: they look and sound like lumpen monstrosities from dozens of other CGI fantasy fests, dragging the film perilously close to such territory.
Similarly intrepid, but logical, too, is how Aronofsky and Handel recast Tubal-cain as antagonist to Noah, leader of the rival tribe with arts of metal-working (biblically accurate) and concoctions close to gunpowder (not so much). Tubal-cain, played in hirsute and haggard middle-age by Ray Winstone, turns up with his followers as the ark nears completion, with an eye to getting aboard if the spreading rumour of impending apocalypse proves true. Noah has already been seen in combat, kicking ass for the Lord in righteous style but never taking a life, a stance that seems about to become impossible, especially as Noah sees his divinely inspired job as ensuring that none of the sinful survive. As the tale unfolds, indeed, Noah eventually admits to Naameh that as far as he can tell, the human race is meant to die out, with his children all dying in their allotted time and leaving the Earth cleansed. Noah’s certainty that the Creator is speaking to him is counterbalanced by the Watchers and Tubal-cain’s shared frustration at the lack of response: Tubal-cain prepares for war whilst quietly, but with the faintest tone of confused angst of an uncomprehending, rejected son, asking for such a sign as he bashes metal into shape. This, however, proves a double-edged sword, as Noah’s comprehension of his task transforms him from the most righteous man to an increasingly committed, fanatical, dark-eyed tool.
This touch is the most substantial amplification of the bare-bones tale: Noah, whose name means ease or comfort, is traditionally seen as the most beneficent of the Old Testament patriarchs. He’s not a character at all, really, not in the same way King David or Samson manage to be in their violently contradictory natures, but rather an emblem of a figure of grandfatherly shelter. Crowe’s more virile father is crossbred here with a later biblical figure, Abraham, as Aronofsky strikes deep at the heart of the patriarchal faith. Other films have depicted the Noah tale: Michael Curtiz’s 1929 version turned it into a parable for the Wall Street crash, whilst a more recent, godawful TV version featured Jon Voight speaking to a Jehovah who sounded like a TV sitcom dad. The best, and the one with which Aronofsky’s take feels in a dialectic, was John Huston’s The Bible…In the Beginning (1966). Huston, a rigorously nonreligious artist who emphasised the starkly symbolic and arcane virtues of Genesis, painted his Noah as a gently comedic figure and his story as colourful juvenilia before letting Lot and Abraham do the moral heavy lifting. Huston had his own parable for contemporary apocalyptic urges in mind: his Sodom was wiped out by a mushroom cloud and the intended sacrifice of Isaac takes place near the Hiroshima-like ruins of the city. Huston spread this notion out across most of the Genesis narrative, whereas Aronofsky packs it all into Noah’s, as his hero accepts his task and tries to carry it out, a burden Naameh tries mitigate, recognising the scale of guilt it imposes on her husband. However, even she threatens to abandon and curse him when he makes clear that he will follow through on his mission no matter how unpleasant it becomes.
Noah, then, is not just Aronofsky’s recapitulation of Old Testament wrath but an account of his active struggle with its meaning and intimations for a modern man, beggared by the scale of both offence given and taken apparent in the cause for the deluge. The wisdom of the patriarchs likewise is given a beady eye, as Noah’s cause sparks generational mistrust and war in his own family, a family he feels required to cheat of all future even as he saves them. Ila had been left barren by a wound as a girl, and as she grows and falls in love with Shem, she tearfully tells her adopted father that she doesn’t want to burden Shem with childlessness. But Naameh decides to help Ila by appealing to Methuselah in contravention of her husband’s word, and the old man agrees: he touches Ila’s belly, making her fertile again, and quickly she falls pregnant. Noah, outraged once he learns of this, howls that he’s now bound to kill her child if it proves to be a girl. Meanwhile Ham is pained by the sight of Shem and Ila’s physical intimacy, and sets out to try to extract a potential mate from the Cainite camp, which is in constant tumult from debauchery and violence. He tumbles into a pit and encounters a grotty, terrified girl, Na’el (Madison Davenport), and offers her a chance to flee with him to the ark. As they do so, however, the rains begin, and the Cainite horde makes for the ark. Noah ventures out to bring back Ham, but doesn’t try to help Na’el, who falls over and is crushed under the feet of the horde.
The first half of Noah is uneven and feels incomplete in that it could have yielded far more facets to its interesting elaborations and more insight into the tribal struggle. For instance, Aronofsky’s telling avoidance of the detail that in the Bible, Naameh was Tubal-cain’s sister and the sorts of loyalty conflict that might have stemmed from this, dismisses a potential source of strong drama. The flourishes of fantastic imagery, too, even if they disturb the faithful, beg for enlargement. Aronofsky is one of the few contemporary, mainstream directors with roots in experimental-edged filmmaking, and some of his most memorable and specific directorial flourishes here retain that edge, particularly in the stroboscopic edits of still pictures into a time-lapse effect depicting passing years via the flow of water out of Noah’s little Eden: here is a poetic charge of visual beauty and strangeness. Equally striking in execution is a similar sequence in which Noah recounts the history of the world to his children to illustrate the necessity of the Creator’s exterminating judgement. Aronofsky offers in super-speed the epochs of universal birth and expansion and earthly evolution equated with the six days of Creation, a state of balanced perfection despoiled by humankind’s peculiar gift for slaughter and calamity, with Aronofsky intercutting a silhouetted portrayal of Cain’s first murder with endless repetitions through the ages.
Aronofsky’s awesome craft in such moments is, however, contrasted with bluntness, like the witless, horror-movie flourishes in Black Swan. Biblical filmmaking works best when it’s allowed to boil down to powerful visual metaphors, such as DeMille’s collapsing temple in Samson and Delilah (1949) and parting Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), or when it can possess a touch of the alien, such as Scorsese managed in The Last Temptation of Christ’s abstracted miracles and atavistic visions. Aronofsky’s conceptual imagination still seems limited in some regards: his canvases are huge and ripe, and yet his idea of spiritual imagery is, as in The Fountain, corny floods of CGI sunshine and rock-album-cover notions of fantastic landscapes. Occasionally, he still yields to plasticity, like in the instagrow Eden and firefly angels. The hordes of animals sweeping through the forest to take refuge in the ark are impressive but regulation special effects. Still, making a film as expensive as Noah demands concessions, and it seems Aronofsky was willing to make a trade-off to give his film appeal to a broad audience steeped in a more literal visual language of the fantastic.
Moreover, Aronofsky offers up many more powerful visualisations, like in a sequence that calls back to the orgy scene of Requiem for a Dream in which Noah visits the Cainite camp and perceives a morass of human depravity, filled with assault and rape, squirming acres of desperate flesh in the muck giving him a vision of degenerate humankind that bolsters his misanthropic interpretation of his mission. The igneous nature of the drama here suits Aronofsky’s sometimes reductive gift for portraying squalor on both physical and metaphysical levels. Aspects of Aronofsky’s stylisation blur the difference between distant past and distant future, with a hint of a science fiction to the alien-like Nephilim and Ouroboros-like rebooting of time represented by the Flood. Particularly in the bold and startling moment of Na’el’s death, the film clicks into a mode of sustained ferocity and genuinely powerful spectacle, kicking off a climactic sequence as the Watchers fight off the Cainites whilst Noah tries to seal the ark, the deluge starting as rain but soon giving way to colossal geysers. The Watchers, upon being felled by the humans, including Tubal-cain’s prototypical cannon, revert to angelic form and shoot back into the heavens. The brilliance of transcendence is painted in fiery colours and surges of mystical force amidst a struggle that remains one enacted in elements: flesh, blood, fire, water, and earth. There’s visual similarity here, indeed, to the similarly beautiful battle at the climax of Chris Weitz’s underrated The Golden Compass (2007). The actual flood is predictably colossal stuff.
Noah gains its greatest power as it sets up and marches towards a second, more intimate, but no less fractious climax, a difficult feat considering the seemingly inevitable and well-known resolution to the legend. The seeds of danger are sewn as Noah announces his intention to kill Ila’s daughters when she gives birth to twins, and sabotages her and Shem’s attempts to abandon the ark. Meanwhile Ham has smuggled the injured Tubal-cain aboard. The two older men begin to look increasingly similar, as the formerly warm and protective Noah becomes a hollow-eyed engine of merciless prosecution of his divinely appointed job, Naameh cracks and refuses to play along anymore, and Ham helps Tubal-cain recover and conspires to kill Noah, the young man receptive to Tubal-cain’s insinuating words in his fury at his father’s actions and intentions. Aronofsky is surely commenting on the ease with which zeal turns into fanaticism as he deconstructs the flat biblical hero and evokes real disquiet at the aspect rarely explored in versions of the arcane tales, the virulence in their images of sin and wrath, the pain facing individual men and women asked to accept or mete out cosmic force. This Noah is slowly destroyed by his task, as any decent man would be.
Aronofsky is deeply attentive, too, to the essential symbolism that drives the original tale, with its direct and unalloyed teaching tool portraying essential natural systems and physical and conceptual binaries sharing an enclosed space, the literal world in miniature, with male and female as breeding pairs as the essential truth, equated with human and animal, sin and redemption, disgrace and cleansing. Each binary is maintained and enlarged upon as Noah’s gift for interpreting prophecy is revealed to have failed in the clear presentation of twin daughters from Ila, giving each brother in the family a potential mate. There’s some humour in here, too, as Winstone, who’s been the go-to actor for plebeian bastardry since Nil By Mouth (1997), plays Tubal-cain as an earthy embodiment of humanity’s greed. When Ham catches him eating one of the ark’s animals, he protests, “There was only two of those!” to which Tubal-cain retorts calmly, “Yes but there’s only one of me.” The approaching climax threatens the collision of two programmes threatening intrafamilial homicide. Indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of the family is as a set of united, but finally individual viewpoints.
Aronofsky’s take on biblical drama is often infused with a rival, equally consuming mythos, that of classic American cinema: the inevitable three-way tussle of a son and two father figures recalls in a good way the similarly mythic climax of Return of the Jedi (1983), whilst the ultimate confrontation of Noah and Ila on the cusp of new worlds evokes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). One knows the white dove with the sprig in its beak will turn up at a fortuitous moment, but just when Aronofsky has it fly in has its own subtle and telling resonances, arriving less as deus ex machine than confirmation of mercy’s necessity. Is Noah a work that our multitudinous contemporary cults, religious and otherwise, with their various viewpoints can sit down around and get something from? Probably not, but that’s a huge ask. This Noah is, finally, a strong, intelligently wrought and probing reaction to the present through the lens of the distant past/future, and an extremely impressive film with some significant flaws. It represents new ground for Aronofsky and the first work of his I’ve actually liked on a dramatic level as well as appreciated on formal grounds. He wrings great performances out of his cast in a genre not usually known for good acting: Crowe is excellent, and so is Connolly, whilst Watson follows up last year’s The Bling Ring in delivering a revelatory performance that finally ties all to the anguish of the individual young mother.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sergio Leone
By Roderick Heath
For Sergio Leone, making Once Upon a Time in America was a 15-year labour that consumed the bulk of his directorial career. By the mid-1970s, Leone seemed to be washed up. The genre he had done so much to codify and popularise, the spaghetti western, had burnt out. Leone’s tilt at making a defining western saga, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), was mutilated and dismissed in the U.S., and Duck, You Sucker (1972) was similarly lost in the shuffle. Although he continued to produce odd projects and stepped in to help direct some without credit throughout the ’70s, Leone was left perched between worlds. He rejected advances from Paramount Pictures to direct The Godfather (1972), as he was fascinated instead by a purportedly autobiographical novel called The Hoods by former gangster Harry Goldberg, who published under the name Harry Grey. Leone finally put together a big $30 million budget. His ambition seemed to pay off as the 4.5-hour epic earned a standing ovation upon its premiere at Cannes. Triumph quickly curdled, however, for such expansive vision was conspicuously out of favour. A hacked-down version of the film released in the U.S. was a colossal flop, and the calamity on top of an arduous shoot helped kill Leone 5 years later. The 229-minute European cut, however, retained a strong reputation for those who could see it, as I first did, on a brick-thick VHS set.
Aside from its length, Leone’s film is challenging and commercially tricky, as Leone created a deeply ambiguous work, an apogee of the director’s individual temperament. Contradiction was Leone’s defining quality: A high stylist with a gift for lowdown art. A realist with a love of mythology. A romantic with a fetish for brute violence and sexuality. An Italian with a predilection for American pop culture and a gift for creating synergy between the spacious, aestheticized approach of European film and the gritty sturdiness of American argot and actors. A revisionist and Socialist-tinted historian, picking at the scabs of worldly motives, always looking for the carnal and corruptible underpinnings of human impulses, and yet conjuring dreamlike, mythopoeic visions of that history shot through with quixotic longing and melancholy. Once Upon a Time in America is a film where the audience is faced with mirroring ironies that fold time and tale back in on itself.
Leone employed seven screenwriters to build upon his ideas, including an uncredited Ernesto Gastaldi and snappy English dialogue by Stuart Kaminsky, and yet each touch was subsumed into Leone’s, as the film is more visual than verbal. It also both extends and contrasts the methods of Leone’s westerns. The long, elliptical, carefully rhythmic and internally rhyming structuring of Leone’s direction, as small plays of character and power and build-ups to violence are detailed with nerveless intensity, were retained. But whereas Leone’s westerns were defined by space, both in the environs of the open range, and crisp widescreen compositions based on horizontal lines, …In America is dense and baroque, the blasted colours and sunstruck brightness swapped for saturated tones, deep-etched darks and opiated atmosphere.
…In America has been characterised by some as one long drug dream, taking place in the mind of antihero David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) as he lies in an opium den. The movie starts there and finishes there, moving in an Ouroboros sort of pattern. Noodles has retreated to the den behind a Chinese shadow-puppet theatre to forget the consequences of the pivotal act of his life, an act that’s communicated in impressionistic fragments of sound and vision. The first scene of the film depicts his girlfriend Eve (Darlanne Fluegel) being shot dead in their apartment by gunmen on the hunt for him, with the strains of Kate Smith’s operatic take on “God Bless America” echoing in the background. Noodles’ friend, restaurateur and bar owner Fat Moe Gelly (Larry Rapp), is beaten to a bloody pulp by the same mob enforcers until he gives them Noodles’ location. A telephone rings like a jackhammer, burrowing into Noodle’s consciousness through the blur of the drug, conflating a call warning Noodles to flee, and, in his dazed reveries, a phone call he seems to have made to a policeman and the ringing bell of a fire truck at the remembered scene of a conflagration where corpses are laid out, variously scorched and bullet-riddled: Noodle’s pals and partners in crime Max Bercovicz (James Woods), Patsy Goldberg (James Hayden), and Cockeye Stein (William Forsythe), killed, it seems, by some connivance of Noodles’.
This opening manages at once to be allusive and almost psychedelic, but intelligibly puts in play both the taunting mysteries of the oncoming drama and the urgency of the immediate danger to Noodles, who has to flee the den and save Moe. This he does, in a scene that recalls the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West. Where that film had a windmill and a steam train on a flat plain, here there’s an elevator and interior heights, appropriate for the vertiginous moral chasms and landscape of the city. The elevator works laboriously, motor grinding and mechanisms shaking, to the floor where Moe is laid out like a carcass and a waiting assassin patiently awaits its passenger to alight. Instead, a bullet explodes out his forehead, fired by Noodles, who took the stairs. As well as being a quintessential Leone moment of surprise violence, Noodles’ wiliness is revealed here, a gift the film recapitulates many times, but also repeatedly counterpoints with his endless capacity for self-sabotage.
A talismanic key is taken from Moe’s grandfather clock, a key that fits a locker in Grand Central Station, but to Noodles’ evident shock and disappointment, the suitcase within only contains a bundle of newspapers instead of the expected fortune. Noodles has no choice but to keep running from the vengeance he has set in motion. He steps out of the frame, the camera zeroes in on an art deco poster for Coney Island and a wall mirror. Noodles re-enters the shot, reflected in the mirror, balding, doleful, and tense. The artwork is now a pop art mural, a version of “Yesterday” rises to displace “Night and Day” on sound, and without a line of dialogue, we know Noodles has returned to New York in the late 1960s.
This brilliantly handled leap forward touches on one essential aspect of …In America, which is as much about time and what it does to people and what they do to themselves in the eye of it, as it is about individual circumstances. It’s also one of the greatest explorations of the transporting intensity of remembering. Leone and ever-attuned composer Ennio Morricone even twist the potentially cheesy motif of using “Yesterday” as a leitmotif for aging regret to work for them by pushing it to a limit with a muzak-flavoured cover: nostalgia is another pop value. Noodles and Moe meet again, tired and on the wane, defined by a past that went magnificently and seemingly irreparably wrong. Moe’s bar is an islet of the past in a former Jewish neighbourhood, now filled with the new wave of Puerto Rican immigrants. Moe certainly didn’t pilfer the million dollars in the locker, Noodles now sees, and he explains the ominous yet seemingly casual missive that’s brought him back to New York, a letter that confirms someone knows where he’s been hiding and has now summoned him back for a reckoning. Longing for a chance to repair the past and pining for the flare of youth’s energy and vision transfigures Noodles. But he was not a good man, not even one ennobled by the Corleones’ familial ethos. Rather Noodles was, as the idol of his life, Moe’s sister Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), once diagnosed, a guy always doomed to be a two-bit punk. Noodles’ return home sees objects take on transformative power, recalling distant times and people: in the back of Moe’s bar is a peephole, and looking through it like a cinema audience conjures a young Deborah (Jennifer Connolly) as a vision of youth’s hope.
That youth is revealed as hardly an idyll, however, as Noodles and his pubescent pals were dirty-minded, fun-loving, budding criminals. To make money off local standover man Bugsy (James Russo), Noodles (played young by Scott Tiler), Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curran), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi), burn down a newspaper stand. They also rob drunks and blackmail an obnoxious cop (Richard Foronjy) after they photograph him having sex with underaged sexpot Peggy (Julie Cohen). Leone’s young imps are little pishers, glimpsed squirting lighter fluid as if they’re pissing on the newspapers. The boys encounter Max (Rusty Jacobs), a junkman’s son who foils one of their criminal enterprises with cheeky humour and then joins them. Success continually raises the stakes for the boys’ misadventures: gaining control over the cop places them in the path of Bugsy, who has Noodles and Max beaten up. When Noodles and his pals outmanoeuvre Bugsy in ingratiating themselves with the mafia, the older punk sets after them with a gun.
These ’20s sequences are majestic in their blend of the hazy immigrant remembrance that was popular in the newly ethnic-conscious and historically attuned American cinema (The Godfather Part II, 1974; Hester Street, 1975; Ragtime, 1981), but far outstripping most for evocativeness and exactitude of milieu—Leone’s period worlds are characters in themselves. One of his keenest gifts lay in creating organic milieus in particular places where social forces are in constructive flux. Leone’s crack team of filmmakers—cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, editor Nino Baragli, art director Carlo Simi, costumer Gabriella Cespucci—helped to make his old New York a place of dirty wildernesses of brick and cobble where the criminal lads dash and dance like Our Gang turning into Dead End Kids. Rooftop empires of bird shit, flapping laundry, and illicit sex and empire-planning. Harbours flooded by fog, zones of mystery and adventure. Above all, nascent industrial might symbolised by the Manhattan Bridge, like living in the shadow of a pyramid, the New World’s expression of communal power and hubristic desire. The neighbourhood around Moe’s place evolves in obedience to the zeitgeist. The old kosher restaurant run by the Gellys where young Moe (Mike Monetti) labours is a popular community crossroads. It gives way to a speakeasy, popular with a panoply of the urban melting pot, housing both underworld and elite. Finally, it becomes the clapped out, run-of-the-mill bar where Moe has to pay protection to a Puerto Rican standover man. When Noodles is fatefully carted off to a juvenile prison, both the prison and the opposing warehouse wall against which his friends range to see him swallowed by the beast emphasises the impersonal scale and fetid, rotting atmosphere of the urban landscape in a fashion that feels the oncoming age of oppression.
The very American tale of the immigrant experience, defined by the simultaneous, wrenching, gravitational fields of ethnic community and eruptive New World mores (young Noodles refuses to go home because “my old man’s praying and my old lady’s crying and the light’s turned off”), is crossbred with the Italian cinematic tradition for looking back in pained wistfulness at the birth pangs of modernity in films as diverse as The Leopard (1963), The Voyage (1974), and 1900 (1976). There’s also the equally Italian delight in describing the raw side of entering adulthood: the young hoods are obsessed with sex, whilst wrestling angrily with their weaknesses and deeper desires. Although the protagonists of …In America are unusual in the ranks of screen hoods for being Jewish, they’re exceedingly Italian in spirit, calling to mind the libido-addled adolescents of Fellini’s 8½ (1963) and Amarcord (1973). There is also, of course, deliberate recapitulation of classic movie themes, specifically, the gangster film, laced with references: the rise-and-fall stories of Little Caesar (1930) and Scarface (1931); the immigrant angst and youth-to-nefarious age drama of The Public Enemy (1931); and remixes of those themes in the tempted street kids of Angels with Dirty Faces (1937) and the generation-tracing arc of The Roaring Twenties (1939). Also, the galvanic punch and sociological notation of Don Siegel, Roger Corman, and Sam Fuller in the ’50s and ’60s, and the political awareness and epic tone of The Godfather. One original aspect of the story, anticipating Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), is the way its narrative centres on a character who could be perceived as peripheral, even a loser. Whereas James Cagney’s and Paul Muni’s gangsters always fell eventually but became colossal in their defiance or their tragic qualities, Noodles becomes not a fallen warrior, cautionary example, criminal overlord, or even really a proper antihero. Rather, he remains something of a fool of fortune doomed to keep losing great chunks of his life to his antics and poor judgement.
Youth is brought to an end through a series of rolling events, and indeed all three epochs described in the film detail long plot arcs dotted with vignettes and climaxing in dramatic severances. The greatest moment of the lads’ youth comes when they convince a mafia overlord to try their invention, involving flotation balloons and counterweights of salt, which can refloat cargos of liquor dumped in the river to avoid patrols. Waiting on a boat in the harbour in a dreamy mist that slowly unpeels over a grimy industrial waterway, the boys see their invention work and celebrate, with Max and Noodles falling overboard: Max plays a prank on Noodles, pretending to drown, before reappearing in the boat, flashing his mocking grin. Much later, Noodles plays the same gag on Max. The two friends, closer than brothers, also constantly try to get one over on each other, treating life almost like a huge practical joke. The folie à deux aspect of their friendship defines the entire narrative. Deborah mockingly describes Max as Noodles’ mother, constantly calling him, but for criminal hijinks. Max first appears on a garbage cart, and steals a watch from a drunk the others wanted to roll, motifs that double and reverse in the finale. Bugs shoots Dominic, who dies with pathos in Noodles’ arms, his felling filmed in slow motion, severing youth from adulthood. Noodles, in a lunatic fury, knifes to death both Bugsy and a cop who tries to intervene, and is imprisoned. He’s released years later as an adult, when Max and the others have become successful bootleggers and entrepreneurial criminals.
Max greets Noodles upon release with a present that combines Leone’s love of bawdy sexuality and morbid humour: Max has a hooker (Ann Neville) laid out like a corpse, pretending to be dead, only to drag Noodles in to prove they’re both very much alive. As the famous quote from …In the West says, Leone’s heroes have “something to do with death,” yet sex and death are constantly correlated with insistent, Freudian power, particularly in this film, where both impulses are seen as the logical extremes of life, whilst most nebulous needs, like love and power, have a grip of religious insubstantiality to them. Whereas love was something Leone’s gunslingers spurned in pursuit of revenge, or had lost and spurred that revenge, Noodles is fatally split by his base instincts and higher aspirations. Carnality is its own strength: when he’s returned to Moe’s, Noodles encounters an older Peggy (Amy Ryder) who’s now a rotund madam-cum-earth mother who sells it profitably “by the pound.” Reunited with his pals, Noodles is brought in on a heist job shopped out to them by made man Frankie Manoldi (Joe Pesci) and his acquaintance Joe Minaldi (Burt Young), who’s got wind of a lucrative diamond shipment he wants them to rob. This turns out to be a double-cross, as the gang’s really been hired to kill Minaldi, and take the diamonds as pay by Manoldi.
Young’s hilariously grotesque cameo as a kind of simian throwback jammed into a suit, telling the story of how he got the tip-off about the diamonds via an anecdote involving insuring his penis, calls back to the shambling, ill-shaven untermenschen that dogged the heroes of Leone’s westerns. Those heroes are by contrast pre-modern but not uncivilised men who seem to share the distant bloodlines of Titans in their gifts that elevate above the common run. The double-cross assassination takes place in another peerlessly atmospheric setting, a foggy canalside littered with beached steamboats and industrial detritus, and plays out with deliriously intense staging. Cockeye shoots Minaldi point-blank through his jeweller’s glass, the gang rake his car with a tommy gun, and Noodles chases an escapee into an eiderdown factory, where he catches his prey and guns him down in a shower of whirling feathers. Noodles performs well, proving he’s still a man of action, but is irritated at having not been told what was going down. He vents his irritation at Max and the others with loopy humour by driving their car off a pier, suggesting that even now, with their extremely grown-up sex and violence, they’re still kids delighting in mayhem and tomfoolery. An aspect of this extends through a ribald subplot: during the robbery of the diamonds, Noodles was pulled into a play-act rape of the jeweller’s secretary, Carol (Tuesday Weld), actually the inside snout who tipped off Minaldi and a deeply kinky broad who gets off on illicit thrills. When she coincidentally turns up at Moe’s as a customer, the gang greet her wearing the handkerchief masks they used in the robbery, with their dicks out, so she can pick out her prior acquaintance. But Carol picks Max, and becomes his girlfriend.
The more “elevated” influence on Leone’s tale was The Great Gatsby, which informs the longing quality of Noodles’ attraction to Deborah and all that she represents, both in youth, as a creature of grace and purity in a mucky world, and in manhood, as a woman going places in the world legitimately. Unlike Daisy Buchanan, however, who was a gossamer idyll formed by an elusive precinct of aspiration, Deborah actively constructs herself, knowing full well the world she lives in and the nature of Noodles. She puts on airs and wheedles her way out of chores by dint of her exceptionalism, as she’s trained in arts that may take her places, including feminine arts both full of mystique and irritating power over Noodles. The childhood friends who take different roads is another old motif of the gangster film (Little Caesar, Manhattan Melodrama, Angels with Dirty Faces) crossbred here with romantic longing, but developed in highly unexpected ways because one of Leone’s darkest themes here is betrayal and the damage people who love each other can do. One of Deborah’s fateful acts, locking Noodles out of the restaurant and refusing to answer his cries for help after he and Max are beaten bloody by enemies, suggests that Noodles will always be on the outside, calling for Deborah, and also informs his later act of brutal revenge on her, inextricable from his erotic and emotional obsession. The film’s apogee of romanticism depicts Noodles trying finally to consummate his love for Deborah with his ill-gotten fortune, taking over an off-season hotel for the night in a show of spectacular courtly advance shot through with intimations of grandeur and sadness; this scene captures the essence of Fitzgerald’s book better than any straight adaptation has so far achieved.
Yet it also provokes and feeds into Leone’s own Janus-faced sensibility, as Deborah maintains her focus and tells Noodles she’s leaving for Hollywood in the morning. He, smouldering with anger whilst they’re being driven back to the city, viciously and punitively rapes Deborah on the backseat until the chauffeur pulls over and puts an end to it. A supremely disorienting and ugly scene (though fascinatingly undercut by the chauffeur’s agency, as he even refuses Noodles’ money; in most melodramas with a crime of this sort, the functionary would be assumed to be a moral null), is one of Leone’s singular accomplishments, as it so utterly debases the usual core of sentimentality found in the gangster film, forcing a radical audience reorientation of where its sympathies lie. Early in the film, Noodles’ hunters had shot Eve, Deborah’s worldly substitute, and, with electric provocation, one tweaked a society lush’s nipple in the opium den with his pistol. Sexual violence adds an uneasy, potent undercurrent to the film as a whole. With Noodles’ assault on Deborah, it becomes clear that Noodles’ lifestyle and milieu, far from being redeemed by Deborah, has instead poisoned him, his expectations of women and life in general. Indeed, what was pseudocomic and anticipatory in Noodles’ and friends earlier sexual encounters with Peggy and Carol becomes appalling.
Leone reaches for and achieves Dostoyevskian stature in his depiction of madly clashing impulses inside characters, as Noodles is at once exposed in his reactive cruelty: he essentially treats Deborah in the same way he did Bugsy, with the blind anger of a kid who feels he’s had something treasured stolen from him. He also defeats himself utterly, and feels immediate, crushing shame, as he watches Deborah leaving for Hollywood on a train the next day, amidst a swirl of steam on the platform, like he’s a phantom his own life, which indeed is what he becomes. There’s a moral precision to this even as Leone largely rejects simple moral readings—all his characters here are cruel to each other on some intimate level, of which physical violence is only one variant. Earlier, young Deborah had charmed Noodles and sustained his fantasies by reading to him from the Song of Solomon, but roughing up the sublime poetic metaphors by comparing the idealised creatures on the page with Noodles, hanging onto her words with increasing torment as she stated “he could never be my beloved.” Deborah’s ironic reading elucidates Leone’s art: alternations between lofty yearnings and expressions of sublime emotions jarringly interpolated with vulgar and cynical sophistication. Equally strong and just as auspicious as Noodles’ crush on Deborah is Noodles’ bromance with Max, whose enticingly wicked grin and humour casts a different spell. Max’s spying curtails Noodles’ one kiss with Deborah just before Bugsy’s beating, signalling Max’s impact on their fate, and also, as later events confirm, exploring the synchronicity of their identities.
There’s an element of commentary on capitalism throughout the film, as there was in …In The West, where Frank (Henry Fonda) gazed with admiration and frustration at the apparatus of real, fiscal power after annihilating the small-time speculator; here Noodles has the gift for creating and putting over a stratagem, but it takes evolving tycoon Max to exploit them. This film deals with characters who are villains in Leone’s other films, though Cockeye, like Harmonica in …In The West, carries an instrument (a piccolo), and Noodles feels the righteous spur to revenge on Bugsy, an urge he will later, importantly, quell and reject. As in Leone’s westerns, community exists, but the heroes do not protect it, exemplify it, or even really blend into it, but are rather cordoned off in a way John Ford only did with final deliberation: when young, the boys are constantly filmed in empty streets at the fringes of activity, or on rooftops, whilst Deborah passes through the midst of crowds, both at one with them but moving against the tides. The beating Noodles and Max receive from Bugsy occurs after the rest of the street has deserted with the residents heading off to the synagogue. Even when Max finds security and insider status under an assumed identity and fortune, he cannot join the crowds in his house, and spies instead on his son as he greets his pretty girlfriend and enjoys all the joys of his aristocratic youth, bought with so much bloodshed and loss.
When Noodles first returns to his old street in 1968 and nears Moe’s, he is confronted by the momentarily surreal sight of a gravestone lifting into the air from behind a brick wall by a front-end loader, as the old immigrant graveyard is being disinterred. The motifs are trebled here, as both the memento mori hanging over Noodles is literalised, the notions that graves are opening and the dead walking is first hinted, and the unavoidable fact of the past being consumed by the present. Later, he finds his friends have been granted an ornate mausoleum, which, a sign says, was paid for by Noodles himself. There he finds another totemic key to the same old locker at the station containing a suitcase full of money: Noodles is being given one last job. A scandal is playing out on TV with a face Noodles recognises: union boss Jimmy Conway O’Donnell (Treat Williams), who the old gang once saved in their finest deed, supporting striking Teamsters, by using wit as well as weapons to combat a plutocratic manager, his goons, and his pet cop, Chief Vincent Aiello (Danny Aiello). Leone goes to town in a bright, relieving comic movement staged with impudent vivacity to “The Thieving Magpie,” as the gang swap babies in their hospital cribs, including Aiello’s, repeating their earlier act of blackmail to impress a cop. Leone pulls off a mirthful, technically superb overhead shot of a nurse frantically trying to calm the crying babies who have just been swapped, visualising the thematic notion spoken subsequently, that the gang have just played god and reapportioned destinies to each character. As Max says, “We’re better than fate. We give some the good life, give it to others right up the ass.”
The gang’s swashbuckling efforts on behalf of the unionist prove they still have emotional ties to the cause of working men. This proves a double-edged sword, as they put O’Donnell in debt to the mafia. Noodles rejects the oncoming age of corporatized criminality, which Max, O’Donnell’s political overlord, and Manoldi begin to build to carry them past the end of Prohibition. Indeed, the film examines a common point of fascination for modern gangster movies and popular history, digging into the complex relationship between organised labour, organised crime, and progressive politics. There’s the suggestion that in the formation of a new bloc of power out of divergent interests to counter settled oligarchies, helped define modern America. Max, alone amongst the gang, sees the possibilities, and he takes his chance to complete his own version of Deborah’s dream to completely transcend his roots and become a great American. Noodles’ rejection of the combination vision sets in motion Max’s master plan even as he seems to acquiesce, and his plot plays out under the guise of suicidal madness, as he proposes an impossible heist. Rather than let his friend push along with this seemingly mad intention, Noodles then counters with his own calculated betrayal, setting up the gang to be arrested on their last liquor run. But Noodles is absent, knocked out by Max seemingly in an unstable rage, and the story begins to catch up with itself, as the early glimpses of the aftermath of the set-up have already told us how this ended. Or did they?
The return at last to 1968 to play out the final stages, comes with the revelation that not only is Max alive, now known as Bailey, but he has wormed his way into the highest reaches of society and political life and seduced Deborah. This fact revealed to Noodles in his poignant, inevitably tentative reunion with her after a stage performance, or rather when the reunion concludes: Deborah’s face, swathed in stage make-up, is despoiled as she rubs it off, identity seemingly smudged as dimensions of her character Noodles never imagined are opened up. The face of her son (Rusty Jacobs), who arrives whilst they’re talking, instantly rewrites the past—he has Max’s young face, stamped by preppie innocence and confusion. Noodles’ contrition at what he did to Deborah is matched by her and Max’s guilt at having destroyed him to gain their own lives.
“Bailey” and his works are unravelling, however, thanks to the still-lingering ties to O’Donnell and the mob, and the final truth that emerges is that he only delayed, rather than avoided, the same reckoning that Noodles has long since made: finding Max heals rather than hurts Noodles, and he’s revealed in their final exchange as an almost monkish penitent, calmly and sadly refusing Max’s request for a friend to shoot him rather than some anonymous assassin, whilst recalling their shared youth, a time that involved and led to horrible things, and yet was still youth. The ambiguous, even surreal final moments of the film provoke both frustration and wonderment, and yet can be coherently read. Max seems to follow Noodles out from his house only to disappear into a passing, peculiarly menacing garbage truck, evoking one tale about Jimmy Hoffa. But does he kill himself, or is he killed? Either way, he goes out the way he came into Noodles’ life, in the back of a garbage mover, moments after he held up that watch, that talisman of the past.
The final images of the film circle back to the past, then, as Noodles is passed by ghostly, yet rowdy apparitions of parties past, as Jazz Age roadsters tear by, and then Noodles himself, a young man again, crawls into the opium den, returning to where we found him: indeed, did he ever actually leave? Was it all a dream of anticipation, a drug-enabled psychic fit? Or did, as I tend to think, Noodles realise on some level not unlocked until he got high, that Max had faked his death, and the practical joke was ongoing? Of course, Leone designed his narrative carefully to refuse exact explanations or interpretations, as so many of the film’s devices, scenes, and settings have recapitulated the notion that everything finally ends up back where it started.
As ever with a Leone film, the indispensable aesthetic capstone is Ennio Morricone’s scoring, which swings from florid, operatic feeling to jazzy jaunt. Just as Morricone’s scores for the westerns constantly nudged the atmosphere of Leone’s film toward both expressionist weirdness and the cultural gravity of Latin America through his instrumentations, so, too, does his work here, constantly punctuated by panpipes, give the film an exotic, haunted quality, as if ghosts are crowding the margins of the lives on screen. The cast is superlative. De Niro’s turn as Noodles is low-key, and yet represents one of the actor’s best achievements, in how concisely he portrays a man who ages 30-odd years, avoiding all of his familiar actor’s mannerisms whilst conveying deep, if taciturn emotion. By contrast, Woods is electric as Max, a less subtle role but one that requires the dash and indivisible mixture of charm and visceral scorn he’s invested with, whilst Weld is wickedly good as the masochistic, yet somehow dominating Carol. Even with its deliberate mysteries and the elisions, which may finally be partly plugged by longer forthcoming editions, Once Upon a Time in America is a cinematic pinnacle.
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Director: Martin Scorsese
By Roderick Heath
Martin Scorsese’s films that followed the heady, messy grandeur of Gangs of New York (2002) have all been enjoyable and beautifully made. Yet even the most ardent admirers, like me, could admit something was missing from them. That ornery, empirical attitude and fiery aesthetic edge that used to inflect and define Scorsese’s films was damped down in big, slick, good-looking entertainments like The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011), whilst The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010) were genre exercises enlivened and enriched, but not transfigured by the director’s sense of style. The price Scorsese seemed to have paid for admission at last as a Hollywood grandee was to leave behind provocation. The Wolf of Wall Street is almost reassuring as it erupts in classic Scorsese curlicues of rocket-paced editing and rampant profanity, but to a degree that provokes caution about a director possibly moving into self-satire and playing to his fans’ affections, as he did with The Departed. But no, The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s most fearsome, powerful, specific film in over a decade, a thunder blast of black-witted absurdism, a portrait of a way of life as perceived by an individual whose distorting perspective exemplifies that world. Scorsese got in trouble in some quarters for allowing entrance into Travis Bickle’s point of view with Taxi Driver (1976), and now The Wolf of Wall Street has upset some by doing the same thing for Jordan Belfort, entrepreneur and criminal. This confirms that Scorsese is back doing his real job—directing films that discomfort as well as entertain his audience and provoking their moral and aesthetic standards. Scorsese’s devils are charming motherfuckers.
Scorsese’s fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio casts the actor as Belfort, product of a blue-collar upbringing, son of “Mad” Max (Rob Reiner), a former cop turned PI. Belfort recounts his story in the same high-powered voiceover that Henry Hill used in Goodfellas (1990), and like Hill, occasionally breaks down the fourth wall. But whereas Hill was explaining and excusing himself all the time, Belfort is a better, cockier salesman, suddenly cutting short his spiel to grin smarmily at the audience, whom he treats exactly like his clients, assuring us we needn’t concern ourselves with the details. He’s got them down, and the results are presented for our amusement as torrents of lifestyle brags, including a formidable array of drugs he’s comfortably addicted to and keeps balanced like a juggler.
Belfort recounts his early days as a young wannabe stockbroker, landing a job at the prestigious L. F. Rothschild and negotiating the totem pole. He’s taken to lunch by his superior, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), the kind of guy who snorts cocaine at the table of the ritzy skyline restaurant they sit in and preaches the values of masturbation to Jordan for keeping cool in their maniacal occupation. Mark also imparts the essential impulse of their business: to make sure the investor puts money in their hands and never takes it out, as the brokers get their cut for every use they can think of, regardless of whether it goes atomic or sinks into the abyss. The rollercoaster nature of the business is, however, almost immediately revealed to Belfort as the 1987 crash hits on his first day as an accredited broker, destroying his employer and leaving him and thousands of other brokers high and dry. On the advice of his wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), Jordan takes a punt at an ignominious job that will still keep him in the game: selling penny or pink-sheet stocks in small companies with a low-rent outfit working out of a strip mall in the wilderness of Long Island.
Belfort is rooted in this environment, however, and he quickly adapts. He combines the skills he’s picked up on Wall Street with the art of suburban hustling and his awareness, cynical rather than empathetic, of the secret fantasies nursed by the type of low-grade investor he’s enticing. He swiftly sets up his own pink-sheet stock firm, but rather than recruit other brokers, he goes back to his old neighbourhood and cultivates talent from the two-bit salesmen and dope peddlers he grew up with. These include Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff (P. J. Byrne), nicknamed for his awful wig, Alden “Sea Otter” Kupferberg (Henry Zebrowski), and other sartorially sobriqueted suburbanites, though the talent he wants most, body-building Brad (Jon Bernthal), is content selling his stock of Quaaludes to stoner teens. Instead, Jordan gains a lieutenant in Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a toy salesman who’s married to his own first cousin, Heidi (Mackenzie Meehan). Hill’s performance cunningly annexes a familiar brand of Scorsese spiv with deliberate artificiality, manifested through his grill of bathroom-tile-white teeth, recalling the lacquered creeps of Casino (1995). Donnie proves equivalent to Joe Pesci’s character in Scorsese’s earlier films, too, the loose cannon subordinate who doesn’t know where the limits of good sense are, even as his self-appointed wise superior slips quietly off the rails.
Scorsese starts with a thematic joke that’s also a cinematic one: an advertisement, rendered in a small, boxy TV format, for Stratton Oakmont that portrays a lion looking rather like MGM’s Leo, patrolling the floor of the company offices. It’s a deliberate alternative to, and echo of, the wolf figuration, as the ad creates an image of beneficent class and proud ferocity for a company that’s actually bent on eating you. Scorsese’s eruption into widescreen presents raucous, plebeian, orgiastic behaviour as Jordan and his hordes hurl dwarves at a target as part of an office party competition. The grotesque ebullience harkens back to Scorsese’s masters from the distant fringe of Hollywood memory, like Stroheim and Sternberg, when depictions of an amoral high life were a stock in trade, and through to Fellini and ’80s sex romps, save that this “Animal House” has sharper teeth and no pretence to counterculture attitude. The Wolf of Wall Street deals with much less violent characters than Goodfellas or Casino, and yet it ultimately feels uglier and less reassuring, not just because of the mind- (and eye-) boggling portrait of a business that considers itself an engine of national wealth, but because those earlier films’ criminal classes were defined by pretences to domesticity and rituals of pacific balance. The eruptions of violence there could be uncontrolled and irrational, but the essential fantasy of the mafia types was that they were people who pursued illegal wealth and liked wielding power, but did so with the understanding that they had to mimic the conservative family and social structures around them to survive. The Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, details a species that dreads such humble trappings and containing strictures. Although Jordan gets married, buys a house, and has kids, these feel more like lifestyle embellishment than a point in themselves. His cabal of hungry brokers are not happy merely consuming, even conspicuously. They want to live without the fearful pettiness of regular life, to remain on a constant high without dips or valleys.
Even the disasters and pitfalls Belfort and company encounter keeps them scrambling with an adrenalized excitement that Scorsese’s barrelling storytelling force-feeds to the audience. Belfort’s seamy genius is made clear as he gains awed applause from the other penny stock sellers for his master-class example flogging shares in a garage radar detector business to some shmuck, motivated by the discovery that unlike the 1 percent commission he got selling blue chip stock, in this “sort-of” regulated field, the brokers take home 50 percent. Jordan soon has the fateful inspiration to start selling poor stock to rich people. Jordan’s rationalisation argues that he deserves the money he reaps because he spends it better, and he only represents a more perfect version of the half-smart, ineffectively greedy people he bilks. He gives his new business cover by calling it Stratton Oakmont—Ivy League class and credibility seeming to drip from each syllable. This makes Belfort and his crew powerfully rich Wall Street players within months, with a high-rise office space churning with unleashed competitive energy. Scorsese pays a fittingly disgraceful nod to Citizen Kane (1941) as the team celebrates success with an invading marching band, except that the prim gaiety of the kick line that celebrated Charlie Kane is now a troupe stripped down to their underwear, followed by a mob of strippers in lingerie, as the scene devolves into a kind of pinstriped, pornographic Agincourt.
The brash, bratty attitude of the company and frat-boy ethos is highlighted by wince-inducing vignettes, like the dwarf tossing and a female employee having her head shaved for $10,000. The contempt and violence underlying this scene becomes clearer when Donnie smacks and belittles an employee he catches taking care of the office fish whilst gearing up for a big sale, before snatching out and eating the fish before the gleefully appalled staff. Predatory capitalism indeed. The chances of such egregious abuse pale compared to the rewards Belfort offers his crew, as far as they’re concerned. Even before he finds such accomplishment, Belfort is shown as a sensually greedy cad cavorting with prostitutes, and with great success comes only greater excess. The moment he claps eyes on Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), a random, stunningly attractive guest at a party he throws, he flirts mercilessly with her whilst conspicuously ignoring her dipshit, preppie date. Donnie’s status as Jordan’s embodied id-beast is confirmed as he, in a drug-addled state, settles for whipping out his dick and masturbating in the midst of the party whilst ogling Naomi. Jordan seduces the dilettante model, or rather she seduces him, because, like Jordan, she operates according to programmed cues to go after the rich guy. Theresa catches them together as Jordan’s snorting cocaine off her rack in a limousine. One marriage ends and another commences, but not before Jordan treats his firm to a Caligula-level bacchanal, flying them all to Las Vegas with a planeload of hookers and drugs. The scene concludes with a shot of the naked Belfort standing before shattered hotel room windows, gazing out on the Las Vegas dawn, quoting a $2 million price tag for it.
Belfort easily gives FCC investigators the run-around, sequestering them in a freezing cold room whilst setting up a grand scam that ensures triumphal profits: Donnie’s schoolyard association with Steve Madden (Jake Hoffman), hip shoe designer who’s taking his company public, allows them to turn the deal to their own advantage. The Wolf of Wall Street is, inevitably, a film about hubris, but Belfort’s particular kind of hubris is fascinating: having built an extremely successful business in a morally questionable, but essentially legal field, he must go further and attempt to rig the game, as he commits stock fraud on the Madden deal, making himself personally far richer. When he hears an FBI agent, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) is investigating him, Jordan invites him and a partner onto his yacht, trying to let the allure of his lifestyle entice the agent, and then, as the agent affects agreeable receptivity, talks and talks himself right up to the edge of committing another crime in intimating a possible bribe for Denham. Denham points this out, the two men’s feigned amity crumbling beautifully as Belfort throws him off his boat and insults the two men with wealth-based jibes, hurling bills after them in a display of bratty anger, but all too aware that in wiseguy terms, he just showed his ass. What’s particularly acute here is that Denham operates like Scorsese’s camera, slowing to attentive stillness, letting the scene run on and on until Jordan’s taken enough rope to hang himself. The Wolf of Wall Street consciously mimics the structuring of Goodfellas and Casino in particular, with the self-evident point that they’re all criminal epics, starting in medias res, then jumping back to show how the set-up was created, using high-powered montages to put across exposition with a method that’s more like essayistic filmmaking or a bullet-point presentation than traditional cause and effect, and constructing the main thrust of the narrative through detailed vignettes that increase the pressure-cooker atmosphere and sense of gyrating farcicality.
The film’s connections spread out to many of Scorsese’s works and influences, and indeed whilst it never loses its racy verve and consuming intent, it surely counts as a summative work. It’s an antithesis to the viewpoints of Boxcar Bertha (1972), but essays the same thematic motives. Like Mean Streets (1973) and many of Scorsese’s subsequent films, it’s a study in the frustrating irrationality of some personalities who insist on spoiling good deals because they’re animated by desires that crossbreed with their pathology: just as Johnny Boy gets kicks blowing up post boxes, so, too, does Jordan feel the thrill not just of making money and living it up, but also in actively cheating the system and feeling smarter than everyone else. Like Vincent Lauria in The Color of Money (1986), he’s the hip student of the wise operator who rejects moral standards and becomes an unrestrained, conniving asshole.
Yet Jordan cohabits the space occupied by frustrated figures of wisdom like Eddie Felson, as his impish associates detonate hard-earned successes. As Rupert Pupkin finally finds fame and audience adulation through his assaults on the system of celebrity, Jordan finds a second act to his American life because his criminal notoriety attracts followers. Like Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and even Newland Archer, he falls for a blonde status symbol, and like the second two protagonists, is tied to a dark-haired woman who symbolises class mundaneness. Like so many of Scorsese’s characters, including the few saintly ones like Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Bringing Out the Dead’s Frank Pierce, he passes through the gut of infernal experience, and emerges on the far side of an invisible but genuine barrier, looking back on the audience like a messenger. That experience defines Scorsese’s much-analysed dialectic between saints and sinners, and also unifies them: all approaches to life, essentially, lead to similar crossroads, but then what do we make of them?
Scorsese’s visual stylistics have been so often imitated and annexed by acolytes in the past quarter-century that sometimes his devices threaten to look hackneyed, like the opening sequence’s freeze frames, the practiced mimicry of mercenary film styles (in the film’s second and funniest fake advertisement), the fast-paced camera dollies, and so forth. The colour and richness of Michael Ballhaus’ and Robert Richardson’s work for Scorsese is muted here in favour of the bald, steely tones of Rodrigo Prieto’s digital photography: the segue from the painterly, nostalgic beauty of Hugo is likewise brutal. What continues to distinguish Scorsese’s filmmaking, however, is both the pace and precision of the devices, their organic force: Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing has scarcely been more ruthless or driving with Scorsese’s images, which avoid show-off moments like the famous Goodfellas tracking shots. The facile appropriation of Scorsesean stylistics by the likes of American Hustle neglects its purpose and roots in an expressionistic aesthetic, the drive to make the camera match the sensibility of the main character in an act of forced identification even as he ventures to places we otherwise would never go. We join the ride with Jordan, gobsmacked and appalled, laughing our asses off like bystanders at a particularly mad party: we don’t approve, but no way in hell are we going home.
A sequence that many directors might treat obviously, like the one in which Theresa catches Jordan with Naomi, becomes a little whirlwind of alternating angles that crash in upon each other, distorting space and time—one diorama-like shot from across the street turns the pavement into a desolate, slapstick space with all traffic, including the limousine with Naomi still inside, excised—capturing the violent shock and colliding spaces of experience. All this is scored, by the way, by Eartha Kitt’s rendition of “C’est si bon,” anthem of a gold digger, rubbing the audience’s ears and crotches with its insouciantly materialist eroticism whilst mocking the drama on screen by reducing all the players to types: gentlemen really do prefer blondes. The invasion of the office space by strippers after the frenetic action of the marching band devolves from slashing dollies and cuts to drunken slow motion. The sequence depicting Belfort’s flying orgy, employees humping hookers in every crevice of the frame, is filmed in a tracking shot surveying the scene from above, ravening in its motion but analytical in its height, and then segues into a shot of splendiferously vulgar wonder, as the plane hits turbulence, frizz-haired prostitutes and a wave of white cocaine tumbling in slow motion, a switchback of distrait strangeness. The framing and image is echoed in reverse later, when a private jet Jordan has coming to pick him up explodes in mid-air, as minor hiccup gives way to proper disaster: the fanning flames mirror the shower of coke, this time superimposed over Jordan’s face as he watches in disbelief.
The centrepiece of the film is the epic pep-talk Jordan gives to the firm as they prepare for the Steve Madden sell-off. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter make mild fun of Belfort for his literary pretences, which only exemplify our contemporary habits of reducing everything to a sound bite or inspirational epigram. Thus, in Jordan’s estimation, Moby-Dick is the tale of a man hunting his white whale, and you, too, can bag your quarry if you follow this simple script. An atavistic, tribal quality underlies Jordan’s creation, signalled early on when Hanna teaches him a kind of ritual chant and chest slap, one that the Stratton Oakmont cadre repeats en masse at Jordan’s signal as they approach their fiscal Thermopylae, echoing the imperial funeral sequence, with its similarly ranked mourners and winnowing chants, in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The film as a whole borrows the deeper meaning of Melville’s novel, as the mad captain takes his ship to destruction in ceaselessly chasing an illusion of cosmic intent, and also echoes John Huston’s film of it in the way he shoots Jordan hypnotising and drawing his harpooners into a quasi-mystic compact of mission.
DiCaprio’s career-best performance is close to unhinged in its energy and force here, and caps over a decade’s worth of collaboration for director and star with a genuine triumph. Equally good in a potentially thankless role is Robbie, playing Naomi, whose aura of high-class beauty is undercut by a peerlessly broad Queens accent. Naomi has a so-English aunt, Emma (Joanna Lumley), who represents all things worth aspiring to for Naomi and Jordan, but who herself delights in subverting such standards: she unblinkingly notes Jordan’s nose caked in coke and reassures him, oh so coolly, “I lived through the ‘Sixties,” and then readily and happily signs onto Jordan’s project to hide his profits from stock scams in a Swiss bank account. Scorsese wrings discomfort but also a kind of comic grace from Jordan’s awkward attempt to seduce Emma as her dollybird charisma and way with an innuendo seems to demand its price; indeed, it’s hard not to fall under the sway of Lumley’s projection of a far different, far more adult and alien brand of sex appeal.
Jordan uses Brad’s Swiss-Slovenian girlfriend Chantalle (Katarina Čas) and her family as couriers to get his money into Switzerland, where it’s handled by Rugrat’s college pal, now a prominent crooked banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin, cunningly following up his 2011 Oscar win in the The Artist). Snooty, wily, disdainful, and as unaware of his own edge of absurdity as any of the other characters, Saurel is presented as Jordan’s European doppelgänger to such a degree that the pair can communicate in quasi-psychic insults. Emma and Saurel prove to be weak links in Jordan’s plot, the former by dying inconveniently and the latter by getting himself arrested on U.S. soil for some completely unrelated conniving. Along the way, however, Jordan’s increasingly erratic behaviour results in two epic sequences of self-destructive tomfoolery. Jordan and Donnie’s Quaalude habit pays off in a scene of tremendous slapstick comedy as Jordan, stoned and just warned that his house is bugged, realises he has to get home to stop a similarly influenced Donnie blabbing over the phone to Saurel. He has to roll, crawl, and drive in a near-paralytic state, finally shaking himself out of a stupor to save Donnie from choking to death by imitating a Popeye cartoon his daughter is watching, snorting a vial of cocaine in place of spinach to fire him back to action. The second comes when, after finding Emma has died, Jordan has to rush from the islands to southern France in order to get to Switzerland and save his fortune, ignoring his wife’s stunned grief and his captain’s cautions; his yacht is wrecked in a storm, and everyone has to be rescued by the Italian Coast Guard.
Such displays of auto-da-fe tomfoolery are hilarious, of course, and successfully reduce Jordan from übermensch to schlemiel; having congratulated himself on spending money in a superior fashion to his hapless investors, he also blows it with incredible talent. The real shipwreck for Jordan comes as his defiance proves ineffective and his tormentors close in. Faced with losing everything, it’s finally Naomi’s cruelly exact spurning that sets the scene for a true debasement. The mirroring here is again concise, as this sequence repeats an earlier fight the couple played out, except reversing the dictum of history as tragedy and then farce. The byplay of the couple is based in Naomi’s sexual power over Jordan, keeping him on a leash by withholding, but shifts from bedroom farce to domestic violence as she gives into his attentions for one last time, and then, with an assassin’s precision, tells him she’s divorcing him: Jordan responds by socking her in the stomach and fleeing to hide in his Porsche with his bewildered baby daughter like a spoilt child refusing to give up his last toy. Scorsese is a past master of portraying the annihilating verve in collapsing relationships—New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull, and Casino climax with disintegrating marriages—and here the action is pushed into a Bergmanesque shot of Jordan assaulting Naomi in long shot at the end of a hallway. The great world has screwed inward for a portrait of intimate brutality. Whilst not as powerful as those other films in this regard, where the marriages were far more detailed affairs and the splitting far more cataclysmic, the effect in the context of the jaunty, adolescent adventure preceding these scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street is jarring, but also, finally clarifying.
Betrayal, as Jordan agrees to rat for Denham on his colleagues, and a half-hearted, self-incriminating stab at redemption, by warning Donnie about this, are equal only then in their pathetic insufficiency. A shot of Denham riding the subway with the other poor schmucks who will never even have a momentary taste of Jordan’s glory days, is, far from being a failure of moral perspective, as some have claimed, actually a coup of such perspective, because it refuses to let the audience off the hook and feel superior. There is, rather, a coldly precise indictment of the world that created Jordan, sustained by fantasies of what he enacted, living on the profits of a common dream of something for nothing, elevating the dark arts of the few at the expense of the many. Perhaps it’s the lingering morality of many, a kind of decency, like Denham’s, that keeps them behaving, or maybe it’s just the lack of smarts; early on in the film, Sea Otter disputes Jordan’s proposal that everyone wants riches with an anecdote of an Amish stoner he once met. Scorsese knows full well that such pacific desires are far more the exception than the rule, and in the world described in The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s dismissed as a jokey discursion. Of course, the desire for such virulent power and plenty is still there, and Jordan’s fantasy was only everybody else’s, even after we’ve seen him pay the price for overreaching. In the coda, as the real Belfort introduces DiCaprio playing him, plying his inspirational wisdom to an audience of wannabes, there is dissociation, as Belfort, punished technically if not sufficiently, now himself becomes the mirror to those desires.
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
From March 7 through April 3, the Gene Siskel Film Center holds what is arguably Chicago’s best festival of new cinema gathered from the countries of the European Union. Such films as Alois Nebel (2011), Tell No One (2006), Time to Die (2007), and The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006) are just some of the extraordinary films that had their Midwest or North American premiere at the festival.
This year, I’ve been granted the privilege of previewing the films as a member of the press. In deference to the awesome Lori Hile, who helped arrange my credentials, the format of my reviews will be abbreviated to conform with the Film Center’s requirements. I may return with full reviews after the festival.
So in fits and spurts, as I finish screeners or attend screenings, here is my coverage of some of the films on offer at this 2014 edition of the greatest show on State Street.
Tricked (2012, The Netherlands)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven hasn’t released a film in six years, so when I saw that Tricked was on the EU festival schedule, I was very excited to see the latest from this genre-bending, original director. Sadly, I almost missed the film, such as it is, because Verhoeven decided to preface it with a 45-minute documentary about the making of Tricked; I thought I had misread the program and considered walking out on this pedantic vanity exercise. The 74-year-old director must feel creatively blocked, because he decided to crowdsource the script, one scene at a time. The lengthy and cumbersome process did not bear the kind of fruit he wanted, and he ended up cowriting much of the film with Robert Alberdingk Thijm. The result is a very funny 50-minute sitcom/soap opera about a philandering husband whose affairs put him in hot water with his floundering construction company and his family. While not classic Verhoeven, Tricked still shows his flair for genre work and reflects his roots in television and early handheld camera work.
The Excursionist (2013, Lithuania)
Director: Audrius Juzėnas
The national cinema of Lithuania is in rather sad shape, so the entry of an ambitious film like The Excursionist is certainly cause for celebration. The film purports to tell the true story of a Lithuanian girl who escaped the Soviet-ordered deportation (“excursion”) to the detention camps of the Gulag and traveled back to Vilnius over the course of more than two years. This type of story is more familiar to audiences in a Nazi-Jew format, and seeing stories of the hardships suffered by Soviet bloc countries on screen, as with the excellent Czech film Alois Nebel shown at the EU festival last year, is a welcome historical expansion. The film itself is hampered by its sense of its own importance and a cloying score that underlines in red the terrible hardships suffered by the protagonist. The film feels long, but it held my attention primarily due to the remarkable debut performance of Anastasija Marcenkaitė in the demanding title role. In the end, director Juzėnas transforms this personal story into an allegory for all conquered peoples who resist their oppressors.
Cycling with Molière (Alceste à bicyclette, 2013, France)
Director/Screenwriter: Philippe Le Guay
For my money, the best bet of the festival is Cycling with Molière. This superbly acidic comedy affords its two superb leads, Lambert Wilson and Fabrice Luchini, every opportunity to use all the actorly tools at their disposal to enact a cinematic version of Molière’s The Misanthrope for a modern audience. Wilson plays a commercially successful actor on a hit TV show who wants to stretch himself by producing Molière’s famous play and playing Alceste, the title character. He goes to the Île de Ré, a fashionable vacation spot on the west coast of France, to try to convince a reclusive actor who lives there to play Philinte, Alceste’s pragmatic foil. Like Alceste, the actor has turned his back on his profession and everyone he knows after a serious betrayal. He refuses to commit himself until the two of them have rehearsed the play, switching roles each day to see who is the better Alceste. The film is full of uproarious physical comedy, and Wilson and Luchini find the peculiarities and narcissism that humans in the arts and in hiding are heir to. Even better is the chance to hear the poetry of Molière’s play in French, not something American audiences can experience every day. This is a wonderful film. DO NOT MISS IT!
The Strange Little Cat (2013, Germany)
Director: Ramon Zürcher
It is best to approach this apparent slice of life as an experimental film to avoid frustration. The plot, such as it is, involves the interactions and reminiscences of a family gathering at a large Berlin apartment for dinner, perhaps a reunion. What Zürcher appears to be interested in is the magic of everyday life, as he trains his camera on the extraordinarily choreographed movements of the family members as they work across one another to pull dishes out of cabinets and weave in and out of each other’s paths. The fantastic enters the scene, such as when a bottle spins in a pot of hot water and a hacky sack flies through the open window from far down below on the street, an impossible kick for the small boy playing with it. Flashbacks occur when various family members tell stories; these stories, which could be spooky but end up not amounting to much, add a certain amount of suspense, another device Zürcher examines in his formalist approach to filmmaking. The wild cards in the deck are a dog and a cat whose behavior we never really see but who the characters assure us are crazy in what sounds like ad libbed dialog. Zürcher trains his camera on two children, particularly a boy, who observe everyone, clearly stand-ins for the director. What they—and he—think of the scene is largely inscrutable, and so may it be for the audience.
Clownwise (2013, Czech Republic)
Director: Viktor Taus
Think a more fraught and loosely structured The Sunshine Boys meets The Best Years of Our Lives and you’ve about got the gist of this drama about three aged members of a legendary comedy troupe who are headed for one last show. The film is poignant about the passing of time, with members of the troupe and their families facing cancer, Alzheimer’s, estrangement from loved ones, and bitter memories. If the film had worked a little harder on delineating and integrating the stories in a tighter structure, it would have been more compelling to watch. The script has some good moments, and it’s always a pleasure to see Kati Outinen in a film, but there was neither enough clowning nor wisdom for my tastes.
Another One Opens (2013, Austria)
Directors: Jim Libby and Nicolas Neuhold
Vienna’s improv theatre company English Lovers is responsible for this English-language dramedy that claims to be 100 percent improvised. Of course, improvisation with a well-established company isn’t really off the cuff, as the company members are very familiar with working scripts out together. Thus, Another One Opens is coherent, well paced, and quite intriguing, as a magic inn gives five troubled people who were friends in college a chance to repair their lives. The relationships didn’t feel as fleshed as I would have liked, but I was a sucker for the Enchanted April premise and healing passing down through generations of women. Recommended.
The Human Scale (2012, Denmark)
Director: Andreas M. Dalsgaard
This documentary poses some incredibly interesting notions about the history of urban planning and the opportunities that exist to rethink cities both old and new. A cadre of architects from the firm of Danish architect Jan Gehl travel the globe to urbanizing China, crowded Dhaka in Bangladesh, New York City, and Copenhagen, revealing that urban landscapes have been designed to facilitate the movement of automobiles, not the needs of human beings. In a forward-thinking approach to rebuilding Christchurch, New Zealand, after earthquakes devastated its city center, a bottom-up approach to what the people wanted yielded a low-rise landscape with plenty of spaces for people to congregate. As our population explodes and our fossil fuels dwindle, human convenience and human-powered conveyances may be our most sustainable future. Highly recommended.
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Director: Josef von Sternberg
By Roderick Heath
In the hectic days of 1920s Hollywood, Jonas Sternberg, son of Austrian Jewish emigrants who had lived in the United States since childhood, was just one of many prodigious blow-ins. But he worked his way up through the ranks, and eventually appended an exotic, aristocratic background to his resume for his prestige-hungry industry by adding “von” to his name. The affectation fit Sternberg, a fan of the similarly faux-Junker, equally talented Erich von Stroheim, as it suited his aesthetic sensibility and self-image as outsized cinema artist, with a boldly cosmopolitan outlook and floridly artistic eye. He found success as a director with his stylised melodramas, like the prototypical gangster film, Underworld (1927); The Last Command (1928); and Docks of New York (1928).
Sternberg’s delight in rapturously visualised storytelling was threatened as cinema culture changed with the coming of sound. His first work in the new medium, Thunderbolt (1929), wasn’t popular, so he accepted an offer to work in Germany on an adaptation of a Heinrich Mann novel, which became The Blue Angel (1930). For the film, he made the discovery that would revive his career, and then mark it forever, by casting Marlene Dietrich as the femme fatale Lola-Lola. Dietrich gave Sternberg a face to fetishize, a model to construct intimate and spectacular cinematic dreams around. Dietrich was Sternberg’s canvas and alter ego, an actual upper-crust German, as imperious on screen as Sternberg wished to be off it. The Blue Angel became one of the most legendary films of the early sound period and an international hit.
Few collaborations of director and star have sustained as much mystique and fervent fascination as that between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg’s work with Dietrich remains something of a by-word for the quasi-erotic entrapment that can develop between the director male and the acting female, a reputation that probably stands in the way of the duo’s very real accomplishments. Sternberg brought Dietrich back to Hollywood with him, and initially gained great success in a feverishly creative partnership, as the fleshy Teutonic ingénue transformed into svelte Hollywood goddess. But within a couple of years, things were running off the rails. Having initially cast Dietrich as an amoral tart, and then as a redeemable woman of mystery in films like Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), Sternberg elevated her to majestic feminine power with The Scarlet Empress, whilst the main male protagonist becomes the rueing fool, seemingly a studied autobiographical portrayal of how the power relations between director and star had steadily evolved.
For a time, however, it looked like both were doomed. Repeated flops sent Sternberg to the fringe, and Dietrich struggled to find a way to make herself acceptable to audiences tired of continental mystery. Dietrich recovered and became a fixture, but Sternberg, in spite of making several great films in the strangest ways and places after their union was sundered, remained an exile. The Scarlet Empress looks both forward and back, but is fundamentally unconcerned with its moment—the stolid, businesslike mid-1930s. The passion for visual expressiveness harks back to the already faded apogees of late silent film, as does the blending of New World energy and sardonic attitude with a hysterically Never-Never Land take on Russian political antiquity, in opposition to the stately, stagy charms of sound’s new prestige cinema like Rasputin and the Empress (1932), Cavalcade (1933), or Conquest (1937). And yet it plants seeds for high cinematic style’s resurgence with directors like Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein in his later works, and through to modern filmmakers.
The air of fin de siècle folly is exacerbated by awareness that the film’s calamitous flop was partly due to being targeted by Legion of Decency condemnation, making it a figurehead for the rising regime of the Production Code and the Hays Office, to which the film’s ornery sexuality and feverish celebration of an open id’s vision of history feels like a last blown raspberry. Sternberg reinterprets the life of Catherine The Great as a kind of filthy novel passed around the girls in a boarding school, girls much like the naïve but excitable young lady Catherine was when she was still called Sophia Fredericka. Raised by a sternly fixated mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth (Olive Tell), as one of a stable of marriageable Hapsburg princesses, Sophia is introduced as a small girl (played as a child by Dietrich’s own daughter Maria) suffering from scarlet fever, already being bullied by her mother to conform to the plans for her, though her wry doctor encourages a show of defiance: “Stick out your tongue and say ‘ah.’”
Her tutor, Wagner (Edward Van Sloan), reads to her accounts of the wicked excesses and depravities of Russian nobility, accounts that spin Sophia’s rapt mind off into a whirl of sadistic delights. This is the first show of Sternberg’s wild imagery, a startlingly stylish roundelay of blood-curdling cruelty, with the various depictions seeming to “turn” as if on pages: a naked woman tumbling out of an iron maiden; men tethered in semi-abstract arrays, a horizontal tracking shot depicting a proliferation of bound hands; cruel machines with men spinning on them; an enthusiastic executioner lopping off heads; a gleeful Tsar tearing open the blouse of a trussed young woman; another beaming with lunatic pleasure as he rings a huge bell whose clapper has been replaced by some victim; and more stripped, topless lasses being burnt at the stake. Even after you’ve seen this sequence a handful of times it’s hard to process, so raw and stunning is it, how barely censored, how far beyond the pale of what would very soon be Hollywood norms. Sternberg uses blurring effects in the scene transitions to just slightly mask the bared breasts and gore. What makes it doubly weird and potent is the fact that a young girl’s head is being filled with this stuff and that on some level, like many kids, Sophia delights in such morbid detail. It will define her understanding, and, later, her wholehearted entrance into that world.
The grotesquely sexualised violence anticipates the friezes within the palace of the tsars, Sternberg cheekily dissolves from the man swinging in the bell to the grown Sophia, now a blond-ringleted, doll-lipped, wide-eyed naïf on a garden swing, signalling her fate has been sealed. Indeed, when she returns to the palace, she learns that her mother and slightly more empathic father, Prince August (C. Aubrey Smith), have arranged for her marriage to Grand Duke Peter of Russia. The rakish Count Alexei (John Lodge) has come to collect the princess, and Sophia’s mother insists on accompanying them to Russia, just managing to stymie Alexei’s nascent desire to seduce Sophia before their arrival. Met with all the grandeur and pomp of the autocratic state, Sophia is plunged directly into the midst of an insanely Byzantine world. The suffering victims of the early montage now seem to live within the fabric of that state, as the palace is filled with carved grotesques and statues mimicking and mocking the pretences of the living people who share space with them.
Although based on Catherine’s diaries, The Scarlet Empress is mostly a hymn to the way history ought to have gone, presenting Catherine at once as liberated debauchee and yet also cleansing force of futurism, and casually dismissing the national history as a hymn to “ignorance, violence, fear and oppression,” of which the grotesque Peter is a perfect example—imbecilic, devolved, and malignant. That was certainly Catherine’s own story, though some historians now think Peter was a much stronger liberalising influence who fell afoul of reactionaries thanks to his goodwill for Prussia and democratic proclivities. Sternberg doesn’t even seem to think much of Catherine as enlightened despot, describing her rather as the Messalina of the North, although that’s eventually revealed to be a kind of compliment. Although The Scarlet Empress depicts a woman rising to power in a highly masculine realm, Sternberg finds this logical, depicting it as a triumph for the exceptional female who harnesses men as a source of power through sex and charisma.
Catherine emerges, however, from the clasp of powerful matriarchs, in this case, her mother and then her stepmother, Russia’s present ruler, the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), who makes it perfectly clear to young Sophia that she’s been imported to give Russia an heir, and changes her name to Catherine to meet parochial standards. When Catherine is introduced to her husband-to-be, she finds Peter (Sam Jaffe) diverging widely from Count Alexei’s description of an exemplary specimen of manhood: he proves to be a bug-eyed half-wit with a free-floating id, a love of toys and a black-haired, feral-like mistress, Countess Vorontsova (Ruthelma Stevens). She has a habit of appearing at inopportune moments to collect the gadgets Peter leaves behind him, hoping to catch people in incriminating poses, as she does Catherine and Alexei. The gadget, a kind of spinning wheel with a soldier mounted on it, offers one of Sternberg’s many visual jokes, as when Peter first appears, he places it in Catherine’s lap, the rotating figure readily mirroring Catherine’s shock and sense of starting on a ride she can’t get off.
Sternberg had readily adapted to sound cinema, and indeed was one of the directors, along with the likes of Rouben Mamoulian, Alfred Hitchcock, Lewis Milestone, and Fritz Lang, who had done the hard work of proving the new form could balance visual form with the theatrical necessities of dialogue. And yet the scene grammar and structuring of The Scarlet Empress deliberately harkens back to the pure visual-tapestry effects of Fritz Lang and Stroheim, whilst anticipating the open-sprawl, elliptical structuring of later filmmakers like Luchino Visconti, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Sergio Leone, hacking back dialogue for many scenes and preferring visual exposition not just of story, but of character and psychology. Sternberg structures the film around two affairs of state, each building a particular rhythm, the first a plunge into eroticised hell. Catherine and Peter are married in a scene of heightened, almost dreamlike-beauty, where only Peter’s mad eyes belie the insidious realities behind the plethora of religious icons, veils, spectacular ornaments, robed holy men, and faces.
Sternberg binds Dietrich, Jaffe, and Lodge together in serial edits, making it clear the marriage is a strange kind of ménage a trois bound by guilt, jealousy, fear, and lunacy. Dietrich’s face becomes holy icon, as a votive candle is held up before her face in voluminous close-up, good looks transduced into adult beauty, the proximity of the candle sharpening the image with the kiss of hot light seeming to burn both pretty cheek and cinema screen, at the edge of both religious transcendence and infernal pain, as she is transfigured from single girl to woman who is going to have to survive in a world where marriage is a soul-rending crucible. The wedding gives way to arcane ritual, as Orthodox ministers bless the marriage bed, making it clear that Catherine has not married a man so much as a state, whilst she journeys to the wedding banquet through the bowels of the palace with more of its bizarre statuary.
The banquet is just as dense and tangled with overflowing detail as the wedding, but whereas Sternberg shot the nuptials from angles that carved up those details into faintly abstract, even cubist spectacles, the banquet is first glimpsed via an overhead tracking shot. The camera surveys the massive table festooned with the carcasses of roast animals and oddball decorations—a leaning skeleton arranged as if to drink from a pitcher of wine, a lushly female figurine clasping bunches of grapes, a roast deer with fruits stuck on its antlers—in a whorl of animal appetites and images of fecundity and death violently juxtaposed. A pull-back crane shot then regards the whole scene in all its teeming detail, like some vision of a Renaissance parable painter. Sternberg then offers portrait shots of the protagonists at the feasting table—fatuous Elizabeth is drunk and wobbly, doll-like Catherine is regaled by a fiddler, houndlike Alexei slouches testily, the patriarch Todorsky (Davison Clark) tilts his head in wry tedium—each lost in their own space of conflicting necessity and will, whilst other guests are unified with the twisted statues and bones. Catherine is soon installed in her bedroom, with its walls covered in spectacular gilt and icon paintings, promises of religious fulfilment both warding off evil and encaging her, as her husband, silhouetted and monstrous, steals in for the wedding night, and a title card and cutaway shows all Russia praying that night for an heir to the throne. But it soon becomes clear that Peter didn’t know what to do with her, and Catherine is increasingly browbeaten by Elizabeth for not conceiving yet.
Sternberg’s vision of the Kremlin is thoroughly psychologised, every corner dense with shadows and seemingly packed with gargoyles that leeringly mimic the stances and mindsets of the characters. Peter is a slinking, crawling id-beast, abused by his aunt the Empress, who drills holes in the walls of bedrooms for erotic insights. One of those walls is Elizabeth’s, whom he hopes to see with Catherine. One of the film’s most funny and memorable moments sees Catherine agog at the sight of Peter’s drill slowly worming its way through the eye of a portrait hanging on the wall. The hidden eyes that perceive all in a paranoid state are literalised in this shot as the décor comes to unseemly life, and reveal the luridly voyeuristic side of Sternberg’s imagination. Alexei, who starts off as the very image of a cavalier dripping masculine power, is increasingly marginalised, an onlooker of dark, marauding potency doomed nonetheless to be Catherine’s passive fool because he’s also Elizabeth’s lover. The Empress humiliates Catherine and chokes off her attachment to Alexei through an elaborate game whereby she has Catherine admit Alexei to her chamber via a secret door. Later, Catherine herself repeats the gesture with Alexei now as the unlucky doorman, as her way of letting him know why he’s out of favour, a gesture Alexei can finally only accept with wry, abashed grace. Sternberg’s framings see Alexei variously juxtaposed with arrow-stuck sufferers, looming beasts, and a horny devil that suggests both his sexual desire and his status as cuckold.
Elizabeth’s gesture in quelling Catherine’s crush on Alexei backfires, however, not on her, but on the system in which Catherine’s intended to be a mere cog. She tosses the locket Alexei gave her with his portrait out the window, and Sternberg portrays its fall as almost eternal, seeming to move through several different seasons and climes, a vision of romance wilfully denied. Catherine dives out into the snowy night immediately to find it, but instead is caught by guards, whereupon she determines to let one seduce her, initiating her into a self-willed future. The affair gives her a son, and whilst her husband’s wits are sharpened surprisingly by fury in realising he’s been cuckolded, Catherine’s motherhood is popularly hailed. This leaves her unshakeably secure for the time being, even as Elizabeth demands stringent care for the baby boy on pain of torturous execution if he so much as sniffles or coughs. Nonetheless, Peter declared war on Catherine as he invites her to his play pen to entertain her with the sight of his sawing the head off a blonde doll, signalling his intent to execute her once he becomes tsar, whilst Vorontsova mocks her. Of course, Catherine is arming herself well, having systematically seduced the entire officer corps. Peter, as a title card reveals, enjoys marching his living tin soldiers up and down the corridors of the palace when it’s raining, and stages a mock execution of Catherine. When faced with rows of fit young officers paraded before her, Catherine picks and chooses her lovers. Where Alexei almost seduced her in a horse pen as she nervously chewed on a stalk of hay, now she surveys her assemblies of manly flesh chewing on a hay stalk as insouciantly as Groucho Marx on his cigar.
When Elizabeth expires, Dietrich’s performance reaches an apogee in a subtle moment, when the patriarch rings the bell to announce the Empress’s death whilst Catherine is playing a game of blind-man’s bluff with her admirers. Catherine strips the blindfold from her eyes and, upon realising the bell’s import, her face is charged with electric fear, then exaltation and determination, now that her last defence other than what she can provide for herself is gone. The patriarch had already solicited Catherine to keep her husband from becoming tsar: “I suppose you know that the Grand Duke isn’t exactly pleased with the present state of affairs,” to which she replied, “State of affairs? What affairs? I haven’t had an affair for some time,” before assuring the priest that her own arts will get her further than any mere political conspiracy. Peter’s plotting perversely lays the seeds for his own destruction, during a particularly bratty display at a religious feast where it’s customary to give alms for the poor: Catherine and her circle donate lavishly to the patriarch, whilst Peter gives the patriarch a slap in the face, to which he responds so coolly, “That was for me—now what have you got for the poor?” Peter then offends Catherine by toasting Vorontsova and humiliating one of Catherine’s officer lovers, Captain Gregori Orloff (Gavin Gordon).
Sternberg offers more than a hint of onanistic delight in detailing Catherine’s gradual perversion from doe-eyed girl to hood-eyed seductress, but mixes it with a powerful strand of feminist-minded melodrama, a form popular in the pre-Code era that was just moving out of favour. Yet Sternberg laid a template for whole zones of modern popular culture yet to be invented. Camp culture would delight in the film’s exemplification of Sternberg’s fetishistic textures, particularly when regarding Dietrich, who occasionally becomes mere mask of female perfection bathed in delirious light and shade, shadowed by lace and veil. Shifts in status are registered in costuming in a way that rejects historicism and moves according to haute couture magazine logic: Catherine graduates from fluttery, flowery, conservative dresses to huge gowns adorned with frou frou, and then, as she charges to victory, a fabulous snow-white cavalry uniform that speaks to the deepest reaches of camp, as Sternberg, who had not shied away from spelling out Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous edge, rings the bells for his creation’s emergence not just as tsarina but as pansexual deity. Surface is gateway to truth in Sternberg’s vision here, every element placed not just for aesthetic value but also the creation of a mimetic world. Moreover, The Scarlet Empress, in its approach to a historical figure as a study of Catherine’s ascent from pawn to powerbroker, has proven persuasive; modern films taking a similar slant, like Elizabeth (1998) and Marie Antoinette (2006), do not merely evoke it, but recreate some of its accents note for note.
Sternberg’s approach, moreover, expanded the palette of Lang, Abel Gance, and Stroheim, and then permeated other directors’ sense for the possibilities of cinema even as it seemed to sink into oblivion. Michael Curtiz would slick it up and use it in his historical swashbucklers. Sergei Eisenstein would take permission from it for his Ivan the Terrible films. Similarities to and anticipations of Citizen Kane (1941) have been critically documented, particularly in the theme of lost innocence, power, and torment expressed through psyche-describing surroundings, whilst Orson Welles’ baroque Shakespeare films owe much of their similarly seething, surrealist-tinged sense of landscape and setting and internally divided visual grammar to Sternberg. The plethora of dreamy double-exposures and transformative close-ups run through an underground current into the short works of Kenneth Anger and into Martin Scorsese’s most stylised works: Taxi Driver (1976) is replete with its layered, interiorised, oneiric edge; Casino (1995) owes some of its mood of the imperial charnel house to it, as well as its swooning direction; whilst Kundun (1997) retells it as positive fable, but with a rhyming structure and vivaciously similar visual touches, like the entrance of the Chinese army carrying icons of their religion of Maoism, as Catherine’s partisans do here. Meanwhile, Ken Russell tried many times to affect a similar mix of high cultural spectacle and down-and-dirty exposé.
Sternberg had a fascination for intense, infernal moral fables, often with characters that trail their pasts like guilty secrets and are catapulted between social levels. All of his films with Dietrich contain an element of such fables, as does The Last Command. His version of Crime and Punishment (1935) walks Raskolnikov’s sweating existential terror through the expressionist world of Sternberg and fellow silent masters like G.W. Pabst and Frank Borzage, whilst The Shanghai Gesture (1941) similarly spins a young, spotless heroine down into Hades, where she finds she likes it. The Scarlet Empress plays its narrative as just such an innocent’s infinite corruption, but inverts the usual moral to end in a triumph that plays as cultural orgasm of nascent matriarchy. Only by accepting and indeed outpacing the process of corruption by others does Catherine master it and become a world-ordering force. The finale builds with intense rhythm as Catherine makes her move, joining her cavaliers and the patriarch for a ride first to refuge, and then into the palace. The perverted interior of the royal abode is invaded by brilliant white stallions ridden by Cossacks, raw natural force expelling evil, whilst the patriarch carries a cross festooned with a buckled Christ figure that suggests less religious exculpation than substitution.
Orloff takes revenge and does his duty by Catherine as he corners Peter in his bedroom and strangles him, a fate presaged earlier as Catherine, furious at Peter’s spurning of her at the fest, tied a scarf into a lethal knot. The soundtrack churns together Wagner and Tchaikovsky as apotheosis nears, whilst the visuals explode into criss-crossing double exposures, the very substance of the world seeming to leap as Catherine gains victory, the “1812 Overture” blaring out. The motif of political coup was undoubtedly as touchy to audiences of 1934 as was the general moral nullity, as much of Europe had just gone fascist, and the eventual downfall of the Russian nobility echoes right through the film. Sternberg subverts this, too, as he refashions the triumph of revolutions, be it American republican, Russian Soviet, or German Nazi, as the annunciation of Woman, with bells ringing out in sanctifying peals. Dietrich, beaming with almost fearsome glee, is last glimpsed with Sternberg’s wickedest symbolic flourish, holding onto the reins of her grand white steed as she is hailed by her studs. Here Sternberg again evokes the seamy flipside to the triumph, via the popular rumour that Catherine eventually died taking her obsession with large phalluses to an extreme with a horse.
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Director: Norman Foster
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Despite the bone-chilling weather, February 26 marked a joyful (if probably temporary) return of the Northwest Chicago Film Society to the Patio Theater. The theater’s 87-year-old boiler was returned to life, and though it wasn’t up to keeping us toasty warm in sub-zero weather, nobody seemed to mind—it was just great to gather with old friends and other classic film fans to see another of the rare films on film NCFS specializes in showing at an appropriately vintage movie theater.
After paying tribute to Harold Ramis, who died this week, by showing the trailers for Ghostbusters (1984) and Groundhog Day (1993), NCFS fired up a short film about motorcycle racing in the British Isles to coordinate with the main attraction, a romance/noir hybrid set in London—the luridly, but not inappropriately, named Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. This film was the first Burt Lancaster made under the aegis of Harold Hecht-Norma Productions, the independent production company he started only two years after his star-making debut in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) to capitalize on his own popularity. Lancaster’s company in a couple of different incarnations would produce some excellent movies, including Best Picture Oscar winner Marty (1955), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). One only has to look back to the company’s first film to see that Lancaster had more than acting ability and charisma—he knew how to make great pictures.
In true noir fashion, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands zeroes in on a damaged World War II veteran whose precarious postwar existence almost inevitably collides with crime and violence. The film opens in a pub that is closing for the night. The patrons dutifully file out, save for petty criminal Harry Carter (Robert Newton) and a nervous, drunk Bill Saunders (Lancaster). When the publican (Campbell Copelin) tries to rouse Saunders from his place at the bar, Saunders reacts violently. He punches the publican, who fall, hits his head, and dies. A scream from the barmaid (Marilyn Williams) sends Saunders running. He eludes a policeman who gives chase by climbing into a flat occupied by hospital worker Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). A former inmate in a Nazi POW camp, he’d rather die than be locked up again, and when Jane does not turn him in the next day, he feels safe for the first time in a long time. She feels drawn to him, too, but naturally, Saunders’ crime, however accidental, will cast a shadow over their relationship and lead to violent consequences.
In many ways, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands has a predictable set-up, but it is shot through with surprises. Of course Carter comes looking to blackmail Bill. Of course Jane rejects Bill when his impulsive violence pops out, and of course she takes him back. But I was genuinely shocked by some of the scenes. For example, Bill is much more vicious and immoral than I expected. He mugs a man for his wallet and uses the stolen ration coupons to get some new clothes so he can call on Jane, a shocking touch of plot and character that doesn’t feel forced. His assault on a passenger on a train he and Jane are taking and subsequent attack on a police officer are sudden and vicious, but his punishment—six months hard labor and 18 lashes with a cat o’ nine tails—drew a literal gasp out of me. The lashing was a very difficult scene to watch and reminded me that postwar England was not so far ahead of the medieval tortures for which the country has long been infamous. I was also surprised that after Bill “goes straight” as a driver of a medical supply truck, he agrees to let Carter set up a robbery of the supplies in exchange for keeping Bill’s secret. In a previous scene, Bill saw how the supplies stopped an epidemic, but his personal survival always comes first.
While obviously shot mainly on a soundstage, the evocation of the physical atmosphere and mood of postwar London is pretty realistic. It is a world of ration books and black market trading, broken buildings and ongoing relief efforts, grieving widows and shell-shocked veterans. Seasoned DP Russell Metty, who would help create the look of Douglas Sirk’s famous Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s, paints a classic noir landscape of dark corners, narrow alleys, and menacing close-ups. When Bill and Jane go to the zoo on their improbable first date, Metty switches from an open, happy collection of boys mimicking a chimpanzee in a cage to a keeper feeding a ravenous lion. The camera moves swiftly from one caged predator to another, while Bill grows more anxious by the minute. The pacing, abetted by film editor Milton Carruth, is like a sudden eclipse of the sun, providing a hard-to-evoke state of mind for the troubled man that lasts throughout the film. This sequence is echoed later in the film when Jane joins Bill in psychic pain, wandering the streets in a daze, each corner harboring a menacing face that mirrors the face of the man she stabbed in self-defense.
Those who are looking for a hot romance between Bill and Jane will be disappointed. Although Lancaster can easily play the seducer, his Bill is a wounded boy. The first sign we and Jane get of this is at the zoo. Bill joins the boys in imitating the voice and face of the chimpanzee, a clear case of arrested development. Although the extended chase scene at the beginning of the film shows off Lancaster’s extreme athleticism and strength, he always seems small and pleading when he is with Jane. He barely reacts when he climbs in her window and sees her in her nightie, and doesn’t display a manly jealousy when the man on the train seems to be trying to make time with his girl. Even when he bemoans how his influence has screwed up Jane’s life, he knew what he was doing in pursuing her; she is a born helpmate.
Fontaine always seems to be the girl who wears glasses. In so many of her roles, she’s fragile and slightly aristocratic, as though her pure lineage has made her weak. As Jane, she falls in love with Bill’s need for her, his boyish vulnerability. When she leaves her room to get milk the morning after Bill has broken in, I half-expected her to put some in her tea and pour a full glass for him. She is always clearly in charge, finally overriding his survival instinct by making him accompany her as they both turn themselves in, thus kissing the blood off each other’s hands.
Robert Newton is always a pleasure, and his ingratiating crook is penny ante and not at all a match for Bill in the violence department, though Lancaster never lays a glove on him. It was a real relief not to see a fiendishly clever or super-powered villain, so dully common today. Screenwriter Leonardo Bercovici and adapter Ben Maddow were both to become victims of the Hollywood blacklist, and I have to think that their sympathy for common people brought out the vulnerability and sheer ordinariness of these characters. A large cast of bit players adds wonderful atmosphere and puts some real flesh on the bones of this scenario. Sadly, this film is not available for home viewing, but perhaps you can urge a programmer in your area to book this pristine 35mm print of a nearly forgotten gem.
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Director: Anatole Litvak
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Andrew Williamson
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I can hear the cries of “traitor” already, but I’m not the kind of film buff who thinks celluloid is essential to filmmaking or viewing. Human history is entwined to such an extent with innovation—the kind that gave us celluloid in the first place—that we could argue that it, not language, is what gave us dominion over the land. I welcome tools that, when put in the right hands, make our lives richer, and that certainly applies to the method of filmmaking and the content of The Land of Eb. Without the cost-saving innovation of HDCAM that gives independent filmmakers like Andrew Williamson the ability to make and distribute films with little commercial potential, this moving story might never have seen the light of day. For the Marshall Islander who is at the heart of this lovely Marshallese-language film, video is a way to preserve his culture and memories and bridge the gap to his family living near the home he was forced to leave in order for them all to survive.
Jacob Jackson (Jonithen Jackson) is a 56-year-old coffee-bean picker and handyman from Enewetak, an island mainly destroyed by U.S. atomic bomb testing, who lives in a small Marshallese community on the Big Island of Hawai’i with his wife Dorothy (Tarke Jonithen) and his children and grandchildren. Daughter Ruth (Rojel Jonithen) has just given birth, but Thomas (Jeff Nashion), the father, is a ne’er-do-well who has no plans to marry Ruth and who routinely turns to Jacob for help when he gets drunk or in a jam. Jacob is a pious, hard-working patriarch who has little patience with Thomas. He is also living with the unpleasant secret that his status as cancer survivor has changed back to cancer sufferer. He decides that it is God’s will whether he lives or dies, and rather than endure exhausting treatments that will make him unable to work, he tries everything he can to make enough money to pay off the mortgage on the land he has purchased to secure the future of his family before the cancer finishes him.
When I first read the summary of this film, it reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru (1952), but the resemblance in terms of plot is superficial. Like Watanabe, Jacob has cancer, and like Watanabe, his family is far away. Unlike Watanabe, it’s not clear whether Jacob is actually terminal and many members of Jacob’s family are literally far away, whereas Watanabe has lost touch emotionally, not physically, with his son. Where the two films come into beautiful accord is in the quiet determination of both men to accomplish a task they consider very important—Watanabe tries to get a playground built and Jacob works to pay off his land—and we come to care very much about them and root for their success.
Williamson doesn’t have a single professional actor in the cast; indeed, he and his coscreenwriter John Hill met Jackson and wrote a film for him, so interesting and inspirational did they find him. Jackson is a video enthusiast, and that passion is included in the film—in the video diary Jacob makes for his children and grandchildren with lessons on life and stories of their culture for them to view after he is dead, and in the ingenious camera boom he builds out of tripods and odd lengths of metal. Jacob tinkers with motorcycles, keeps an ancient pick-up truck running and a jerry-rigged ham radio connection with his relatives in the Marshall Islands. He has electronic musical instruments stashed around the family compound, which itself is a collection of buildings with one single-story “lodge” as the main family home. It reminded me of a city loft or some South Seas homes I’ve seen in pictures that are wide open and roomy. Despite the odds-and-ends furnishings and dime-store decorations, I found it very inviting, and the only explanation for my reaction is that the house is truly a home, filled with love and togetherness.
Williamson builds a quiet rhythm out of Jackson’s everyday life. We watch him pick ripe coffee beans off tall bushes and drop them into a plastic bucket harnessed in front of him. He empties the beans into burlap sacks. He brings the receipts from the sale of the sacks to his boss. He asks his boss if there’s anything else he can do to make some money—not extra money, no such thing in his world—and the boss says there’s nothing. He goes to a flea market and gets the idea to sell some of his stuff there. He brings a picking crew to a mean, old haole who promises to split the take 50/50 and then, predictably, cheats him. He gets sick and crashes his truck into a port-a-let. He never complains—he just keeps moving, and we keep pace.
Williamson allows us to fall more and more in love with Jacob with small, intimate moments and gestures. When his family takes his car keys and there’s nobody to drive the grandchildren to band practice, he walks with them there and listens patiently as they bleat and strain like elephants in heat. When Dorothy learns he is sick again, her gruffness doesn’t exactly vanish, but rather transmutes into something more personal. She joins him at the haole’s fields to pick beans, and they share a smile and briefly hold hands. When Jacob is exhausted, he moves slowly toward the ocean. Williamson gives us a brief view of the lapping waves, and that’s it—just a quiet look toward his home across the sea. Notably, this film is not seduced by the alluring scenery of Hawai’i, so we concentrate on the human story far away from the tourist traps.
As Jacob has a warming, ennobling effect on us, he gets to Thomas as well. Forced to rely on Thomas to drive him around, Jacob provides an example of how an honorable man lives. To emphasize this life lesson, we get the story of the Land of Eb. The story tells of a young man who is sent to bring clams to his starving village, but who greedily eats them all instead. On his second attempt, he does the same thing. On his third try, however, he returns to an empty village. The villagers have gone to the Land of Eb, below the sea, where they can eat clams to their hearts’ content. By failing the collective, he has made himself a lonely outcast.
The conclusion of the film leaves a number of threads loose. We don’t know if Thomas will step up to his responsibilities or whether Jacob will survive following the operation his doctor has scheduled. Whatever the outcome, we know that this family and community have the determination and collective spirit to go on, and that’s quite a lot indeed.
The Land of Eb is available worldwide on iTunes February 25. The DVD is available February 26 here.
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Director: Ivan Reitman
By Roderick Heath
Ghostbusters is one of those quintessential films beloved by anyone who grew up in the ’80s, and now that it’s 30 years old, sure to make all of us feel old. It’s also one of those films whose cultural familiarity partly masks what a peculiar beast it is. Dozens of films since its release have mimicked and taken cues from its atypical mix of apparently disparate genres and impulses, as it practically gave birth to the “high concept,” self-aware blockbuster. What is Ghostbusters? A horror film? A screwball farce? A send-up? A blockbuster action flick? A self-reflexive, postmodern disassembly of popular moviemaking? A wild and self-mocking jaunt from a team of semi-outsider comics who found themselves armed with all the resources of powerful insiders? All of the above?
Just whose success it is likewise remains confusing. Director Ivan Reitman handled the film well, easily standing as his best work, and the screenplay concocted by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis is smart and original. But the film is more distinguished by the rare and elusive chemistry of its many constituents. Perhaps the most notable follow-up success by its participants is the Ramis-directed Groundhog Day (1992), which starred fellow Ghostbusters alumnus Bill Murray and represented a clear development on Ghostbusters’ heady side. Aykroyd’s efforts to delve into the same zone of satirical black comedy with his own debut directing effort, Nothing but Trouble (1990), is a delirious mess, whilst Reitman’s follow-ups were generally so commercially crass as to beggar belief.
Ghostbusters is also its own success story, and in that regard, it’s still an eccentric, subversive experience, encouraging the audience to cheer the heroes whilst also mocking Ghostbusters‘ own marketing iconography, incorporated within a hall of mirrors in which art reflects life and commerce. The basic theme, a ragtag pack of shonky savants eagerly practising alternative capitalism surprise everyone not only by becoming successes but also by saving the world, is inseparable from the film’s background. It was made by veterans from corners of show business leagues removed from the halls of Hollywood power who nonetheless gave popular cinema an urgently needed shot in the arm. Reitman had started as a no-budget filmmaker in Canada making the comedy horror film Cannibal Girls in 1972 with Eugene Levy, an alumnus of the Toronto branch of Second City, now an improv dynasty that was born in Chicago. Murray, Akyroyd, and Ramis were likewise Second City veterans, with Murray and Aykroyd initially finding bigger fame on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Murray was vaulted to minor movie stardom when he ventured north of the border to work with Reitman on the raunchy farce Meatballs (1979), one of those cheap, inglorious little movies that made people very rich. Ramis joined Reitman and Murray for the hugely successful Stripes (1981). Meanwhile, many of the artists from “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV,” a television spinoff of Second City Toronto, gained cinematic attention in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980) made Aykroyd and costar John Belushi major comedy stars. The joining of these two streams was perhaps inevitable, but it happened only after Belushi’s tragic death forced Aykroyd and Ramis to retool the script they had written for Murray to star.
Ghostbusters harked back to traditions older than the fringe comedy scene its creators came from, however. Comedy-horror had been a hugely popular genre in the 1920s and ’30s on Broadway and in the movies, as American entertainers made light of darker European-derived fantasies. Examples include the much-filmed play The Cat and the Canary, the 1939 version of which starred comedy titan Bob Hope, who followed it up with The Ghost Breakers (1940). The suggestive similarity of that title and Ghostbusters accords with their approach to the material: taking a genre gothic chiller that unfolds in a straightforward manner with all the usual paraphernalia, but sticking a comic bumbler in the foreground to strike sparks against the material. Likewise, Akyroyd and Ramis were witty enough to take a surprisingly rich and dramatic, H.P. Lovecraftish tale and populate it with characters who are variably functional even in the real world. Murray’s character, Peter Venkman, has elements of Hope and Groucho Marx to him, whilst also belonging to a comedy type just starting to wane but that had been the backbone of American film comedy since Robert Altman’s MASH (1970): the slightly boorish, horny, bratty goofball who’s only heroic in that he hates authority and pretension, a figuration that reached its reductio ad absurdum in Belushi’s Bluto in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). The Ghostbusters are, indeed, very much like the Animal House or Meatballs characters a few years older and scarcely wiser, now growing off the body of academic culture like warts, but faced finally with sink-or-swim survival in the world of ’80s yuppiedom.
Venkman is introduced engaging in an experiment that spoofs the fuzzier end of ’60s and ’70s research, including the infamous Milgram experiment, as he nominally tests two volunteers for ESP abilities, delivering electric shocks when they get an answer wrong, except, natch, that he’s only shocking the nebbish guy (Steven Tash) and pretending that all of the gorgeous blonde’s (Jennifer Runyon, who is married to Roger Corman’s nephew Todd Corman) answers are right. Venkman works in the Dept. of Paranormal Research at Columbia University, along with the more efficacious lab rats Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Ramis). They interrupt his flirtation to drag him to the New York Public Library, where, as the pretitle sequence has shown, a mysterious entity has terrified a librarian (Alice Drummond). The trio encounter the entity, seemingly the shade of a dead librarian, but when they decide to tackle it, it morphs into a demonic grotesque that sends them running for their lives. The unexpected quality of this scene infuses the film as a whole although it never tries to top it. Venkman quips his way past supernatural manifestations (“No human being would stack books like this,” he mutters after Ray points out a pile of volumes that resemble an historically documented poltergeist incident) and then running into and then away from the spectre as something genuinely fierce and frightening, making a ploy of scaring the audience as well as the heroes, and then turning the fright into a joke.
And yet, although it quickly nullifies the power of the uncanny as a source of fright, Ghostbusters never entirely quells it as a source of lawless power. Tim Burton may well have felt encouraged to make his even odder mixture, Beetlejuice (1988), during the brief window when real weirdness was welcome in the realms of high box-office cinema. Although met back at the university by a snotty dean (Jordan Charney) who terminates their grant and evicts them from campus, the boys find their true path, as Peter encourages Ray and Egon, who have learnt from their encounter how to trap and contain a ghost, to start a ghost-catching business. By the end of the second reel, thanks to a crushing mortgage on Ray’s ancestral home, the trio have set themselves up in an old fire station in lower Manhattan (outfitted to tackle “all your paranormal investigation and elimination needs,” as their tacky TV ad puts it) and hired a wiseacre secretary, Janine (Annie Potts). The business of commercialism as the new inescapable paradigm in the go-go ’80s is a key conceit in Ghostbusters, echoing outwards into life, as the boys’ company logo is also the film’s advertising image and the idea of paranormal battle as just another home service industry gave the film’s inimitably bouncy theme tune, by Ray Parker Jr, its refrain. It feels like Aykroyd and Ramis’ cheeky way of admitting they’ve sold out the modest, DIY spirit that fuelled the old comedy scene, but doing so in the most cunning manner possible—getting busy with the ’80s special-effects blockbuster.
Murray’s act was tweaked to best effect in Ghostbusters as the closest of the trio to a romantic lead. Peter starts off as a cynical prick—the dean is right when he remarks that Peter regards science as “some sort of dodge or hustle”—but he grows up in the course of Ghostbusters without letting himself admit it nor disappointing the audience with corny reversals: rather, he contends with actual adult emotion and potential heartbreak with the same humour he offers to ghostly slobs and incidental aggravations. Venkman’s smart-ass smirk communicates his inability to care about the things everyone else cares about, and where Bob Hope’s heroes were hilariously craven, Venkman alternates between egocentric, on-the-make douchebaggery and an underlying attitude of careless disdain for reality, which makes him the ideal man to wade into battles with otherworldly entities, extradimensional deities, and possessed girlfriends, because they only strike him as being as weird as the petty authoritarians and “normal” people strewn in his path.
Ray and Egon, by contrast, are more traditionally nerdy, Ray rather boyishly earnest whilst Egon, with a jutting crown of Eraserhead hair, brings a quality of haughty, Euro-tinted cyberpunk cool to the team, seemingly the most serious of the trio, but also, as Peter’s anecdote about him trying to drill a hole in his head indicates, the most bizarre. Ramis is the film’s richest alternative to Murray for throwaway humour, given to grimly hilarious exhortations (“I think that could be unbelievably dangerous.”) to too-late warnings (“Don’t cross the streams.”) to esoteric interests (“I collect spores, moulds, and fungus.”). One reason, I think, why kids liked the characters so much, even as a lot of the humour and the concepts of the film went over our heads, lay in the essential boyishness of the Ghostbusters, especially their disdain for both “parent” figures like priggish EPA snoop Walter Peck (William Atherton) and for property. Their efforts to extricate a poltergeist from a ritzy hotel causes more damage than the spirit ever could, evoking the Marx Brothers destroying a place to save it; Venkman takes his chance on the old whip-the-tablecloth-off-the-set-table stunt just for the hell of it. There’s a flavour of Aykroyd’s writing on The Blues Brothers, as he sent his asocial heroes crashing through shopping malls and annihilating great swathes of consumerist folderol.
The hotel manager sniffs at paying the ridiculous bill Venkman hands him for their services, but, of course, the threat of releasing the monster again is all it takes to gain submission. The boys’ victory here is their first, though the hotel only represents their second client, after concert cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), who reports the startling appearance of demons uttering the name of an ancient Sumerian god in her refrigerator. Dana’s intrusion into the lives of the Ghostbusters prods Venkman to mature, albeit it unwillingly and with customary insouciance, as he tries to impress a woman not at all impressed by his smug shtick (“You seem more like a game show host,” she says in comparing him to other scientists) but who enjoys his energy and ironic charm. Unbeknownst to all, Dana and her neighbour in the building, accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), have, because of their addresses, been chosen by mysterious forces to become the “Gatekeeper” and “Keymaster.” The sexual innuendo isn’t subtle and yet the layering of the humour is, as the film signals understanding of the erotic underpinnings of much symbolism in the horror genre, but doesn’t overplay this epiphany. Instead, it’s married to a style of comedy practiced by most of the cast in other venues, one based on well-observed social types. The garrulous, dorky, socially malformed Louis, who is Dana’s excessively attentive neighbour (and also constantly locks himself out of his own apartment) finds his ticket to getting it on with Dana as the Keymaster, albeit after being possessed by a dog-monster.
Louis’ party, to which he invites Dana, is one of the film’s quieter comic coups, as he raves to the gathered about throwing the bash “for clients instead of friends” so he can claim it as a business expense, shouts out the details of his guest’s financial problems, hurls coats carelessly out onto the balcony, and dances to disco (in that grey zone between when it was cool and when it became retro hip) with a buxom blonde, before the demon sent to claim him crashes in through the window. The film’s half-cynical, half-affectionate feel for New York emerges properly in the following scenes, as Louis flees the monster, only to be caught by it before a restaurant full of snooty diners, who momentarily pay attention to his desperate cries for help before turning back to their meals. Then the now-possessed Louis screams incoherently about obscure apocalypses before being picked up by the cops and taken to be interviewed by a cautiously fascinated Egon, where he unleashes an enthusiastic monologue about the grim fates that befell previous worlds that became victims of his overlord Gozer. Whereas Louis’ possession is played for comedy, Dana’s returns to a note of genuine weirdness, as, preparing for a date with Peter, she sees something terrible straining at the door to her kitchen. Monstrous arms sprout out of her chair to grip her and drag her to the beast.
One element of Ghostbusters I particularly admire today is the way it creates its own functional, peculiarly straight-faced mythology and tropes (e.g., the eternally intriguing “Tobin’s Spirit Guide”), and plays the character-based comedy out with against that background, only combining the two occasionally for judicious effect, particularly in the finale in the eventual form Gozer takes. There’s youthful indulgence and cleverness to the details of their Ghostbusting business, from the fire pole they slide down to leap into action, to their jazzed-up station wagon dubbed Ecto 1, like a down-market, second-hand Batmobile. The script profitably avoids mere supernaturalism as it takes the boys’ pseudo-science interests literally, presenting the ghostly outbreak as the result of an “interdimensional cross-rip.” The fantastic dimensions then breaks into the “real” world via a portal created for it by the mythical, insane architect and surgeon Ivor Sandor, a wonderfully Lovecraftian detail. It also reconfigures the basic plot of the stultifyingly bad The Sentinel (1976) and capitalises much more successfully than that film did on the notion of uptown glamour colliding with infernal underworlds; as with Cristina Raines’ heroine there, Dana is the quintessential classy lady confronted with eruptions of the uncontrollable and terrifying. The possessed Dana is transformed into a randy, transgender minx swathed in gossamer red, like the girl in a dance club you most regret going home with, levitating and finally driving Venkman to the most unusually disturbed and unguarded request to “please come down.” Weaver, hitherto best known for Alien (1979), got to revise her image and her career here.
Reitman’s sense of style is also unusually sleek, especially during the richly composed sequence in which the Ghostbusters’ ghostly horde, released by Peck in his determination to establish the pecking order, escapes their building in a thunderous light show and terrorise the city. The streams of ectoplasmic energy all converge on Dana’s building to the strains of Mick Smiley’s marvellously odd synth-pop epic “Magic,” as if the whole affair is some extraordinary new-wave art installation gone horribly right. Similarly good is an earlier montage sequence that portrays the Ghostbusters riding to fame and success whilst plying their trade, extending the film’s jokey, but incisive incorporation of modern celebrity as a reality unto itself. The boys’ adventures are reported by Larry King and Casey Kasem, and their images are plastered all over magazines, Egon’s ingenious, but dangerous proton-accelerating, ghost-busting packs shown off in the same fashion as the latest model iPhone.
Much of the film’s visual strength might be laid at the door of the high-class contributions of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and special-effects maestro Richard Edlund. Kovacs’ look for the film, sleek yet richly grained and filled with earthy hues, manages to combine a sense of urban grit with groves of romance and bizarreness, seeking out signs of an antique, even fantastic world coexisting with the decay and bustle. Emblematic of this approach are the stone lions outside the public library that prefigure the gargoyles in which Gozer’s demons slumber and the atmosphere of an older New York, represented by old quipsters lurking in hotel lobbies, encoded in the old panelling of the hotel and the art deco interior of Dana’s building.
The grounded feel in a time and place, as well as humour and characterisation, holds the movie together as it charges into zones of special-effects spectacle and informs its final, celebratory air as a hymn to rowdy all-American energy. The Ghostbusters have since gained an extra recruit, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), a blue-collar black dude who is no PhD, but gives the team their link to the ordinary world around them with his adaptable good-humour (in response to a series of woolly-minded questions on the application questionnaire, like “Do you believe in the Loch Ness Monster?”, he replies, “As long as there’s a steady pay cheque in it, I believe anything you say.”) and workaday attitude to utter insanity. Winston’s addition exacerbates the Ghostbusters as a gallery of types and increases their Dumas-esque cache as the three musketeers become four. He also provides the film with one of its most textured moments, the kind of moment that lifts the film to a much higher level than it might have, as he prods Ray about religious beliefs; he is the first to make the link between the exploding demand for their services with an oncoming event of “biblical proportions.” Although Atherton’s performance is effective (to an extent that made him a go-to guy for playing slick creeps), the conflict with Peck is easily the film’s most canned element. It bespeaks an irritatingly regulation ’80s contempt for bureaucrats in general and the EPA in specific, and exists chiefly to justify a plot point—the release of the captive ghosts, and a little pay-off for the guys when the Mayor (David Margulies), forced to rely on the Ghostbusters to save his city, has him bundled off, a pivot from their early humiliations.
The finale of Ghostbusters is almost unique in managing to proffer big, special-effects-enabled showmanship whilst maintaining its style of humour, refusing to devolve or divert tonally even as Zuul and Gozer finally arrive, whilst sustaining a self-mocking approach to its own blockbuster pretensions. The crowds hail the team’s arrival at the site of battle just like the viewing audience, and then Reitman cuts to the boys laboriously climbing up the stairs within Sandor’s building. Aptly, Zuul manifests as the most alien and threatening thing a team of ’80s working stiffs could imagine—an imperiously cocaine-chic, Eurotrash fashion model. Seeming to have stepped out of some particularly wacky Vanity Fair cover shoot, she asks the team if they’re gods, which, of course, they patently are not, not even by mere New York standards. She then tries to kill them with bolts of lightning, sparking Winston’s most inimitable advice, “If somebody asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!” Zuul’s otherworldly palace is a glorious Bauhaus hallucination of the swank nightspot you’re not cool enough or rich enough to get into. Gozer, smartly, is a total reversal, as the boys are bidden to choose the form their destroyer will take, and Ray, unable to make his mind a blank to avoid making a choice, chooses the most harmless, childish emblem he can, resulting in a 200-foot-tall advertising mascot, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, stomping his way in Godzilla-like glory down Broadway. This touch could have tilted the film towards silliness, and yet it works perfectly, as it both combines and crowns the twinned streams of plot and comedy.
Of course, even faced with imminent apocalypse, the boys’ ingenuity isn’t exhausted, and they step up to the challenge of shutting Gozer’s portal at the near-inevitable cost of their lives with a last show of stoic grace that’s quite moving in an almost throwaway fashion without losing the qualities that define them: “I love this plan, and I’m excited to be a part of it!” Peter cries with both genuine bravado and purest sarcasm. And that’s the deepest, most admirable quality of Ghostbusters, that it keeps its wit and humanity in focus even in the most absurd and extreme of circumstances.
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Director: Herbert Ross
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As a diehard fan of television playwright Dennis Potter, I have endeavored to view as many of his works as humanly possible. While some of his plays remain hard to secure, I had no explanation for the shamefully gaping hole in my Potter completism that comprised the TV and film versions of Pennies from Heaven. The 1978 miniseries starring Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Crawford as the marginalized losers trying to find happiness in 1930s London continues to elude me, but I don’t have to see the six-part, 450-minute miniseries from the BBC’s golden age of television drama to suspect that it is richer in story and characterization than the 108-minute film, even as adapted for the big screen by Potter himself. And thank heaven for that! Although MGM and Herbert Ross seem fairly obtuse about how Potter used pop music to increase the bitter irony of his plays, Potter’s story and sharp edges remain.
It’s not hard to imagine the meeting that led to the greenlighting of this project. Coming off the surprise success of the indie film The Jerk (1979), Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters must have attracted the bean counters at MGM. Executive producer Rick McCallum was relatively untested, though this first taste of Potter would lead to many more creative projects with the writer, including Dreamchild (1985) and the miniseries “The Singing Detective” (1986) and “Blackeyes,” (1989). Herbert Ross had had a string of successes working with material from playwrights, like Arthur Laurents (The Turning Point ) and Neil Simon (The Sunshine Boys , The Goodbye Girl , and California Suite ), so working with a TV playwright must have seemed a great fit. Finally, the musical aspects of Pennies from Heaven must have been irresistible to “house of musicals” MGM.
Whether or not you love the film Pennies from Heaven may depend upon your relative affinity with the Potter worldview. A man tormented by psoriatic arthritis, a condition that began in his 20s, Potter had an overweaning nostalgia for his childhood in the rural mining community of the Forest of Dean, in Glouchestershire, from which he was culturally separated by attending Oxford. He escaped from his physical pain and deforming condition through writing that drew on his life’s preoccupation with romantic fantasies surrounding women other than his wife, a longing for the idealized world portrayed in many popular songs from the 1930s, and a savage disappointment in the corruption and failures of those in whom he put his trust. Despite the particularity of Potter’s obsessions, his idealism and, as he put it, “tender contempt” for his naïve youth are touching, and his willingness to expose the sizeable warts on his own, as well as other people’s, bums offers an arresting honesty that’s fairly rare.
The Ross-MGM Pennies from Heaven doesn’t completely jettison Potter’s critique of an immoral, delusional, sheet music salesman and the corrupt society in which he lives. In a twist on the usual New York setting for such films, Chicago is the town where traveling salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) makes his home. This choice may have been a way to tap into Chicago’s “city on the make” image as well as the Midwestern provincialism that would cause Arthur’s wife Joan (Jessica Harper) to hate sex and his mistress Eileen Everson (Bernadette Peters) to be fired from her school-teaching job in the hinterland Arthur visits for becoming an unwed mother-to-be. Arthur being Arthur, he threatens Joan with an abandonment he would never consider due to her sizable inheritance and promises Eileen that they will be together forever while giving her a fake address to keep her from finding him. Arthur gets the money he wants to start his own music store, as well as the lipsticked nipples Joan reluctantly reveals to him, as her peace offerings. Eileen gets a new name (Lulu), an abortion, and a new career in prostitution in the big city, where she and Arthur eventually reconnect. Pile on a mentally disturbed religious fanatic listed only as the Accordion Man (Vernel Bagneris) and a blind girl who gets murdered (Eliska Krupka), and the stage is completely set for a cynical night at the movies.
That’s not what we get, however. Potter’s plays are not musicals; they only use musical interludes of lipsynching and simple dancing to suggest the state of mind of the characters—and usually only one character—that does not necessarily reflect the rosy lyrics of true love, prosperity or naughty flirtation contained in the period songs. The Ross-MGM Pennies from Heaven largely transforms Potter’s very dark tale into a literal homage to 1930s musicals, with 17 different musical numbers. It has the economic misery of the Great Depression in common with its most obvious model, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Ross stages numerous Busby-Berkeley-inspired production numbers; the title tune “Pennies from Heaven” is outlandishly choreographed, with the chorus girls sporting the penny hats from the “We’re in the Money” number in Gold Diggers of 1933. If only some of these production numbers approached the poignancy and bitterness of Gold Diggers’ “Remember My Forgotten Man.” Alas, the film adopts the strategy of using the lyrics to tell the story, a technique that postdates the period Ross is recreating.
I found the musical interludes confusing. In a modern musical, it makes sense for Arthur to lipsynch “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” when he first sees the beautiful Eileen. But whose fantasy is “Let’s Misbehave”? Is it Eileen’s, when she first meets Tom (Christopher Walken), a pimp who does a striptease to reveal a tattoo heart on his chest with “Lulu” scrawled across it? Or is it Tom’s, who might be trying to entice Eileen to come into his stable? Maybe it’s both, as when Arthur and Eileen mimic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” on the stage of the movie theatre where they are seeing Follow the Fleet (1936). Frankly, I don’t think it matters all that much to this film, and thus, the consequences Arthur faces for a crime he didn’t commit—or the sense that perhaps he deserves to be punished on general principle for his boorish, lying behavior and business failure—don’t come into focus. When Joan screams, “Cut his thing off and bury it,” we can’t share her sense of rage; indeed, by 1981, more people would be angry with Joan for being such a frigid bitch than would blame Arthur for cheating on her and pushing her to give in to his kinks and dreams.
I don’t think Steve Martin was ready to play this role. He has considerable acting chops, but he was still very new to dramatic acting when Pennies from Heaven was made, and was still afflicted with the comedians’ curse, the need to please, that kept the savage fires safely below the grate. There are moments when Arthur is cruel and dangerously lascivious, but Martin is helped neither by Ross nor the tame approach to the material to bring them roaring to life. Better cast are Bernadette Peters and Jessica Harper, who burrow deep to bring out some interesting shades in their characters. The scenes with the blind girl and the Accordion Man are confusing as to location and timing, and I blame these miscues on bad editing forced by the studio. The one completely unmitigated joy in the film is Christopher Walken. We all know he can play crazy mean, but who knew he could do a striptease that even Gypsy Rose Lee would envy. He is perfect, but with only one scene, the pleasure is short-lived.
I think it’s rather telling that the go-go 80s started with a mixed-message musical that seems prescient about how the socioeconomic fortunes of the country would go. The blind brutality of a narcissistic schemer, the moralizing vengeance of a rich woman, and the mostly willing descent into prostitution of a small-town girl are redeemed by lavish costumes and sets, perfectly executed production numbers, and a mandated happy ending—which, of course, Potter wrote himself as the measure of denial toward which we were heading. Even if the film had gotten everything right, it was destined to be the flop it was. We just didn’t want to know.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Byron Haskin
By Roderick Heath
Eleanor Parker’s death last December at the marvellously ripe age of 91 saddened me greatly. On top of the loss of a link with history, Parker had long been one of my favourite female stars from classic Hollywood. I’d had a powerful crush on her ever since first seeing her in Scaramouche (1952), where she whips up a storm as the hero’s fiery actress-mistress. The Naked Jungle is sublime stuff for the Parker fetishist and a quintessential work of ’50s adventure cinema. Adapted from an admired short story by Carl Stephenson, the film was produced by George Pal, a former animator who moved into live-action films and became one of the most successful filmmakers feeding the science fiction craze of the post-War era, commencing with Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951). Pal had evident ambitions to become the next Cecil B. DeMille, to whom he paid overt tribute by adapting two of his failed projects, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and mimicking his mix of epic largesse and religious piety. The quasi-biblical flavour of tribulation and transcendence found in Pal’s movies was corny, but bolder than rivals staking out a place in the scifi race in seeking to capture the psychic polar extremes of the era.
Pal’s brand reached its height when he hired Byron Haskin to direct War of the Worlds (1953). By that time, Haskin had been working in films for 30 years, having made his directing debut in the late ’20s, but was known mainly as a cinematographer until he made the superb Technicolor hit for Disney, Treasure Island (1950). His work with Pal was the next high point of his career, as the pair developed a grand, hysterical, almost hallucinogenically lush Technicolor brand of scifi cinema with War of the Worlds that plugged vividly into the era’s fantasies and colonised the minds of a generation of budding filmmakers: Joe Dante, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and a host of others have paid homage to it over the years.
Haskin, like Jack Arnold and Gordon Douglas, actually directed only a handful of scifi films but remains associated with the genre because he did his most famous work in it and indeed seemed most at home there. The much-derided Conquest of Space (1955) ended the Pal-Haskin partnership until they reunited for The Power (1968), but that sadly confirmed how out of place their brand of craftsmanship was in the late ’60s. Haskin had, in the meantime, continued to work occasionally in the genre, directing important episodes of the TV show “The Outer Limits,” including the famous ‘Demon with a Glass Hand’ episode by Harlan Ellison, and the eerie cult film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). The Naked Jungle was the immediate follow-up to War of the Worlds and represented a digression into period exotic adventure, though it has aspects in common with scifi cinema’s “creature feature” impulses insofar as the climax involves combating a monstrous animal force. Here, the monster is entirely earthly and real, but no less alien. And yet for much of its length, The Naked Jungle is not a film about man vs. wild, but rather a tale of man vs. woman, though the two are definitely linked within the narrative logic.
The Naked Jungle is definitely of a piece with When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, with its emphasis on collapsing “civilisation,” individuals standing in the way of almost cosmic-level nihilism, and Haskin’s powerful, colour-sodden, cleanly contextualised images of fire, corrosion, and calamity. However, it avoids piety, perhaps reflecting the strong influence of coscreenwriter Ben Maddow, blacklisted at the time and fronted by Philip Yordan. Maddow’s incisive gall inflects the film’s vision of a capitalist empire run by a repressed yob and very literally eaten away by hive-mind labourers; or perhaps because of its historical 1901 setting, the need for such reassurance was negated. But it certainly has the same thematic stresses as other Pal films, with the emphasis of the film as a whole on the peculiarities of human willpower to both create and destroy and the ghost in the machine itching to tear the works down. There’s an intimacy, however, to these transcendent/apocalyptic visions that far outstrips many of Pal’s inheritors in modern cinema of spectacular destruction like Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. As War of the Worlds finds its poetic center in a young woman’s anguished recollection of lost peace and safety, so The Naked Jungle is, for most of its length, squarely and as unabashedly as you could get in the ’50s, about sex. The title isn’t entirely a tease in that regard: animalistic impulses threaten self-appointed titan Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) from within and without. Parker is Joanna, a mail-order bride from New Orleans who travels via steamboat to Leiningen’s coffee plantation in the Rio Negro area of the Amazon jungle.
When Joanna arrives in Leiningen’s whitewashed castle filled with trappings of Western civilisation tediously brought in by boat, a trove Joanna is intended to round off, she finds the workforce of tribal folk more welcoming than Leiningen, whose Olympian attitude apparently borders on contempt for her. After several exchanges of strained politesse, Joanna finally loses her cool in a memorable eruption of verve: “Yes – I am exactly as represented. I speak several languages, play the piano, converse intelligently, and have very nice teeth. Would you care to count them?” Joanna then compares herself to a horse Leiningen bought, though at one point Haskin frames him with a statuette of a stallion, indicating he’s the would-be stud. Leiningen’s response is even franker in its conceit: “You’re very beautiful – intelligent – accomplished. There must be something wrong with you.” He soon enough sniffs it out: Joanna is a widow, a friend of Leiningen’s brother who recommended herself as the best candidate after he asked her to help him find a wife for the Amazon plantation owner. This leads into the film’s cunningly portrayed central problem. Leiningen is a virgin, having begun his empire building as a teen and resisted the temptation to sleep with the native women: “They have a name for the white men who sneak into the native villages at night. I was determined that no one would ever call me by that name.” As such, he’s initially repelled by the thought of a sexually experienced wife. Gleeful metaphors abound as Leiningen and Joanna compare her presence to the never-played piano he had shipped in. “A good piano sounds better when it’s played,” Joanna retorts pithily, and we all know what she means. Leiningen’s adamantine control begins to crack almost immediately. Taunted by Joanna’s preference of her own perfume to the brands he had imported, he gets drunk, kicks down her bedroom door, and splashes scent all over in a moment of tactile, erotic frenzy before his willpower returns.
Leiningen begins schooling Joanna in “what you’re up against” in introducing her to both the world he’s carved out with his two hands and the glowering force of sexual frustration. The plantation used to be a swamp, but the water is now held back by lock gates (plot point!); Leiningen extrapolates that a similar mental gate is required to hold the physically and spiritually corrosive power of the jungle—nature itself—at bay, pointing out one of his workers who has Mayan ancestry, “one of the greatest civilisations the world has ever known,” but who has devolved into a head-hunter. Lest we mistake Leiningen for one of them exploit-the-natives capitalists, fellow planter Gruber (John Dierkes) turns up with a full head of steam, believing some of his contract workers have run off to Leiningen, and indeed he finds two hiding amongst Leiningen’s crew, identified by the whip marks on their backs. Leiningen outwits Gruber with the aid of the state commissioner (William Conrad), who’s been waylaid by Gruber to help reclaim the workers, by the somewhat torturous but successful ploy of accusing the two men of murder—the shrunken head carried by another worker is used as a prop. His move to hang them gives the commissioner pretext to intervene and hold them for trial, rather than deliver them back to Gruber’s tender mercies. Joanna meanwhile is momentarily shocked out of her formidably wide comfort zone by the spectacle of a native justice ritual that results in a man being killed. She abuses Leiningen’s foreman Incacha (Abraham Sofaer) for letting it happen, but, of course, the dead man is Incacha’s son.
The Naked Jungle looks back over its shoulder to fetid melodramas like West of Zanzibar (1927) and Red Dust (1932) in using a jungle setting as mimetic canvas to paint perfervid fantasies, whilst its themes both pay heed to and mock late Victorian Freudian theories of repression as the key to constructing civilisations. Neither Haskin nor Heston and Parker step back from the campy edge to the hothouse melodrama, and indeed push gleefully toward and over the edge as Leiningen moves from chilly Pharaonic recline to panther-like lunges and poses over the piano as he probes Joanna about her past and her knowledge of men with the energy of a prosecutor grilling a murderess, with Parker’s blue eyes registering insult and provocation and converting them into energy. Parker, just before delivering that crack about pianos, rises whilst pounding a discordant note on the keyboard, as if the soundtrack has invaded the movie itself to declare infinite offence. Relations devolve into a comically grotesque show before the commissioner as Joanna tries to inform him that she’s leaving but not because the Amazon has proven too much for her, whilst Leiningen tries to feed her dictatorial cues, and the film moves into the territory occupied by Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk as Technicolor satirists of bourgeois gender relations.
Young Heston’s odd mixture of physical strength and ability to play febrile personalities was rarely better exploited as Leiningen strikes poses worthy of Bauhaus sculpture, a study in masculine strength who almost immediately starts crumbling within when confronted by Joanna’s all-but-irresistible cache of feminine virtues. Whilst Heston had made his mainstream debut in a DeMille film, the invocations here of primal struggle with plague and flood more clearly point the way forward to his role as Moses. Yet as a protagonist, Leiningen more recalls John Wayne’s Matt Dunston in Red River (1948), a haute macho icon with a vein of rich hysteria just under the surface, and like Dunston, Leiningen engages in a titanic, almost mythic enterprise only to feel the ground slipping out from under his feet: “I was afraid you were disappointed in me,” Joanna announces excitedly as she cottons on to Leiningen, “Instead you’re afraid of me.” Superman loosens up and confesses to having read the books of poetry he has piled around the house. The moment with the perfume has its mirror later as Joanna entices him to put insect repellent on her back, in a scene that approximates the temperatures inside supernovae whilst not even resolving with the traditional kiss. The kind of primeval power a man can obtain in the jungle is transmitted by signs and legends: “Beyond that next bend, your husband has more power than a king,” the commissioner tells Joanna on the boat taking her upriver toward this Amazonian Heart of Darkness. But the jungle’s power is signified at the same moment, as the captain of the steamboat (Romo Vincent) notes birds flying far out of their climes, the first mark of something happening deep within that heart that can upend the peace treaty Leiningen has made with the earth.
The tension and mystery about what’s out there are built carefully but marginalised for most of the first hour of The Naked Jungle. It’s made amusingly clear just how dreadful it could be, as the commissioner confirms he’s ventured upriver to find out what it is, and utters the dread word, “Marabunta!” to Leiningen, who is so alarmed he makes sure no one could possibly be listening before allowing the conversation to continue, whilst scorer Daniele Amfitheatrof lets loose with his oft-repeated theme of the threat for the first time, a wild-sounding, high flurry on wind instruments that sounds like a bird’s fearful cry. When Leiningen decides to go with the commissioner, he packs Joanna along, intending to send her across land to catch a boat out. But the signs of dread proliferate, with wildlife and villages all deserting the locale. A floating canoe proves to have a dazzlingly clean skeleton in it, albeit still clad in clothes that identify it as Gruber’s. Finally the heroes are confronted by the awesome sight, far more destructive and dangerous than any monster of myth, of the Marabunta: a colossal column of soldier ants, or, as the commissioner dubs it, “40 square miles of agonising death,” devouring all in its path, and working irresistibly toward Leiningen’s plantation. Leiningen, of course, decides to defend his turf, pitting immoveable object against unstoppable force. Joanna half-coerces him into letting her stay rather than leave with the baleful commissioner, pointing out that her presence gives him power over the workers. Not taking chances, however, Leiningen steals a leaf from Cortez—surely a deliberate echo—and burns his workers’ boats to prevent escape.
The Naked Jungle belongs in a blurred genre zone. In addition to its variation on the themes of Pal’s scifi series and an historical adventure, the story patterns and audience-appeal tropes recall films like The Hurricane (1937) and The Rains Came (1939) as sexy dramas set in exotic places with climactic deus ex machina transfigurations, and looking forward to the ’70s craze for disaster movies and the horror films of an oncoming age. Although there’s little overt gore in the film, the visceral nature of its implied horror laid groundwork for a significant subgenre. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) followed the model of the Haskin-Pal film in concentrating on a tense romance foregrounding calamitous animal attacks in a vision of truths behind the human condition, and beyond to the craze for animal-attack films in the ’70s exemplified by Jaws (1975), by which time the metaphorical force of this narrative pattern as displaced portrait of invasive forces eating at the western body politic would be more starkly obvious. Paul Verhoeven, a fan of War of the Worlds in his youth, may have remembered The Naked Jungle for Starship Troopers (1997), where the ideas are the same but the bugs bigger, whilst Spielberg quotes it for a gleefully nasty trope in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), though there, the ants eat the communist. Most intriguingly, perhaps, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo likewise essays the same theme in the same setting. There, the secret brittleness of Haskin’s white übermensch was exchanged for Herzog’s beautiful, nonconformist visionary, but both heroes test their own potential to gain dominion against natural forces and fail in a fashion that confirms them as titans who refuse to become Promethean victims, but instead find revelation in loss. The common link between Pal’s monster movie and Herzog’s arthouse drama is the immediate sense of existential peril, a vivid interest in the contrast of powerful individual humanity against implacable surrounds.
In Leiningen’s case, this comes in contending with a force that overwhelms and outwits his efforts to hold it off, but finds other things in defeat. Not least of which, natch, is that it seals the deal in his marriage, and the mission is changed not just by the threat of the ants but of Leiningen’s changing perspective and circumstance to become one of protection, and not mere defiance. Haskin’s sense of style is unobtrusive and yet undeniable: the cinematography by Ernest Laszlo, a fin-de-siècle trumpet blast for the beauty of Technicolor Academy-ratio pictorialism as the widescreen age was burgeoning, offers rich depth of field and space in the boxy format, seeking out balancing elements in compositions, and smooth tracking shots that dog the characters incisively, like the deft little track forward as Joanna and Leiningen provoke each other as she plays the piano. A keen eye for colour coding is plain as the white walls of Leiningen’s buildings, his outpost of civilisation, and are echoed by the characters’ dress. Joanna arrives clad in a blazing white jacket, an emissary of alien cleanliness and angelic beauty that makes her instantly iconic to the native workmen, whilst Leiningen first appears filthy and clad in earthy colours. Later, as the two stand together to form a united front for the native labourers, both are dressed in pale hues matching the house, symbolising their unity with the world they’re defending, not long before the insinuating masses of black ants begin crawling over the plaster. Pulsating greens dominate exteriors and, as disaster comes, fire rendered in nightmarish hues call back to War of the Worlds, as Leiningen’s last bulwark against the invaders burns away.
Haskin and Pal’s special-effects team do more restrained work here than in Pal’s other scifi works, offering painterly matte depictions of the oncoming swarm, first glimpsed as a great, grey, teeming gash in the jungle, and then cleverly layered shots of the ants crawling on limbs, stripping away leaf and stem, and reducing Leiningen’s plantation to a skeletal desert. The sense of staging reaches a crescendo in the film’s most famous and excerpted scene, as Leiningen’s rotund lock keeper (Jack Reitzen), performing the vital task of keeping the canals Leiningen’s dug as a barrier to the ants filled with floodwater, falls asleep at his post, with the camera tilting down from his sleeping face to note the masses of ants crawling up his legs. Awakening, he’s flung into a thrall of terror, screaming as his eyes are eaten in their sockets by the horde.
Haskin returns to the same image, of a man’s hand curling up in pain as the ants swarm on his body, the second time with Leiningen himself as he makes his last desperate effort: whereas that binary moment of him rubbing fluid on Joanna’s body carried potent erotic meaning, here the corporeal sensation is equally powerful and far more terrible, whilst the efforts of both men to hang on to life is reduced to the singular picture (interestingly, the poster of Saul Bass’s new-age variation of the story, Phase IV , depicts an ant burrowing its way out of a hand) that calls back to Luis Buñuel’s love of crawling ants as symbol of irrepressible forces, the tingling sensatory quality of dozens of tiny feet evoking the finest patterns of the nervous system. Of course, Leiningen fares better than his employee and escapes the gnawing death to induce his own destructive flood, destroying the lock gate entirely and allowing the waters to wash the ant horde away, saving lives at the cost of rolling back his labours. Leiningen is caught by the boiling waters, but lurches his way out of the mud and into Joanna’s arms on a water-logged plain as the end title appears. It profits a man everything, it seems, to lose his world but gain his woman.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: David O. Russell
By Roderick Heath
David O. Russell is a filmmaker for whom I’ve maintained a certain wary admiration since first encountering his work with Flirting with Disaster (1998). Amidst the directors who emerged from highly idiosyncratic independent filmmaking in the early to mid-1990s, as Russell did with Spanking the Monkey (1994), Russell’s specific interest was in observing natural oddballs in their native habitat. As such, he seemed to maintain links not just with the Robert Altman-derived strand of modern American cinema but also with a variety of frenetic comedy associated with the screwball works of Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and the Marx Brothers, except that his character types are rooted securely in naturalistic environments. Yet Russell doesn’t have Altman’s covert grace or political and cultural wit, whilst his humour is far more forced and jumpy. He is a product of a snarkier, more fiercely hip age, with characters that thrash about trying to generate comedy and action rather than enacting the farces elegantly served up to them by masterminds. I have no great liking for Three Kings (1999), which gained a lot of cool-kid traction because of its shallow critique of the Gulf War while being only a flashy variation on certain, better ’60s war movies.
When Russell came back from exile with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), he was obviously playing by house rules, which made his films both more humdrum, but also, ironically, more enjoyable, injecting eccentric invention into standard narratives. American Hustle represents a compromise, mixing a populist brand of sarcastic frolic with his fascination for unruly dispositions. Whilst the Altman-esque element is still apparent in American Hustle, the style here is plainly a mild annexation-cum-parody of Martin Scorsese, borrowing devices and flourishes like his driving edits, alternately explanatory and dissenting voiceovers, signature inrushing camera dollies to punctuate scenes, and evocations of the simultaneous earthiness and brash flash of ’70s Americana. Whereas Scorsese usually situates his narrative perspectives deep within the often unpleasant headspaces of his characters, however, American Hustle remains determinedly exterior, watching its character types eddy in their fetid pools of temperament.
The film is based loosely on the infamous “Abscam” stings run by the FBI that took down several on-the-take bigwigs in the wide-open post-Watergate era, already touched on cinematically in another sub-Scorsese hit, director Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997). Russell takes the tale and inverts its tabloid meaning, making grifters, corrupted leaders, and phonies the heroes and the driving investigator a self-interested, nutty villain, as if The Sting (1973) had been reset in the same era it was showing in theaters. Russell kicks off with an arch but fitting sequence. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) carefully hides his bald pate with a combination of comb-over and toupee, only to have it ruined by aggressive FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) as the two men argue about proceeding with their current sting operation and the woman between them, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), tries to maintain working equilibrium. Flashbacks reveal how this unlikely team came together. Irving, a glass salesman with a sideline in fake art and bogus loan agenting, met Sydney, a Midwestern blow-in with a penchant for putting on an English accent, at a party, where they bonded over their mutual love of the elevating pleasures of Duke Ellington. After they hooked up, they found a deeper accord in their love of covert role-playing and profitable deceit. They’re a match made in Hades, except for the complication that Irving is already married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a young single mother he wed essentially out of charity.
The scenes recounting Irving and Sydney’s union are played with an interesting mix of dreamy wonder and raconteurism, as each narraties what they were thinking and feeling, stricken by recognition of a kinship that can, perversely but logically, find its best expression in criminal behaviour: Love, Underworld Style. Sydney’s adopted persona as a veddy British dollybird proves to facilitate Irving’s loan scams perfectly, as she pretends to have connections to a reputable London banking firm. They’re undone, however, when one potential client is Richie working undercover, and Irving semi-wittingly manages to leave Sydney holding the bag because she seemed to be flirting with Richie. Richie cuts a deal with the deceitful duo to use their talents to catch corrupt officials, promising they can walk away after three operations.
Richie sets his sights on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the go-get-’em, regular-Joe mayor of Atlantic City who’s trying to rebuild the city as a tourist mecca. After much bickering and backbiting, Irving sells Richie on the idea of putting together a scam wherein they pretend to be connected to a zillionaire Saudi sheikh who wants nothing more than to invest in Polito’s vision of a reenergised boardwalk. Tensions simmer constantly between this potentially explosive mix of personalities: bullshit artiste Irving is forced into unfamiliar zones of emotional intensity, constantly seething with jealousy as Sydney punishes him for sticking with Rosalyn by holding him at arm’s length and half-faking a romance with Richie. Irving also begins to squirm in contemplating the damage the scam is going to do to Polito, with whom he becomes fast friends, and the potential of mob reprisal, as the boardwalk project demands they make deals with Meyer Lansky associate Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro).
On a superficial level, American Hustle keeps bouncing along merrily, driven not by the mechanics of the Abscam plot, which is quite garbled at points and generally played as a farcical, even counter-productive proposition, nor in generating tension with the story beats. Russell only milks the most salient absurdity from the plot, when Richie has Latino FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Peña) to pose as the mythical “Sheikh Abdullah” rather than Irving’s first choice of an actual Arab pal (Saïd Taghmaoui). This choice sparks both humour at Hernandez’s inaptitude at the role and then suspense, in one of those by-rote post-Goodfellas “tension when talking to the gangster” scenes, as he’s presented to Tellagio, who reveals an unexpected gift for speaking Arabic. American Hustle is rather a wobbly highwire trick, trying to gain propulsion from volatile character interactions, putting Irving and Sydney in constant danger by placing them in the hands of various lunatics. Richie sees himself as a brilliant but stymied law enforcer, but he’s actually a sexually repressed, brattish self-promoter with a bizarre, ultra-Catholic mother. He’s faced with the disdain and disregard of immediate superior Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), and keeps trying to guess the moral to a long-winded anecdote Thorsen tries to tell him; eventually Richie physically assaults Thorsen in frustration. Nonetheless, Richie gets his way and fends off repercussions by appealing to state’s attorney Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola, done up to look like Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II), who’s as greedy for high-profile arrests as Richie. Richie’s an interesting study in pathology and an ironic depiction of law enforcer as a case in arrested development, evoking FBI kingpin J. Edgar Hoover. Like Irving and Sydney, he’s on the make and doesn’t care who it hurts so long as he realises his vision of triumph, but unlike them, he is convinced of his own rectitude.
American Hustle is clearly a movie moulded to fit a fading ideal of popular cinema—actor-based but kinetic, taken from true life but rendered much larger than life. And yet’s it’s a peculiar, frustrating failure that manages to stay in a state of flux, emotionally and artistically, for over two hours. The acting is exciting and hammy in roughly equal measure. Cooper’s excessively mannered, and finally downright irritating performance stretches out the manic phases of his character from Silver Linings Playbook to fill an entire movie like being stuck in a phone booth with a well-groomed chimpanzee, and fails the film because it renders Richie too discursive an antagonist. Similarly, Bale pulls off one of his impressive ACTOR! transformations by becoming a paunchy, drawling, oh-so-Noo Yawk operator, but Irving isn’t deeply compelling as a protagonist even when facing a problem of conscience. Where a charismatic actor closer to the required physical type like Paul Giamatti might have made Irving interesting, with Bale he remains a dead spot. The emotional crux of the film is supposed to be Sydney and Irving’s combative reaction to the pain of loving each other counterbalanced by the quiescent, often cross-purpose desire of both to achieve authenticity and realise their private fantasies. But the film’s too skittish to let this underlying earnestness stand, too vague about those fantasies, and not sure which way is up when it comes to authenticity. For instance, Russell can’t resist playing the film’s real climax—when Irving admits all to Polito and tries to warn him what’s coming—as farce. He cuts into the scene halfway through the conversation, so there’s no sense of tension about the building emotion and unease, and then provides laugh-line-like jump cuts to shots of Polito’s kids all crying as word gets around. Not surprisingly, Polito throws Irving out, and Irving suffers a brief spell of shamed hyperventilation before getting on with saving his own ass, but the reckoning is stated rather than felt. This is a notable example, but far from the only one that shows Russell closing off avenues to real substance.
Rosalyn becomes the narrative joker in the deck: because Sydney’s been cast in another “role” in their comedy, Irving needs Rosalyn to be his wife in the scams without quite letting her in on what’s going on. Rosalyn, in spite of her kookiness, is smart enough to know something’s up, and harbours her own suddenly nascent intent to emerge as a social butterfly. Thus, with madcap bravado, she overcomes her professed anxiety and outpaces the scammers and the feds in making friends not just with Poliltos, but also the mafia hoods insulating Tellegio. Lawrence helps to crystallise the film’s most interesting themes, including the notion that elaborate plots and constructs are found in all walks of life, but that the borderlines of the scam are smudged by the very human aspirations of the players. She charms the Politos and helps sell both her own, Irving’s, and Carmine’s fantasy worlds by being herself, warts and all, going on a memorable rant about nail polish that ends in her tumbling tipsily from a restaurant booth. Russell gets far too cute with her character, however, as her loose-cannon approach gets more dangerous, tipping off one of Tellagio’s lieutenants (Jack Huston) that Irving’s running a con, and then fudging as to whether Rosalyn is actually some kind of idiot savant of plotting, putting her husband on the spot to come up with an exit strategy, or just a flake who happily claims flukes as her genius. This comes after she’s had a flagrantly weird and bracing sing-and-dance-along to Paul McCartney’s theme song for Live and Let Die, gyrating with malicious glee as if she’s gotten beautiful revenge on Irving. There’s such compulsive kineticism and unrestrained loopiness here that it almost wills itself into making sense. And yet, the feeling that Rosalyn stands in for an artist-director creating in the same improvisational way comes to the fore.
The part depends greatly on the audience’s lingering affection for Lawrence, as Rosalyn is presented as scary-exciting, but Rosalyn is really an awful creature in many ways—capricious, disturbed, and destructive, only partly elevated by her own desire to become a self-actuating person. If Russell had cast not the delicious Lawrence but someone closer to Irving’s nominal age, Rosalyn would look much more like a sitcom caricature. Lawrence shocks it into life with that gift she has, badly frustrated in her headlining films but keenly understood by Russell, for playing brittle personalities: her Rosalyn has the authentic flavour of many half-wonderful, half-disturbing people out there in the world. More often, she’s depicted as Irving’s ball and chain, tethering him to an unbearable state of reality to which his flights into fancy with Sydney are only temporary reprieves. Then, arbitrarily, after a long sequence fuelled by this dynamic, with Irving raving on in thin-wedge frustration like a reject from a Neil Simon play, Rosalyn, suddenly lets him off the hook, as if Russell couldn’t think of a believable way to get Irving loose of her and end his movie. The stage is then set for Irving to pull off a clever last-act twist that nets him and Sydney a sweet paycheque and Richie a seemingly well-deserved humiliation.
As a whole, American Hustle made me curious in all the wrong ways. Part of this curiosity lay in trying to work out what it is. Is it a satire? A screwball farce? A caper flick that riffs jauntily on a true-life episode of venality? A tragicomic study in absurd people searching for legitimacy? Yet another piece of cinematic reference that looks back nostalgically to ’70s fashions in film and clothing? A collection of acting exercises cut together with great skill? Well, it’s all these things, and none of them; at least, not any one of them to a satisfying or complete degree, except perhaps the last two. Russell reveals a strong level of wry affection for a bygone era of American life where regular guys got together and sang along to Tom Jones with a good stiff drink in the hand, and ladies piled their hair in absurd concoctions, wore fur, and mocked the workings of a microwave.
The film’s best scene, which really does hit a remarkable, almost transcendent note, sees Russell cutting between Irving and Carmine engaged in such a singalong, roaring with impudent, drunken life and hope for a reborn American dream, whilst Richie and Sydney enact another version of the same thing, dancing in a disco to Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s mighty “I Feel Love,” whereupon they retreat into a toilet and make not love but a pact of ardour. Richie’s thrilled that he might be about to escape the strictures of his life, and Sydney releases a tile-cracking whoop of joy, a moment that feels utterly random and yet a logical endpoint for the thrill of being alive, and for Sydney not so much for love of Richie, as she’s really playing him, but of excitement at the feeling of being master of her destiny again. Otherwise, however, Russell remains at arm’s-length from both considered feeling and lacks sociological depth. Irving’s line of crap about a fake Rembrandt that’s become real from effort echoes too many others films of last year, notably Trance and Blue Is the Warmest Colour, that try to fool you into thinking they’ve got something profound to say about their own self-awareness when they’re just tritely spelling out the theme for you.
Whereas a close antecedent like Boogie Nights (1997) wrestles with an entire zeitgeist, for Russell it’s mostly window dressing, reducing character arcs to a series of well-described impulses of a misfiring nervous system. He has great capacity to get his cast fired up and his visuals flowing in propulsive manner, but little gift for the kinds of pivots in tone and aesthetic that regulate intake and make for a deeper kind of film experience that can infuse even a pop bauble. American Hustle is certainly blatantly sceptical of the presumption of mutual exclusivity in the motives of con men and police in an America where everyone’s on the make in some way, an idea that’s endlessly reiterated in dialogue. People in government are occasionally self-serving and career-minded? Wow, that’s profound. Phonies might desire to be, like, real? Blow my mind why don’t you. More interestingly, it touches on the notion that sometimes corruption in government may be a mere adjunct to other, better motives and actions: the film makes the point that all the Abscam operation succeeded in doing was bringing down some lawmakers, many of whom were enticed into illegal acts and like Polito, were trying to do some good. But this idea isn’t particularly well-served in a film that lets Irving and Sydney smarmily off the hook because Richie’s a prick, and politically it’s a damp squib. It’s also—and this might be its chief crime—not really that funny.
The unstable mixture and uncertain aim of the film confirms that when Russell isn’t being corralled into commercial moulds, his own are too shallow to contain all of what he creates. Some people love that sense of filmmaking without a net, but Russell isn’t actually uncontrolled or ebullient enough to truly cut loose, nor is he ever discomforting in his irony like Altman often was. Whereas Scorsese, even when presenting the gaudiest, most stylised visuals, presents them with illustrative framing and punctilious cuts, and Altman held back to give the impression of random discovery, Russell pushes in more tightly and cross-cuts, feeding off and repurposing the energy of his actors. That’s why many scenes feel as if they’re about to burst at the scenes—because in cinematic terms they are.
Renner and Adams give the film’s most measured performances. Adams is particularly good as Sydney, with her habitual lapses in her British accent, a mixture of operator ruthlessness and hopeful pathos inflecting her scenes. Renner is low-key as Polito, at once charming and persuasive as a populist leader, but also vulnerable in his streak of blue-collar sentimentality. The idea that Carmine, as a tragic hero, was a potentially more interesting protagonist than the ones foregrounded, who are essentially supporting grotesques placed centre-stage, occurred to me, especially as the central proposition of the film, the troubled but supposedly magnetic attraction of Irving and Sydney, never feels particularly vital, certainly never as vital as anything that occurs between Irving and Rosalyn, who remains, as Irving says in voiceover at the end, always interesting. And so, too, ultimately is American Hustle. It’s neither a mere polyester shindig nor a covert artwork, but something intriguingly misbegotten, far less than the sum of its parts but more than a lark in the meadow. It’s something, but I’m not sure what.
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Director: Mike Nichols
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s hard to think of two people more suited to team up on Carnal Knowledge than its director, Mike Nichols, and Jules Feiffer, who wrote the screenplay. Both men are often savage social critics, though more frequently through sardonic humor than penetrating takedown, and Carnal Knowledge is a dart aimed squarely at the confusions and conceits of the hairy ape that was the bourgeois American male during the 1950s and ’60s. While I admit that this brand of masculinity is on the wane, it is hardly on the endangered species list, with people like Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) keeping hope alive for this offshoot of Neanderthal by arguing in his book that wives should “voluntarily submit” to their husbands, comparing marriage to the military chain of command he experienced during his Vietnam War service.
Feiffer has expressed his disgust with the military command-control he witnessed as a private: “Nobody did it better and more harmfully than the United States Army, where you saw mindless authority run amok, and proudly run amok.” Nichols spent the first part of his career lampooning the mating rituals and pretensions of the bourgeois intelligentsia with his comedy partner Elaine May. With Carnal Knowledge, the two men ridicule male immaturity and expose the quiet tragedy of the stereotypes about women their protagonists accept and act upon without question.
Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are best friends and incoming freshman at Amherst. The film opens with them speaking in voiceover as the Glenn Miller instrumental version of “Moonlight Serenade” plays softly, pulling us into the nostalgic innocence of an earlier time, that is, until we focus on the conversation itself. Both Jonathan and Sandy are talking about what they want in a woman, with Sandy yearning for understanding and, of course, sex, but it’s not the most important thing, and Jonathan wanting a woman, preferably with big tits, to go all the way with him while admitting he would lose respect for her if she does.
Jonathan has bought into the cocksman role, while Sandy is the proto-emo man. When they attend a mixer, Smith freshman Susan (Candice Bergen) walks past them, drawing their attention. Jonathan “gives” her to Sandy, so sure that if he has first crack at her, he’ll score. Sandy fluffs his first attempt to chat her up, and is only saved in his second try when Susan breaks the ice first. They engage in the kind of pseudo-intellectual b.s. college students can’t seem to resist, testing their intellectual muscles around the sensitive topic of emotional honesty.
Susan starts seeing Sandy, but balks at his attempts to get sexual. She finally gives him a hand job out of pity, a dubious triumph Sandy shares with his best friend. Jonathan instantly jumps at the chance for a piece of ass and calls Susan up. That she goes out with him shows she’s pretty typical in wanting to appear nice but actually break the rules, and that she’s as attracted to bad boys as most women are. Jonathan takes her virginity outside on the leaf-strewn ground. Nichols films her move abruptly out of the frame, and we think she’s appalled by what happened. Instead, Susan cuddles lovingly with Jonathan, and their affair is off and running. Despite Jonathan’s pleas and declaration of love, Susan refuses to hurt Sandy by telling him about Jonathan. Instead, the film takes a leap in time, and we learn that Susan and Sandy, now a physician, are married with children, and Jonathan is a businessman whose madonna/whore complex has transformed into thinking that all females are ballbusters.
Carnal Knowledge put me in mind of an anthropological study by Margaret Mead, say, Coming of Age in Samoa or Male and Female. Many of the shots are static, framing a scene or a face full on, taking advantage of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s lush eye, as though photographing an exotic subculture, but also his clinical distance, both characteristics he displayed to perfection in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). One rather unnerving scene shows Bergen laughing almost uncontrollably, her aristocratic cool shattered, as Nicholson and Garfunkel speak out of frame on either side of her. Bergen is heartbreaking in showing how trapped she is between these two men, unable to reconcile her physical desires with her intellectual and material needs. The corollary for this scene comes later in the film when Sandy tells Jonathan all the things he and Susan do to try to spice up their sex life, ending sadly with “maybe you’re not supposed to like it with someone you love.”
At times, the shooting style is simultaneously elegant and tawdry. For example, when Jonathan and Bobbie (Ann-Margret), the passive sex object he has taken to dinner, have sex for the first time in his apartment, Nichols directs the camera smoothly through Jonathan’s apartment, going from room to room and up hallways until we are in earshot of the couple’s sex noises and ending with a shadowy shot of them in bed just as they both climax. He goes for the money shot he knows audiences want—Ann-Margret naked—but lets us pretend that, like children, we just happened to stumble in on the primal scene.
Much has been said about Ann-Margret’s touching performance in this film, one that turns her happy sex kitten act on its head by revealing the vulnerability of a woman who has bought into the stay-at-home wife/mother role society has determined for her and who uses her physical gifts to snare someone to take care of her. In a cute scene of seduction in which Jonathan tries to guess Bobbie’s age, Feiffer gets at the underlying cruelty—Bobbie is 29, a desperate age for women seeking respectability in family life. The contempt both men and women have for Bobbie is exemplified by Cindy (Cynthia O’Neal), the haute-bitch Sandy hooks up with after his divorce from Susan. Nichols frames the two women side by side as they watch Jonathan and Sandy play tennis, showing the class contrast between the two. Later, Cindy calls Bobbie “that tub of lard” when Sandy and Jonathan cravenly cook up a partner swap, repudiating not only Bobbie’s ’50s brand of femininity, but Jonathan’s attraction to it. In fact, Jonathan is not so different from Bobbie, as women out of his league emotionally use him for sex and then drop him back at his metaphorical corner.
Whether you find Carnal Knowledge absorbing or alienating may depend on your age and how well you recognize men like Jonathan and Sandy. Sandy is the more common male these days, interested in being in love and moving, however superficially, with the times. Garfunkel has a certain geeky air that has become chic in 2014, and his searching for himself in traditional and counterculture ways—taking up with a much-younger hippie chick (Carol Kane, in her first big-screen appearance)—certainly continues to resonate. Today, men like Jonathan are hounded individuals—every time one says something predictably outrageous in the public sphere, the petitions and denunciations come flying out of cyberspace. There must have been something prescient in Feiffer and Nichols’ approach to this character, who ultimately ends up impotent unless a gypsy-like prostitute (Rita Morena) performs a magic incantation word for word over his dick.
The sardonic imp that Nicholson would play in many of his films blooms to its fullest in Carnal Knowledge, the perfect arch of his eyebrows matching his wiseacre speech. He uncorks his patented tantrum with barely controlled intensity; it seems a tired device now, but when I first saw this film in a theatre, it really made an impression. Nichols tries to imbue Jonathan with some pathos early in the film, training the camera on his dejected face as an oblivious Sandy and Susan bustle and chatter in the margins of the screen. Sadly, Jonathan just ends up being really creepy, inserting a picture of his daughter into the slideshow of his love life, “Ballbusters on Parade.”
In some ways, I wanted to feel sympathetic toward Sandy and Jonathan, but Feiffer and Nichols were having none of that. This is a look at the dark soul of masculinity that saves its heart for its women.
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Director: Paolo Sorrentino
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Sometimes one just has to admit defeat. I have been struggling for a week to write a review of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, looking for a way to open the review that will give a flavor of what I think Sorrentino is up to with this film, trying to find an artful method to link scenes that illuminate each other, grasping for an economical use of words to convey the themes and impressions Sorrentino has laid out for us. I’ve changed things up over and over, found myself writing a detailed synopsis instead of a critique, forgetting more about the film than I can countenance, and looking at other reviews for memory jogs and inspiration. Interestingly, I have found most reviews of the film to be extremely short and somewhat simplistic, seeing it mainly in terms of its resemblance to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1961) or commenting on the great party scene that comes near the beginning of the film. I think all we critics are at a loss to really come to terms with this sprawling film whose story seems fairly confined, but whose real character is epic in scope, a Lawrence of Arabia (1962) focused on the whole of Italian culture from the Roman Empire to the 1960s heydays of Italian cinema.
A character in The Great Beauty says that the only industries for which Italy is known today are food and fashion—a country of grocers and garment workers. Abhorring this loss of creative stature, Sorrentino not only has tasked himself with the usual artistic challenge of finding a way to express his times in an authentic way, but also seems determined to return Italy to a place of cultural prominence. His work is complicated by the fact that the history of Italian culture is so long and laden with genius—his efforts are bound to look derivative if he works on a grand scale, or unambitious and forgettable if he goes small and personal. That he has chosen to take on some of the giants of Italian culture—Michelangelo, Dante, and Rossellini, to name but a few—and that he has found not only specific, but also transglobal ways to comment on the human condition circa 2013 is a cause for celebration. Sorrentino may just wake the sleeping giant that is Italian cinema.
The film begins with an epigram from French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Journey to the End of Night: “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” This quote brought to mind a film to which The Great Beauty bears some resemblance, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002). In the latter film, a 19th century French nobleman escorts an unseen person (aka, the audience) through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg on a tour of Russian history. The journey ends with the unseen tourist moving forward, leaving his historical guide behind. This, I believe, is Sorrentino’s purpose—to survey the past, present, and future in a kaleidoscope of images and feelings.
A rather startling opening depicts a group of Japanese tourists on a guided tour of Rome stopped in front of a church located at a high point in the city. As their guide talks to them about the church, a group of nuns sing in a capella harmony near an open balcony. One of the tourists separates himself from the group and takes a few photographs of the city below. He begins to perspire and then collapses. Was it heat prostration, a heart attack, or a swoon brought on by the overwhelming beauty surrounding him? In one moment, Sorrentino has communicated his mixed emotions about the project about to unfold. He follows this up immediately with a bacchanal of the first order, letting us know that he has thrown caution to the wind and will do his best to fulfill his promise to us and himself.
The party, an extraordinary set-piece in a film filled with extraordinary set-pieces, is celebrating the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a journalist as well known as the famous and infamous people he interviews for a magazine published by Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), a middle-aged dwarf whose small stature belies her substantial influence. In homage to Fellini, Sorrentino stocks his party with people of every shape, size, countenance, and age. They writhe to techno music, some alone in a trancelike state, others in pairs or groups, and one on display behind a window moving to an internal rhythm because, as we learn in a shot from her point of view, she cannot hear the music on the other side of her glass cage. A helicopter shot of the party shows it lighting and scoring the night sky, a dazzling, pulsating organism that remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Jep is an older version of La Dolce Vita’s Marcello imagined at the crossroads of a life lived in disillusionment, a superficial creature who produces nothing of lasting value. His moments of triumph constitute little more than being a minor mover in high society, his ambition not just to be invited to the right parties but also to have the ability to make parties fail, whatever that means. That Jep might have been more consequential becomes something of a sick joke, as person after person asks him when he is going to follow up his well-regarded first novel, “The Human Apparatus,” a piece of juvenilia about the woman he loved and lost that sated his appetite for fiction writing when he was in his 20s. At 65, he knows “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.”
Jep seems sincere in his desire to lead an authentic life, and he becomes a mirror breaker in denouncing the vacuous and fraudulent. An unsatisfactory one-night stand with a beautiful, idle-rich woman (Isabella Ferrari) who complains about not being good in bed garners the blunt pleasantry “to be good is to risk becoming deft” and abandonment when she goes to get her laptop to show him the selfies she posts on Facebook. Jep rips apart a conceptual artist (Anita Kravos) whose act is to head-butt a wall and shout something angry. And when attacked for his superficiality by a woman (Galetea Ranzi) who claims to be a productive, principled torchbearer of socialist ideals with enough fortitude to take the truth, he pleads with her to “pass the time with us nicely,” and failing that, punctures her smug self-regard with her own hypocrisy and failure. Sorrentino, it seems, is fed up with what passes for profundity in Italy, as well as the veiled bourgeois aggression that causes blossoms of beauty to wither in despair.
In the main, however, Sorrentino finds inspiration in the beauty of the past and rather than attempting to imitate it slavishly, pays homage in ways that feel surprisingly fresh. He turns Dante’s The Divine Comedy on its head by having Jep act as the guide through rarefied Rome for Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the 42-year-old exotic dancer with whom he starts keeping company. The commodification of art and the wunderkind is critiqued, but the results extolled in a scene in which a child artist is forced to create a masterpiece for her parents’ party guests—and, after a tantrum, does.
Ingrid Bergman’s menacing encounters with statuary and the ashen outlines of the victims of Vesuvius in Roberto Rossellini’s Journey in Italy (1954) are contrasted as Jep and Ramona trek through the palaces of the ancient princesses of Rome with the keymaster (Giorgio Pasotti) who safeguards their keys. We take in the artwork that fills the otherwise useless rooms—massive sculptures mixing with paintings and objets d’art. When a stunned Ramona asks the keymaster why the princesses entrust him with their keys, he says, “Because I am trustworthy.”
Such simple statements that Sorrentino seems to want us to take at face value are strewn throughout the film like pure drops of wisdom in a visually intoxicating house of mirrors. Jep often stares at his oval ceiling and sees a blue, inviting ocean, painting an undulating fresco with his imagination like a latter-day Michelangelo. When Jep asks a magician who has made a giraffe disappear if he can do the same for Jep, the magician cautions him that it is merely a trick (in fact, a CGI trick of Sorrentino’s). Jep is still vulnerable to the deceptions of the glittering creatures and night life that have absorbed him for so long. Indeed, in a somewhat gratuitous tip of the hat to French cinema, Sorrentino includes a cameo of Fanny Ardant. There is something naively sweet about her appearance, however, as Jep the jetsetter seems genuinely starstruck when he encounters her. This moment adds to the winsome charm Servillo brings to the role.
Jep’s ultimate deception revives when the husband (Luciano Vigiloof) of his lost love Elisa (Annaluisa Campasa) comes to his door with the devastating news that she has died. “She always loved you,” he says to Jep. Reminded of his life before the drive to be the center of the in crowd, Jep returns in his memory to the day he was almost run down by a motor boat, the day Elisa took his virginity. She is achingly beautiful to his mind’s eye, but after 40 years, it’s likely that Jep’s memory has sanded the rough edges of his past and retouched the imperfections of his “perfect” love.
There is more than a touch of melancholy to Jep’s passage into old age, as his inscrutable grin cracks into unseemly tears at the funeral of a young suicide victim (Luca Marinelli), a breach of etiquette he has warned Ramona about. Ramona herself eventually succumbs to whatever she told Jep she was using all of her money to cure, leaving Jep without his protector. Ferilli’s incredible presence, a stranger in this strange land, made her absence from the rest of the film a real loss for me.
In the last act, a burlesque critique of the church, Jep seeks wisdom in vain from the fatuous, spiritually dead Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Herlitzka) and witnesses a 104-year-old Mother Teresa knock-off named Sister Maria (Giusi Merli) huff and puff and blow a flock of migrating (CGI) flamingos off a terrace where they were resting and preening. The hard turn into religious ridicule threatens to undercut the overall tone of the film, but it comes so late in the film that it doesn’t inflict lasting damage.
Servillo offers us a sympathetic figure that could have turned tragic in another actor’s hands. He longs for that clean slate that Sorrentino is scraping at while maintaining the lessons that age has brought him. When his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) succumbs to nostalgia, his choice is to leave Rome, which has “disappointed” him, to return to the village he abandoned 40 years before. Not Jep. He won’t write another novel, but his hope that he might brings his rite of passage to something of a close. I look forward to seeing if Sorrentino’s next film will prove that he has shaken the dust of the ages off his camera lenses. I am rooting for him.
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