22nd 01 - 2017 | 2 comments »

Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924) / The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Director: Paul Leni

By Roderick Heath

Paul Leni’s name might not be as instantly recognisable to movie lovers as his fellows in the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of the major creative figures of that style, of the budding horror film genre, and of the great mature phase of silent cinema in general. Leni beat both directors to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he did vital work fusing the concerted visual effects of the UFA approach with the steady, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so perhaps had the most immediate impact on a generation of directors emerging at the time, including Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein. Like Murnau, he would die tragically young and at the peak of his talents, in his case from blood poisoning resulting from an abscessed tooth, a sad and ridiculous fate somehow in keeping with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s initial work in cinema came as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt in the theatres of Berlin, and soon plied for directors including Joe May and E. A. Dupont. He continued to provide art direction for other filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was however to be Waxworks, one of the near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German film.

Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks similarly offers an early take on the anthology film, composed of short, distinct but stylistically and thematically related stories. His screenwriter on the project was Henrik Galeen, who penned several Expressionist classics including Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a young poet, played by William Dieterle, later to become a significant director himself, invited to visit a waxworks show that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into town: the carnival is popular but the waxworks is ignored. The poet speaks to the manager of the show (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they want someone to write entertaining stories to lend mythos to the major figures in the show, which are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, who is conflated here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London in the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ offer, and even quickly and amusedly amends a proposed tale when the owner accidentally breaks a limb off the Harun figure; thus the poet begins to tell the story of how the Caliph lost his arm. Leni then begins to illustrate the poet’s historical fantasia, with Harun personified as a corpulent autocrat, played by Emil Jannings. Harun plays chess with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his castle, only to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour. Angry because he was losing the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to track down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The source of the pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle again), who is married to the most beautiful woman in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff again). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts with her husband and then him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious duty and instead returns to tell the Caliph of this desirable jewel.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal as the founding work of the film Expressionist style, had a cunning metafictional device to frame it, as the protagonists in the central drama of mesmerism and murder were revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparison, Waxwork’s frame has a lighter, humorous quality, as the poet’s fancies are devices for flirting with Eva. Except that Waxworks’ chapters essentially tell the same story over in variances, becoming increasingly direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the deadly threat. Woven in with this is an equal and increasingly nervous contemplation of the individual vulnerable in the face of ravening power, couched first social and political terms, in Harun and Ivan, and then in the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper. This first episode offers the theme in a mildly comedic manner, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to claim what the other one has: Harun wants the baker’s wife and the baker, trying to appease her stoked desire for worldly rewards, decides to break into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s visit has stoked awareness in both baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments break out afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I am a man!” This talismanic phrase recurs with more specific force in Leni’s later film, The Man Who Laughs, but its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the individual echoes throughout Waxworks. It’s not hard to look for its relevance to real-world circumstances at the time – Germany was deep in the grip of the post-war reparations-induced economic crisis. Murnau’s The Last Laugh the same year tackled, again with Jannings, the same theme of desperation and dehumanisation through fiscal crisis.

In the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, locating what he thinks is the Caliph but is actually a dummy he leaves in his bed when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures. Believing the dummy is the real Caliph, the baker slices off the figure’s arm and flees, dodging guards and finally escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his home, as his wife hurriedly hides the Caliph in the only secret place available – the oven. The baker’s venture to steal a fake version of the seemingly mystical jewel proves just as vainglorious as the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous end for all concerned as she pretends to use the stolen jewel to wish the Caliph to appear alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, covered in soot but saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a final image of the Caliph embracing both partners, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois in the offing. This chapter of Waxworks somewhat belies the film’s reputation as a classic specifically of horror cinema, instead signalling a link between the performative professionalism and flimflammer art of the carnival and the stage pantomime, as well as reaching back to the portmanteau storytelling tradition as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, as well as the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers.

This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging point is important in itself. The major “characters” of the waxworks are introduced with the actors who embody them noted at the same time, reducing the great historical figures and the big stars to rigid figures, powerless without poets to animate them. Meanwhile the narrative performs a similar function, turning these real beings into functions of a private mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist style, aims not for realism but for a brand of minimalist, almost symbolic representation. Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse together the dreamlike aspect of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, here Leni pushes in the opposite direction, reducing his setting and backdrop as close towards the insubstantial as he can without quite going entirely abstract. The curving minarets and bowing walls of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The awesome yet almost melting halls of the palace interior, where minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is definitely a place of the mind, an inner sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s home is almost a cave, curved and womb-like. The second chapter, shorter than the first, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and death imposing himself on a pair of young lovers. This time, however, the theme is Ivan the Terrible, presented as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, almost childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on just about anyone he pleases. Where Jannings’ bluff, hammy performance was suited for the take on Harun as corpulent, casually murderous but actually easily tamed potentate, this chapter offers Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest part of the id, glimpsed moving in a stiff crouch along a dank passage that connects his apartments with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.

This tale, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and power. Leni presents Ivan as a monster governed and, to a degree, held in check by an elaborate network of irrational devices. In particular, a giant hourglass is used to measure how long his victims will be tortured, their names written on the glass. When the sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, inspires suspicions in the tyrant’s mind over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested. The poisoner, in turn, vengefully writes Ivan’s name on the hourglass before he’s arrested. Ivan’s dubious pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s wedding. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the old man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, but then agrees to be a guest, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar dress in his clothes, and vice versa. The Tsar’s instincts prove right, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides through Moscow, but their bolt, aimed at the regally-dressed figure, kills the boyar instead. Ivan arrives at the boyar’s house and triumphantly announces his arrival, forgetting the detail that the bride’s father is dead. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his body and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury at the Tsar, for which he is instantly imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar also has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop instead, so he drags her down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is however cut short as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked with his name, believing it means the poisoner successfully dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into complete insanity as he thinks he’s dying, and he keeps turning the hourglass over, believing this will stay the moment of his death. A title card explains he kept doing this until the day he died.

Here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly power becomes more distinctly maniacal and driving, whilst the watch-like parts of the story tick on with swift, precise effect. This chapter of Waxworks seems to have had an almost endless influence on many who have followed, most especially Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his similarly arch take on the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular sets and equally angular performances. Leni himself would build upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on both, surely, for his own visit to the realm of the historical fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934). The last chapter of Waxworks is very short, almost an appendix, but it’s also the most bizarre and remarkable sequence. Here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked around the carnival and town by Jack the Ripper, who seems to disappear like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in many places at once, as the world becomes increasingly strange and distorted. Finally the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Here Leni slips all bonds of narrative precept and essentially offers a visualised nightmare, a plunge into a formless state of irrationality, where the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all forms to become a blank, implacable engine of erotic threat. Here is both the seed for the image of the slasher killer who would later maraud his way across many a movie screen in the next century, a psychological conception of threat stripped out of all zone of actual human interest – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. But Leni’s flourishes of style here also veer into virtually experimental film style in his madly proliferating double exposures and increasingly formless sense of space, used to evoke the complete inward spiral of the psyche towards an ultimate confrontation with that dark character within. Here too is kinship with the lawless effects of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.

Waxworks made Leni’s name, and within a couple of years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour as well as style and menace might well have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American project was to film Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That film proved a big hit, laying down a template that would soon resolve into Universal’s house style of horror and offering fillips of style that still recur in horror films today, like its restless, entity-suggesting camerawork. Leni’s third Hollywood film, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre today, in part because of its pop cultural influence, particularly on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, as the eponymous hero of Leni’s film, adapted from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be more different to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s other, more famous protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Laugh’s central figure Gwynplaine represents a politically abused but potentially powerful underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his fine, tortuously sensitive humanity. The film also reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a long prologue where, although the settings are more tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Terrible episode of Waxworks as it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon at the news his soldiers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his young son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies known as comprachico, who specialise in creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the instructions to carve his son’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool father.”

The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a remarkable string of images and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking out of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing around Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore where the comprachicos, sent into exile by James after they’ve done his gruesome bidding, flock onto a boat but abandon young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the elements. The mutilated child gropes his way through a blizzard studded with hanged bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes across a woman, frozen to death but with her infant child still clutched to her breast. He saves the baby and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the baby is blind and demands of the boy, “Stop that laughing!” before he realises he cannot. Ursus takes both youngsters in and they make a living travelling between country fairs. By the time Gwynplaine (Veidt again) and the girl, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folk heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Along with a band of fellow players, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus called “The Man Who Laughs.” But fate has a mean gag in store when they roll into Southwark Fair in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one of William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but also viciously satiric engravings. Here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his remarkable countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now living under a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the current holder of the Clancharlie estate, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the current ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message however is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the court and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this strange and potentially propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne with her wilfully arrogant behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat device of punishment is now open to her.

Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly critical writings on the national authorities, and he wrote it to serve as much as an oddball political parable as a standard historical romance. Leni keeps intact both its nominal setting in English history but also its weird, Ruritanian aspect, using this just as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his weird fancies. Although the sorts of things they’re depicted as doing had been real practices in times much further past, the comprachicos were just the first of Hugo’s inventions. After the gruesome, outsized fairytale flourishes of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into something more like a melodrama, if one still laced with dimensions of perversity. Those dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no right to impose someone of his grotesque stature on her, although she can’t see the affliction. He sees some hope, however, when Josiana visits the fair where he’s performing and, compelled by his strange appearance, invites him to her manor. Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if someone can actually love him in spite of his deformity than he has the right to love Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the object of a fetishist’s electric, potently erotic blend of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick way that Gwynplaine correctly senses is merely the flipside of the more familiar horror and mockery he receives rather than a negation of it. But then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been found, he will be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she will be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling awareness she’s about to nailed to this particular point of her character as her cross just as surely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine running.

This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine finally allowing Dea to feel the nature of his disfigurement, a moment that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the real Gwynplaine!” Both Philbin and Baclanova featured in two other, quite different yet pertinent takes on the fundamental dichotomy presented here, as Philbin had previously played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), opposite Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to again be the figure of taunting sensuality before the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar trap that is identity: he’s arrested by royal soldiers and taken to prison, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he mistakes a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage remarkable sequences, as when the players pretend to be putting on a normal show to keep Dea from learning of his apparent death, and the lengthy finale in which Gwynplaine is presented to the House of Lords whilst Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to find her way to him. For all its facets of brilliance, however, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy experience dramatically speaking, splitting the difference between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and sentimental melodrama, before resolving in a manner fit for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot never quite builds to any sequences as memorable as those in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, interestingly, Waxworks star Dieterle would film in 1939), whilst the attempt to go for a crowd-pleasing tone in the final lap is underlined when Barkilphedro gets his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal dog.

That such a mixture doesn’t entirely blend isn’t surprising, as Laemmle’s determination to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera saw a few too many cooks adding to the broth on the script level. But The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless because of the fervour Leni and Veidt invest in it. Here was the perfect role for Veidt and the perfect mythology for Leni. Veidt’s appearance, a dental plate used to make his permanent smile-snarl seem all the more unnatural, offers a face turned into a kabuki mask, rigid and lunatic. And yet watching how Veidt sketches emotions around the edges of this offers a master class in expressive performing. Perhaps the high point of the film, at once hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first appears on stage at one of his shows. The smile he turns on his audiences gains delirious power, sending the crowd into convulsions and bringing Josiana under the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a series of superimpositions and dissolves, beautiful (but ugly) man and ugly (but beautiful) man bound together, a visual etude of awareness that one must exist to give meaning the other. His hideousness sparks merriment, becomes a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the common folk suggesting the dark side of the society they live in, and finally locating an accord with them, on the level of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity. To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential crisis that can only be resolved in laughter, whilst the man himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being satisfied, and exultation in his rare fame.

The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme surely was to echo on through Universal’s subsequent horror films with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine eventually rises from the status of clown to lord, he manages the more important evolution, finally voiced when bellows with righteous fury at the stunned toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! But God made me a man!” It’s the climactic moment of the film and of the revealing thread of interest that runs through from Waxworks to this film, the depiction of brutal power: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is every bit as totemic, and instantly punishable, as the baker and bridegroom’s invective against their tyrants and the evils forced by life in the earlier film. Fortunately, Gwynplaine’s new status cuts a swathe through the stunned lords, giving him a brief window of escape before the Queen’s heavies move in, and he stages a successful flight across the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s gifts at the free rush of action as well in creating the tangled moods of psychic anxiety. In spite of the never-never setting of both films, or perhaps because of it, a genuine charge of palpable meaning emerges from such flourishes. Leni’s world is a place of wandering, rootless but free artists and yearning poets, twisted beings full of humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social power. But, most fundamentally, for both the poet and Gwynplaine, the man himself is his own enemy. Leni’s small but still vital oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.


13th 12 - 2006 | no comment »

Detour (1945)

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Detour, a $30,000 quickie produced in 6 days by a no-name film company and a B movie director, is considered a classic film noir – perhaps the earliest pure example of the form – that is essential viewing for any film buff. To see this film for the first time is to fight competing impulses: laughter at its many technical “mistakes” and uneasiness over the snowballing “bad luck” of the protagonist, Al (Tom Neal). Neither impulse is wrong, but both are more complicated than they seem. Detour is the perfect name for a film that takes its audience far from its usual expectations to realize, only slowly, that they are riding along with a psychopath.

Al narrates the film from beginning to end. When we first meet him, he’s playing piano with a small combo in a low-rent nightclub in New York City. His girl, a pretty blonde named Sue (Claudia Drake), is the combo’s singer, and she has a great voice. One evening, he is playing solo on stage, embellishing on classical themes in a truly masterful way. The manager comes up to him and hands him a $10 tip from a patron. He’s scornful of this tip: “When this drunk gave me a ten spot, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it? A piece of paper crawling with germs.” Al thinks he should be in the big time, playing Carnegie Hall. When he shares his bitterness with Sue, she is sympathetic but is worried about her own dreams of success. She has decided to go to Los Angeles and try her luck out there. We watch them walk down a foggy street to her apartment; in one of the many technically clumsy moments, the street is so fogged up by an overzealous technician that we can’t see them at all for part of the walk. She tells him they can still get married as they planned, but just not for a while.

Al is torn up by Sue’s departure. One night, he phones her from a pay phone. We only get his side of the conversation and a 2-second cut-in of Sue to prove, I guess, that he really is talking to her. This was done, no doubt, to save money on film. He’s coming out to be with her if he has to hitch the whole way—and he very nearly does. We are shown one of those cheesy maps that marks his progress across country and watch him thumbing along the highway. Someone had the bizarre idea to show Al traveling from right to left across the movie screen to simulate a westward journey. To achieve this unnecessary effect, the film was flopped, so it appears that all the cars Al gets into have their steering wheels on the right side of the car. When he finally gets into a car in Arizona that has the steering wheel where American cars ought to have them, the noir part of the story really takes root.

In Arizona, Al is picked up by a man named Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a professional gambler on his way to L.A. from Florida. Haskell’s got a fancy convertible car, a roll of cash, a generous disposition, and, apparently, a heart condition; he asks Al to give him a box of pills from the glove compartment from time to time that must contain nitroglycerine. Al notices a nasty gash on Haskell’s hand that looks like he was mauled by a wildcat. Haskell says it was a wildcat but not an animal. It was a dame with a 100 percent mean streak running through her.

The two men take turns driving. One night while Al is driving, it starts to rain. Al stops the car to put up the top. He asks Haskell to move aside as he reaches for the top on the passenger side, but Haskell doesn’t respond. Al opens the door, and Haskell spills out onto the ground, apparently dead of a heart attack. Al panics. He fears the cops won’t believe a penniless hitchhiker like him that Haskell died of natural causes. He ditches Haskell’s body in some bushes, takes his clothes to look more respectable, and takes his wallet and identity.

The next day, Al pulls up at a filling station. He notices a young woman hitching near the station and offers her a ride. He seems to find her an odd sort of attractive. She says her name is Vera (Ann Savage), but doesn’t offer up much more information. He says his name is Haskell. They ride for a while, and finally, she turns toward him with a ferocious look on her face. She says, “You’re not Haskell!” She was the woman who scratched Haskell, and she assumes Al has probably killed him. From that moment on, Al is her prisoner, forced to take care of her so she won’t turn him into the police. They move into an apartment in L.A. Al intends to sell the car he took off Haskell and give Vera the money to pay her off.

Unfortunately, she sees an item in the paper that says that authorities are looking for the long-lost heir to the fortune of Charles Haskell, Sr. Vera insists Al try to impersonate Haskell and collect on the fortune. Al protests he’ll never pull it off – he couldn’t even tell the manager at the car dealership what kind of insurance he carried on the car when he tried to sell it. A very drunk Vera makes good on her threat to phone the police. She dials, but the call is never completed. Al accidentally kills her in a rather ingenious scene. When we next see Al, he’s sitting in a diner on his way back East, dreaming of Sue and pleading with the audience to believe that things just don’t work out for him: “Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

There are a number of elements that make this film work. First, Ann Savage lives up to her name. She plays Vera as a spiteful survivor, quick to make threats and even quicker to carry them out. She’s utterly mesmerizing to watch as the first real noir femme fatale who uses her wits to manipulate a seemingly weak man. The script is beautifully written by Martin Goldsmith based on his own novel. It’s hardboiled without being one long cliche, colorful without drawing too much attention to itself. These characters could have said these things, which is not something you could ever say of another supplier of noir material – Mickey Spillane.

What really makes this film fascinating is Al’s first-person narrative. This is the film that taught me an unforgettable lesson about the unreliable narrator. If we hadn’t had the voiceover from Al’s point of view, we would be inclined to think he was a true innocent caught in a spiral of bad luck and fear. Instead, we are forced to examine every element of the film to see if it seems plausible, to see if maybe it didn’t happen another way. Was Al’s musicianship as great as we heard, or was it what he imagined? If he really was the next Paderewski, as his boss snidely suggests, would he really be playing in a dump?

Let’s look at Sue’s departure. He says they were to be married. To me it looks like a classic brush-off. You don’t move across country to keep a relationship going. Perhaps the cut-in of Sue wasn’t just a cheap effect. Maybe his entire conversation was a fantasy. Every aspect of this film has to be questioned from an objective standpoint, and that’s what makes it such an object lesson in audience manipulation. Even the cheap look contrasts the tawdriness of Al with his vision of himself. That most likely was unintentional, but it happens nonetheless.

I love Detour. It’s the model for Memento, Secret Window, and every other film that tries to make viewers believe it’s something it’s not, and may even succeed whether we want it to or not.


15th 11 - 2006 | no comment »

Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932)

Director: Carl Theodore Dreyer

By Roderick Heath

1931 was a watershed year for horror cinema. With Tod Browning’s crepuscular, but patchy Dracula, James Whale’s Gothic fairy tale Frankenstein, Rouben Mamoulian’s vivid Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Michael Curtiz’s flashy, absurd Doctor X, the genre found its feet in the Hollywood of sound, and made a big impact at the box office. At the time, they set the pace, created stars, and codified the film concept of Mary Shelley’s homunculus, Bram Stoker’s vampire, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s doppelganger (Doctor X purloined the mad scientist imagery of pulp magazine covers for the cinema). Yet despite their iconic status, the Universal-brand horror films have little relevance to the modern genre. Many of today’s films, however, owe something to another 1931 film.

Vampyr, supposedly inspired by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and other stories in Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection (in truth it owes little but mood to Le Fanu), was at the time completely overshadowed. It was directed and written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Danish director who had begun with the hit Master of the House (1924). But as Dreyer became more formally rigorous and experimental, exemplified by his now-famous La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1927), he lost audiences. German and Scandinavian directors had a field day with macabre subjects, for visual rhapsodies and post-WWI expressions of mental anguish and collapse. These included Victor Sjöstrom (The Phantom Carriage, 1920), Benjamin Christensen (Häxan, 1921), F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu, of course, 1921), Abel Gance (Au Secours!, 1923), Paul Leni (Waxworks, 1924), and Fritz Lang (coauthor of Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari, 1919, and director of Der Meude Tod,1921). Dreyer’s efforts with Vampyr were not about telling a story through the symbolic prisms of Expressionism, but pursuing the tantalizing challenge of Surrealism, to capture the essence of a dream as itself; to replicate the sensations, the elided realities and meanings, the disjunctive perspectives. The film’s dialogue is in English, German, and French, with an eye to making export easier, but also contributing to its “nowhere” mood.

Vampyr was produced privately by the film’s star, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (acting under the name Julian West). The sallow-faced Gunzburg plays wandering geek and professional busybody Allan Grey, loosely based on one of Le Fanu’s recurring heroes (he’s called David Gray in the English version), who tramps about the countryside in tweed suit, jaunty hat, with a net on his shoulder, suggesting a holidaying entomologist with a morphine habit and an unconventional sex life. He arrives in Courtempierre, an isolated Franco-German village, passing, at the ferry bell, a black figure carrying a scythe, a sight that would make most men turn and head in another direction. The opening scrawl tells us that Allan has had many strange encounters; he’s a kind of proto-Fox Mulder. He settles into a small hotel room, the walls of which are covered in macabre, medieval decorations. He hears someone muttering outside, and catches a brief glimpse of a gnarled-faced man haunting the upstairs. He is awoken at midnight by a visitor; not, as he may have been hoping, the innkeeper’s daughter, but aged local chatelaine (Maurice Schutz) who makes wordless entreaty to him, as an outsider and therefore apparently trustworthy, to care for a package, marked “Not To Be Opened Until My Death.”

Allan, knowing such packages never bode well, tries to follow the old man. He wanders the day-for-midnight wonderland of the village, where shadows without forms move by themselves and dogs and children moan constantly. Allan explores a ruined chateau, which, with its cavernous rooms and labyrinthine halls, exactly conjures those shifting space-time traps of dreams. It is vaguely inhabited by a soldier and a one-legged man, both of whom, when they sleep, have their shadows walk off and perform nefarious deeds at someone else’s bidding. There’s also an ancient crone (Henriette Gérard) wearing Flemish dress of the 1600s and a bespectacled, meek-looking but creepy doctor (Jan Hieronimko – what a name!). In the film’s most bizarre and wondrous moment, the camera explores a vast attic where a populace of shadows are dancing to snatches of Gypsy fiddle, until the crone, on a lower floor, framed by dangling, rotating cartwheels, angrily lifts her cane for silence, which she gains instantaneously. She hands the doctor a vial of poison. Clearly, they’re in league for some awful purpose.

Allan escapes the ruin and reaches the chatelaine’s house just in time to see the shadows of the soldier and one-legged man shoot the chatelaine. His assassination seems almost expected by the household, for he’s been fighting this oppressive, intangible evil. Allan is invited to stay and protect them, Gisele (Rena Mandel, an ex-nude model), the chatelaine’s daughter, Her sister Leone (Sybille Schmitz, the film’s only professional actor) is continually lured into the garden and drained of blood by the crone. In one of the most needle-sharp erotic-horror moments in cinema, Leone awakens from a delirium and latches eyes on her sister, her happy smile broadening into a grin of perverse lust, scaring Gisele away. A servant is sent by carriage to fetch the police; when it comes rolling back, the driver is bloody and lifeless. Allan, exhausted, falls asleep. He dreams Gisele has been kidnapped and tied up in the ruin, and then finds his own body in a coffin; in a bravura long POV shot, we are Allan as the lid of his coffin is nailed on and he is carried by the gloating faces of the doctor and the crone.

Allan awakens with a jolt as panic erupts in the house. The doctor, having called to check on Leone, has poisoned her. Allan and the chatelaine’s loyal servant (Albert Bras) open the package entrusted to Allan by the chatelaine. It’s a book on vampires from the 1770s, based on papers found in Faust’s collection. Despite this lip-smacking suggestion of forbidden lore, it only relates basic stake-in-the-heart stuff, and gives a clue to the vampire’s identity by detailing how, in the 1750s, an outbreak of vampire attacks in Courtempierre were blamed on a dead woman named Marguerite Chopin. Allan and the servant search the graveyard for Chopin’s grave and find it contains the crone. The servant stakes the vampire as Allan searches for Gisele in the ruin. He unties her, scares off the doctor, and gets her out of the haunted village by boat. The servant gets final revenge when he finds the doctor has cornered himself in a flour mill; he sets the machinery rolling and the perfidious medico slowly drowns in tons of white flour, shouting “I don’t want to die!” Might have thought of that before you started poisoning girls and mistreating dogs!

In developing this cryptic, often blackly comic film, Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Mate were inspired a flour mill wreathed in dusty clouds they passed while on a train, a sight that inspired the finale and the hazy, washed-out visuals produced by false light shone on the lens. Contributing was Nosferatu’s designer Hermann Warm, and like that film, Vampyr shares an appealing rejection of studio-created atmosphere for careful manipulation of real settings. Vampyr is technically primitive, with poor sound from an experimental system. Dreyer used this flaw to good effect, muting the dialogue and reduces the soundtrack to menacing rumbles and barely heard sonorous music, adding to the ruined look. Dreyer seems to have been the first director to seek an illusion of the uncanny by devolving the techniques of film, something now every film student tries at least once. Yet Dreyer’s camera is sublimely mobile, roaming halls and rooms with restless, hungry fascination.

Vampyr pilots the next few generations’ worth of experimental film in its attempts to capture the uncanny. In The Ring, when one character judges the mysterious videotape as good in a student film fashion, he’s absolutely right, but that tradition of experimental short, and, more recently, death metal music videos trying to recreate the ugly dissociations of nightmares, have some roots in Dreyer’s style. It’s hard to imagine David Lynch’s films, especially Eraserhead, without Dreyer. Much of what Lynch accomplished—weird soundtrack, disorientating editing, sickly half-seen visions—is present here. But Vampyr is gossamer in its invocation of the morbid, more in the key of Mahler than Evanescence.

Vampyr is modernist, in its war with perspective, reality, and the limitations of the senses, and feels particularly reminiscent of Kafka—especially in its dark humor, the way Allan keeps walking into the weirdest circumstances without blanching and falls in love with Gisele at the drop of a hat. It’s also a pure invocation of the spirit of the Gothic genre, that European sense of being enveloped and suffocated by history, something that ultimately was lost on Hollywood.

Vampyr envisions a world haunted by loss and a past only visible in shreds, entrapped by identity but adrift between realities. Although Allan and Gisele escape from the fog-shrouded bank, they arrive on the side that our scythe-wielding friend crossed to earlier; it’s hard to tell if the waking world will be better. That waking world was about to collapse in on itself. Under the Nazis, German horror cinema would be extinguished, thanks to their detestation of the psychological and the genre’s too-pointed realisation of what forces were stirring under the surface—Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari envisioned the country as a giant insane asylum waiting for an authoritative administrator.

Vampyr was ignored on release. Dreyer did not make another film for 13 years, until with Day of Wrath (1943) he returned to studying the legacies of historical evil and psychological oppression. Sybille Schmitz later starred in Frank Wisbar’s version of the death-and-the-maiden theme, Faehrmann Maria (1936), which Wisbar remade when he decamped stateside as PRC’s Strangler in the Swamp (1946). Nicholas de Gunzburg became an investment banker in New York, a notable sight for many years walking the streets displaying the same haunted, soulful expression he sports in Vampyr. l


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