29th 03 - 2017 | 10 comments »

Shoes (1916)

Director/Screenwriter: Lois Weber

The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the women who helped create the film industry, few stand taller than Lois Weber. A quadruple threat—actress, screenwriter, director, producer—Weber’s directing credits number 138, and the quality of her work was ranked regularly alongside D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille during her heyday in the 1910s. The social consciousness that marks many of her films derived from two years working as a social activist and a Church Army Workers missionary among prostitutes and the down and out in Pittsburgh and New York City, and her continuing desire to influence humanity for the better.

Weber adapted Shoes from a story Stella Wynne Herron published in the January 1, 1916, issue of Collier’s magazine that itself was inspired by a novel about prostitution by the “mother of social work,” Jane Addams. Weber’s own scenario gives her plot away right from the start by paraphrasing the Addams’ quote below from A New Conscience for an Ancient Evil:

When the shoes became too worn to endure a third soling and she possessed but 90 cents toward a new pair, she gave up the struggle; to use her own contemptuous phrase, she ‘sold out for a new pair of shoes.’

Teenager Eva Meyer (Mary MacLaren) has a heavy burden to bear. She works at a five and dime for $5 a week, which she dutifully brings home on Saturday night so that she, her parents, and her three sisters can make it through another week. Her father (Harry Griffith) isn’t too keen on working, preferring to stay in bed reading and smoking his pipe. Her mother (Mattie Witting) is busy keeping home and hearth together, and looking after her younger children.

Eva has been trying to keep her tattered shoes going for months. The new pair of shoes she’s been eyeing is far out of reach, even though it costs only $3, because her pay barely covers the rent and groceries for her family. Her coworker, Lil (Jessie Arnold), has been supplementing her income by sleeping with “Cabaret” Charlie (William V. Mong), who has taken a shine to Eva and invites her to the nightclub where he sings—and, of course, to accept his “hospitality.”

Because we learned the outcome of Eva’s dilemma at the beginning of the film, her eventual decision to sell herself for new shoes takes a back seat to examining the conditions under which she and her family struggle. Eva and her family live in a dirty tenement in a rough part of town; in a moment of almost throwaway but effective emphasis, a shady character loitering on the doorstep ducks inside the building vestibule when some cops come by. Her mother washes clothes in a pot of boiling water on the stove, and there is never enough meat to go around—characteristically, Mr. Meyer gets more than his fair share of it.

Eva wears the same clothes to work day after day and has no umbrella to shield herself or the cardboard inserts in her shoes from wilting under several days of pounding rain. Close-ups of Eva’s worn shoes are juxtaposed with her daydreams of wearing the shoes of her dreams. A group of well-to-do ladies walk past Eva as she is taking her lunch in a nearby park, and her POV shot focuses not on their dresses or hats but rather on their shoes.

The performances in the film are generally good, though most of the players work in the broad style common in silent movies. Mong leers, Arnold broadly flirts and overemphasizes the new watch she has on after a night with Charlie, and Witting’s grief over Eva’s fallen status is overdone. Griffith, however, seems very comfortable as an oblivious idler who takes his privileges for granted, reading at the dinner table and spending whatever he wants on a new book.

Weber rightly focuses the film on Mary MacLaren, whose heartfelt performance made this an incredibly moving experience for me. Her wonderfully sad face and natural acting style make it easy to identify with her and her emotions. When Eva passes by her parents’ bedroom and sees her father reading with pillows propping him up against the footboard, her look of contempt reaches us right through the screen; even when she’s not looking at him, her poor regard for him oozes out of every scene in which they appear together. While Mrs. Meyer gently prods her husband to look for work, Eva has already given him up as a lost cause.
Her attempts to avoid Charlie’s advances eschew the usual head shaking and extended back bends most movie damsels in distress employ. Instead, she leans slightly away, walks away, looks down—in other words, she does what most women would do. Even while internally disgusted, she allows Charlie to touch her in the cabaret without looking at him, but also without cringing or pulling away.

Her finest moment comes when she tires of trying to mend her shoes and finally makes up her mind; we can almost see the switch thrown. There is no anguish on her face, just a settled determination. She changes into a sheer blouse, the only change of wardrobe we’ve seen, shimmies her skirt down to her hips to cover her shoes, shakes her braids out and brushes her hair into an upsweep. She tells her mother she’ll be overnight at Lil’s and needs carfare. She doesn’t blame her mother, but this small demand for money strikes us as ironic.

Weber was interested in showing what pushes women into prostitution, though she melodramatically underlines it with a deathly image of “Poverty.” The daily indignities, carelessness, and misery are bad enough, but Weber also shoots fantasies of what Eva dreamed her life would be like to underscore the death of those dreams as Eva surrenders to a grinding reality. Lest anyone think that the film takes a moralistic tone about sex, Eva’s mother cries over the loss of her daughter’s virginity in this degrading manner, but without any hint of condemnation; it truly is a wretched circumstance.

The EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands had the only known print of Shoes and completed a two-year digital restoration of it in 2010. The film was chosen for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2014. This year, Milestone Films will release a DVD of the film with a score by veteran silent film composers and musicians Donald Sosin and Mimi Rabson. The screencaps for Shoes in this review come from several sources, so I can’t swear for the veracity of the color screens, but I can assure you that this is a film well worth catching from a filmmaker you should know.

Shoes will screen Saturday, April 1 at 3:30 p.m. and Monday, April 3 at 6 p.m. as part of the “Lois Weber: Pioneer Progressive Filmmaker” series at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.


27th 03 - 2017 | 1 comment »

Behind the Door (1919)

Director: Irvin Willat

By Marilyn Ferdinand

When it comes to hoping against hope, silent film buffs are among cinema’s most starry-eyed dreamers. A perennial April Fool’s Day joke is that a print of the long-lost, lusted-after Tod Browning/Lon Chaney horror pic London After Midnight (1927) has surfaced in some dusty basement or other; I never cease to be amazed by how many people fall for that old chestnut year after year. Of course, who can blame them when discoveries like John Ford’s Upstream (1927) and Beyond the Rocks (1922), which features the only teaming of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, actually do return from the presumed-lost list.

Speculation about the possible recovery of Behind the Door has been rampant for years. This war melodrama based on a wildly popular short story by Gouverneur Morris published in the July 1918 issue of McClure’s magazine—one of its Win-the-War issues—was a runaway success when it was released. Although the war was over, emotions were still running hot over the many casualties inflicted by the dreaded Hun. Behind the Door’s lurid revenge fantasy hit all the right buttons. Yet, like so many silent films, its popularity could not prevent it from fading from view. Only fragments from the estate of the film’s star, Hobart Bosworth, remained in the U.S. Library of Congress, and an export print said to be stored at Gosfilmofond, the Russian national archive, remained tantalizingly out of reach for decades. Happily, the fall of the Soviet Union and an attempt at a reconstruction by the Library in 1994 got the wheels turning on a proper restoration. Rob Byrne, film restorer and president of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, explains the process:

Film historian Robert Birchard lent his copy of director Irvin Willat’s original continuity script to help ensure that the reconstruction matched the original editing sequence and as a reference for the reel missing its English-language intertitles. The original color tinting scheme is also restored, based on analysis of the film leaders and the structure of the printing rolls. A new 35mm preservation negative and a print are now housed in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Collection at the Library of Congress. Another 35mm print is also housed in the archives of restoration partner Gosfilmofond in Moscow.

The return of Behind the Door is a timely one, as American xenophobia has reared its ugly head once more.

The action takes place largely in flashback, as Captain Oscar Krug (Bosworth) returns to his decayed home and taxidermy business in Bartlett, Maine, an old and broken man. Chancing upon a blood-stained handkerchief covered in dust in his ruin of a shop, Krug casts his mind back to April 4, 1917, the day the United States declared war on Germany, a message delivered to the film audience by a telegraph operator who writes the message out as he receives it and runs outside to announce it to the townspeople going about their daily business. Almost at once, the crowd is ready to tar and feather anyone of German ancestry, starting with Krug.

Krug is a kind man who fixes a broken doll for a tear-streaked little girl and romances Alice Morse (Jane Novak), the banker’s daughter, much to her father’s displeasure. But when he is accused of being anti-American or a spy, Krug staunchly defends himself by reminding his detractors that his grandfather fought with Admiral Farragut (“Krug wasn’t too German then!”) and who himself fought with Commodore Dewey at Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. Nonetheless, it takes a bloody donnybrook with Bill McTavish (James Gordon), “a sea-faring man” and harsh critic of Krug’s ancestry, to win the town over. Bygones being bygones, Krug and McTavish become best friends as they sign up to serve their country onboard the Perth. Alice, tossed out by her father when she tells him she married Krug, follows her husband to sea and stows away to be with him.

The acting in the first half of the film is broad, with Bosworth’s declamatory style and gestures exactly the kind of thing modern audiences tend to laugh at. The fight between him and McTavish, however, seems heart-racingly real, as the two men bleed, stumble, and fall quite convincingly. Although much more shocking to watch, it has the same effect as the extended fistfight in The Quiet Man (1952)—instilling harmony and respect between adversaries. Bosworth also tends to tone it down when playing opposite the more natural acting style of Novak, but the lurid story in which Bosworth finds himself may have convinced him to beat his points home with a baseball bat.

The second half of the film is what Behind the Door’s enduring reputation rests on. A horrifying series of events that sees two ships sunk, Alice and Krug cast away and down to their last drop of water, and criminality so shocking I wouldn’t dream of revealing it here makes for exciting and pitiable viewing. Krug’s nemesis, a U-boat captain named Brandt, is played with menacing villainy by Wallace Beery, and their confrontation on the deck of Brandt’s U-boat is genuinely chilling. Krug slips into a raging madness from that point forward, and put me in mind of Sweeney Todd in looks and demeanor. And perhaps unintentionally, the story seems to confirm that Hun-like behavior may be bred in the bone.

The restoration looks great and the score by Stephen Horne is superb. Although there is some uncorrectable damage near the beginning of the film and some short missing sequences that are filled with stills, they do nothing to detract from this exciting melodrama, which is now available on DVD/Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.


17th 07 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Foolish Wives (1922)

Director/Screenwriter: Erich von Stroheim

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By Roderick Heath

Amongst the giants of silent cinema, Erich von Stroheim looms very large. Not so much for his work, vital as it is, but for his legend, his persona. Von Stroheim all but created the iconography of the larger-than-life, dictatorial, obsessively visionary filmmaker that has echoed in many dimensions through the history of cinema. In his repeated, ultimately degrading clashes with movie chiefs who literally cut several of his great labours to pieces, he helped define two mirroring clichés still readily detectable in pop culture: the great genius brought down by vulgar moneymen and the egomaniacal poseur incinerating cash to make extravagant follies. Stroheim, son of middle-class Austrian-Jewish parents, carved himself a place in the United States by affecting the style of an strident, Germanic aristocrat and aesthete. He developed a persona in his acting work that played exactly to a certain brand of New World perception of an Old World nabob, a corrupting and depraved roué under a surface of martial rigour and gilded pretence. Stroheim played on the blend of fascination and distaste for such a persona in the American psyche as it entered the First World War, when it wanted to be accepted as a grown-up superpower yearning for the dauntingly elevated aura symbolised by European culture whilst quietly longing to prove native virtues. Stroheim understood this dualism perfectly well, because he was in thrall to it, too, both assimilating himself into the allure of classes to which he didn’t belong and appropriating their glamour whilst relentlessly subverting and despoiling them with an immigrant outsider’s vitriol.

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Stroheim found fame as an actor, his performances as German officers in wartime films earning him the immortal tag of “The Man You Love to Hate.” Such roles included his infamous turn in The Heart of Humanity (1918), where his embodiment of the most unrestrained propaganda poster’s idea of a villainous Hun, killing babies and ravishing nurses, enthralled viewers in a manner not dissimilar to later iconic bad guys like Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. He simultaneously gained filmmaking experience working for D.W. Griffith, and quickly parlayed his fame and clout into a directing career. That career was relatively brief, but it swung through poles of great success and total ignominy with such force and clamour in the young industry that it still echoes with ring of myth.

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Stroheim repeatedly went all-in on a bet that later seemed like the essence of uncommercial imprudence, but wasn’t actually so unreasonable at the time: that Hollywood could support a wing of ambition similar to the burgeoning European film scene. There, in the early ’20s, it wasn’t uncommon for respected master filmmakers like Abel Gance and Fritz Lang to make multi-episode films that attracted crowds of people willing and ready to be immersed in grand acts of creation. That cultural model was completely opposed to Hollywood’s self-image as a stud farm turning out well-shod, successful sprinters, the model that would win out. Stroheim also sensed that cinema was a drug of allure as well as reflection, a place people went to be delivered from the ordinary, and like Cecil B. DeMille, knew a dialogue of idealism and indulged depravity was part of the appeal. So, Stroheim was happy to extend his established persona in his first two films, Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), and sate that desire. With Greed (1924), Stroheim would reveal his deepest, most adamant artistic convictions, and paid a heavy price for them: the scornful drollery Stroheim exhibited as a director at first was scratched to reveal a much more properly dark and rigorous interest in human degradation viewed through art’s transformative prisms. But well before that tragic escapade, Foolish Wives had already been brutally cut down from the epic Stroheim proposed and was the subject of boardroom arguments with young, newly installed executive Irving Thalberg over its grossly inflated cost, mostly stemming from Stroheim’s fanatical attention to detail. Naturally, however, the off-screen controversy was transmuted into gleeful marketing, with the poster declaring that this was the first “million dollar movie”: Stroheim sold the lifestyle of the rich as the stuff of silver screen dreams. However ruefully, Hollywood played along.

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Foolish Wives is much stranger and denser than its sexy melodrama essentials suggest, as Stroheim’s pitch-black humour and fascination with transgressive urges constantly despoils the neat edges of familiar narrative. The filmmaker toys with artistic ideas that still had no name at the time, signalled most unmistakably when, within a film called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim, a character reads a book called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim uses this device to suggest levels of reality in his work, even perhaps to indict it as something the eponymous imprudent hausfraus might hallucinate in the sun after a full day sipping cocktails and thumbing romance novels, their own gleeful vision of depravity on the sunny shores of the Cote d’Azur. Or is it Stroheim molesting those daydreams? He uses this device to insert commentaries that have overt, proto-Brechtian quotation marks around them, highlighting them as distinct from the texture of the work and yet part of them.

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From the opening iris shot, the film has the quality of the dark fairytale it is, depicting as it does two relatively innocent characters taking a path into a shady stretch of the forest in search of experience and encountering imps who live off fat American babes in the woods—except that Stroheim prefers the perspective of his imps, casting himself as Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, supposedly a White Russian aristocrat exiled in Monaco. Stroheim never quite elucidates whether or not Karamzin is a phony, that is, a man born to be a user of other people or a convert to the creed. But his so-called cousins “Princess” Vera (Mae Busch) and “Her Highness” Olga Petchnikoff (Maud George) are his mistresses and confederates in maintaining their lavish lifestyle through con artistry, backed up by bogus cash supplied by counterfeiter Cesare Ventucci (Cesare Gravina).

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Stroheim introduces this coterie of reprobates in his opening scene, a sudden plunge into a little world at the Villa Amorosa, where the perverse is instantly rendered cozy, as Stroheim notes the two women taking their place at the breakfast table with their light, jockeying bitchiness, whilst Karamzin is out performing his morning exercise of target-shooting by the sea. He returns to his villa and indulges what the intertitles call his “cereal” and “coffee,” that is, caviar and ox blood. Ventucci arrives to dole out more of his counterfeit cash, with his feeble-minded but fully-grown daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo) in tow. Olga tells off servant Maruschka (Dale Fuller) by grasping and viciously twisting the flesh of her arm. Karamzin greedily eyes doll-clutching, goggle-eyed Marietta and gives her a bottle of his aftershave as a bauble to remember him by (or whatever it is: Karamzin dabs some of it behind his ears and then tastes it for good measure). This gaudy little crew operate through two-pronged attacks, zeroing in on wealthy, naïve couples, with Karamzin going after the wife and his “cousins” the husband as prelude to seducing and fleecing them. The newspapers announce the arrival of a seemingly perfect mark: the new U.S. Commissioner Plenipotentiary to Monaco Andrew J. Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (Miss DuPont). The lucky couple are brought into town on a U.S. cruiser and greeted on arrival by Prince Albert I (C.J. Allen). Watching from afar, Karamzin formulates his battle plan, and arranges to meet Helen in an outdoor café where she sits reading (yes, Foolish Wives), paying a busboy to page him and make him seem like a big shot. Karamzin swoops in for the chance to do a gallant turn in rescuing one of Helen’s wind-stirred gloves, to which Helen turns up her nose. A French officer and friend of the Hughes’ gives the pair a proper introduction, and soon he is fully accepted as a friend of the new arrivals, albeit with Andrew’s slightly sceptical regard.

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From the start of Foolish Wives, the clock is ticking for Karamzin and company, as their many sins gallop to catch up with them. The most pathetic character is Maruschka, but she is also the one holding unrealised power. Karamzin had made her another of his household concubines on a promise to marry her, a promise he, of course, perpetually wriggles out of. “I am, as they say, free, white, and twenty-one,” Helen declares to her husband at one point, making remarkably plain her nascent determination to get a little adventure. Andrew wryly retorts with a salute before slinking off to his separate bedroom: “Well, I’m married—sunburned—and forty-one…but—my eyes are pretty good yet.” Much of the narrative (reminiscent of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe) is built around whether Helen will be seduced by Karamzin into giving him her money, body, or both, willingly or unwillingly, but Stroheim plies no sense of endangered innocence. A glimpse of Stroheim’s “book” in the film offers a diegetic comment that Americans’ obsession with making money leaves them uninterested in the social games that obsess Europeans, which could be seen as the director finding an ingenious way to insult his audience but is also a spur to Helen’s adventuring as she reads the book over and over again; by the finale, it gives a sop that contradicts this possible slight, as Andrew stands up for his moral code and Karamzin’s adherence to his proves utterly hollow. A wry, slightly horrifying sequence sees Karamzin at the height of his bantam cock parading wowing Helen and a crowd in a sport-shooting contest using live pigeons released from boxes, leaving little doubt about Karamzin’s ability to shoot down anything not likely to shoot back. Once he’s ingratiated himself sufficiently into the Hughes’ company, he contrives to drag Helen off with him to the Hotel des Rêves, a small, out-of-the-way rendezvous.

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Stroheim’s acid wit is apparent from the outset in Foolish Wives, and the film often has the tone of an extended dirty joke, a semi-Sadean comedy of manners and immorality. The overtones of cruelty and phoniness intimated in the opening scene at the Villa Amorosa (that name a sarcasm that grows ever more vicious as the film goes on) and the vivid strangeness of the characters border on surreal; Karamzin and the Ventuccis seem to have crawled out of some Gogol-esque fantasia. Stroheim intercuts Andrew being received by Prince Albert with Helen’s introduction to Karamzin, both meeting figures who exemplify the local society and creed, the cockroach scuttling under the gilt. The core sequence when Karamzin takes Helen for a day out in the country becomes an epic burlesque of Victorian romantic fiction. The “hotel of dreams” is a waystation engineered for an adventure into pastoral territory that Karamzin knows so well he “was soon able to get himself — ‘hopelessly lost!’” Weather aids Karamzin’s schemes, as a powerful storm blows in whilst he and Helen are struggling through marshy reeds on the edge of a stream. Lightning shatters the footbridge over the waterway, and Karamzin tries to transport them over in a rowboat, only for it to spring a leak and sink. He plucks Helen up and carries her to shore, transformed into exactly the sort of gallant cavalier he strives so assiduously to look like whilst never actually giving a damn for it. They take refuge in an old woman’s cabin, one that Karamzin has used so often for this sort of thing Olga calls it “Mother Garoupe’s Hotel,” a den of picturesque crudity and pastoral filth. Karamzin hovers while Helen dries off and is installed in the owner’s bed. What should be the moment of irrepressible passion is instead a drooling conman waiting for his chance to leap in between the sheets with the blowsy Yankee lady.

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Just as he gets his chance, however (in a scene blurred almost to incoherence to avoid censor furore, but critics still rose to the bait in calling the film as a whole a “slur on American womanhood”), a monk caught in the storm looking for shelter pokes his head through the window and eyes the scene suspiciously. The monk enters and settles down for the night, forcing Karamzin to bitterly nurse a serious case of blue balls in the armchair by the fire until dawn. Throughout this sequence, Stroheim is merciless in mocking not just romantic fancy, but also the kind of idealised rustic melodrama that most other filmmakers, including even Murnau five years later with Sunrise (1927), would ply with ripe sentiment. Olga covers for the duo by phoning the ambassador from the Hotel des Rêves, and once returned to her apartment in the morning, Helen sneaks back into her bedroom. Andrew had responded to her absence the night before with a weirdly patient grin anyway, as if ruefully testing his own limits of tolerance. Stroheim’s reputation as an obsessive craftsman of authenticity has somewhat obscured his great, influential visual talent, though that effort certainly pays off in depicting the teeming street life hovering on the streets of Monaco, brass bands and horse guards turning out to greet the new ambassador amidst gawking tourists, and the central, mammoth recreation of the Monte Carlo Grand Casino. Stroheim’s realistic method represented an alternate tack from the emerging German approach of expressionism, and today might seem to anticipate such later, rigorous, maximalist filmmakers as Kubrick, Leone, or Cimino.

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Stroheim’s often vertiginously geometric graphics, seen at their strongest in the opening and in studying the humans with godlike disdain inside the casino, anticipate Orson Welles at his most baroque and invoke Stroheim’s recurring obsession with humans in relation to one another—class, broadly, but also invoking other forms of power and subordination. Stroheim alternates such shots with densely tangled mural-like framings, with faces, flowers, rococo architecture and stray dust specks all privileged to the point of animation, pointing on to the shot-by-shot deliberation, densely illustrative, of Greed. Yet, the photography of Foolish Wives is as vividly chiaroscuro and drenched in inky murk as anything the expressionists were doing, and Stroheim’s filmmaking often seems as fervently mythological as Lang’s Die Nibelungen, complete with his mock fairytale castle consumed by flames, the rustic hovel a den of stygian lightplay, and a character’s suicide filmed as a towering shadowplay against the rising sun on the sea. A scene in which Ventucci ushers Karamzin into his daughter’s bedroom as she lies sleeping is shot as a peak moment of visual beauty. Beams of light slanting through the room’s shutters illuminate dust teeming in the air, suggesting something at once unkempt and numinous about the abode and the way Ventucci enshrines the girl he promises to defend at all costs. Ventucci unfolds a knife and jabs neurotically at the air, miming for Karamzin’s edification and perhaps warning. Stroheim was a realist in the same way Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Zola were, providing a fervent, boiling mass of magnified human strangeness emerging from vividly depicted backdrops. Stroheim is often regarded as a filmmaker who tried to force more mature artistic values in American cinema. Here this pretence manifests as literary awareness, both in the nascent modernist joke of the meta-narrative and also in the weird, fragmented intertitles that appear throughout the film, written with a quality close to stream-of-consciousness. These titles provide a witty approximation of some imagined, talented, poet-layabout expatriate steeped in the local habitués and muttering acerbically beautiful notes (perhaps the “Erich von Stroheim” who wrote the book Foolish Wives): “Mondaine — Cocotta — Kings and Crooks — Amoura! Amoura! — And Suicides!” or “Again morning — sun-draped terrace — Sapphire sea — all the world on a holiday — Rifle Fire — Brooding doves — Brutality of man — and still the sun.”

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Karamzin’s success in assaulting Helen’s reputation and good sense on their rural exploit and failure to actually get what he’s after proves a turning point, after which Karamzin’s decline begins. Karamzin’s hunger for erotic satisfaction constantly exceeds his interest in his other projects, whilst his use of other people purely to meet his own desires reaches a hyperbolic point when he manipulates Maruschka into giving him her life savings—a paltry amount by his usual standards, but enough to get him through a night at the gaming tables. Karamzin is at his most entertaining the worse he gets, as when he drips wine on a tablecloth to make Maruschka think he’s crying. Stroheim wasn’t anyone’s idea of a matinee idol, and yet he inhabits his character with such outsized swagger and charisma that he pulls off his own charade of devastating gigolo, his bulbous head, flaring nostrils, and rubbery, sensuous lips like some caricaturist’s attempt to sketch lust, the deadly sin personified—which indeed they often did on film posters. Stroheim plays his role as Stroheim with a glee that’s striking, and hard to find a likeness for in later cinema: he’s just as egotistically masochistic as the wave of Method stars like Brando that would come up much later, always hungry to be nailed up on their crosses, but so willing to play the fiend without a hint of sympathy for the devil, in a drama that takes Mephistopheles from supporting character to centre frame. Obsessed with amorality as it is, though, Foolish Wives is no monument to it—far from it. Stroheim is equally gleeful in tracking his bad characters to ignominious ends and depicting the moments when the worms turn. Actually, Stroheim’s moral compass was rigorous, and to a certain extent, his films boil down to simple lessons—greed is bad, stick with your spouse, marry for love and not gain, etc.—made rich by his realisation, his feel for the contradictory impulses that consume people and poison societies.

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Most crucial and disturbing is his feel for how people often subordinate themselves to characters like Karamzin in their desire for him to give them something they lack—here, sexual pleasure and social status—and the way people like him exploit others endlessly. Stroheim would later take up the theme of sexuality coupled with avarice most intensely in Greed, but inverted; there repression fuels the hunger for money as a malformed need. An earlier vignette of an American soldier who failed to rescue the glove Karamzin retrieved is taken up later when the same man neglects to hold the casino door for her; she rears on him irritably, only to realise the veteran has lost his arms. Stroheim’s irony about appearances and the real nature of soldierly duty is obvious, but serves the purpose of radically shifting the film’s tone. Stroheim takes it a step further as Helen wraps herself in the man’s limp jacket arms and weeps on his shoulder. This scene becomes at once a perverse approximation of a lover’s tryst and a sentimental paean that mirrors the emotional amputees seen everywhere else in the film; it is even shot through an undercurrent of morbid eroticism.

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Stroheim sarcastically restages the Russian Revolution in miniature as domestic-erotic revolt, as Karamzin’s insults to the desperate, fraying Maruschka, drive the servant to lunacy and revenge. This pivotal moment comes as Stroheim depicts her weeping on her bed in her dingy servant’s room, and then zooms in to capture the moment when infernal inspiration takes hold. This camera move was one of Stroheim’s signature touches, the closing in of the camera’s gaze mimicking entrance into the private emotional experience of his characters, and here, coupled with Fuller’s performance, the effect is electrifying. Karamzin pushes his plan closer to fruition during a night on the town, as he has his “cousins” cordon off Andrew at the casino tables whilst he gambles with Helen: she wins a huge wad of cash, and Karamzin coaxes Helen to the villa, where he lays on her basically the same sob story he told Maruschka to get her winnings. Maruschka, however, her wits snapped, sets fire to the villa, entrapping the couple on a high floor.

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The fire department rushes to the scene, along with a mass of rubberneckers, whereupon Karamzin jumps into the waiting canvas ahead of Helen. Sarcastically asked by his soldier friends about town why he did this, he replies coolly that he had to show Helen it was safe. But Andrew, discovering the note Karamzin sent Helen to get her there in the first place, confronts him in the casino. Once Karamzin removes his monocle at his request and tells him, “Go to hell!”, Andrew wallops him so hard he crashes to the floor. During the film’s production, Allen died suddenly, and rather than reshoot his scenes with another actor, Stroheim instead employed a body double. That’s not surprising, as Allen’s performance, subtly comic and intelligent, is excellent. Karmazin tries to brush off Andrew’s humiliation of him, but is left to wander the streets alone at night, disgraced and essentially penniless and homeless, whilst his mistresses quickly pack up their belongings in the villa and flee. Justice, when it comes, is deserved, but merciless: the two women are picked up by fraud police who have been tracking them, stripped of their blonde flapper wigs to reveal the coal-coloured bobs beneath.

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Karamzin, on the hunt for some sort of satisfaction, steals into Marietta’s bedroom in Ventucci’s house. Here, the punitive editing the film was subjected to most clearly affected Stroheim’s concluding ironies and epiphanies. Karamzin’s sexual assault on Mariette was cut, as was Ventucci’s vengeful killing of him: the incident is instead merely suggested as Ventucci is depicted dragging Karamzin’s corpse down to dump in a sewer. The point remains, however muted: Karamzin’s gross rapacity finally destroyed him, and his journey to the bottom is completed in the most undignified way possible, anticipating the gangster antiheroes of the early ’30s and their sticky ends. Stroheim also intended to depict Karamzin’s departure as the rhyme to the reconciliation of the Hughes and Helen giving birth, suggesting the cyclical nature of life. This denouement, like much of Stroheim’s oeuvre, is lost to time and rumour. What’s left of Foolish Wives testifies to a great cinematic talent clearing his throat just in time to have it cut.


22nd 07 - 2014 | 7 comments »

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Josef von Sternberg

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By Roderick Heath

After the collapse of his partnership with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg’s career, which had traced the upper limits of success as a film director, went into near-terminal arrest. The flagrantly sensual, imperious, outrageous expressionist of the silver screen was out of place in the aesthetically and morally leashed era ruled by the Production Code. Whilst Sternberg lost the big budgets and rapturous, unfettered stature he had in the early ’30s, his grip on sound cinema strengthened, and some of his final films, as patchy, brilliant, and forsaken as Orson Welles’ later work, stand amongst his best. He made a marvellous skid row version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1935), but his involvement with Alexander Korda’s big-budget adaptation of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” proved a disaster when star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident and Korda pulled financing. Sternberg kept making whatever films he could in the next 20 years, even travelling to Japan to make Anatahan (1953). The Shanghai Gesture, destined to be the last complete work he was able to make in Hollywood, remains one of his most obscure, but is also a prized cult object. The Shanghai Gesture was based on a play by John Colton, a property that several Hollywood big shots, including Cecil B. DeMille, had tried to film. But the potato was just too hot: a lurid, fetid moral melodrama about revenge and degradation set in a high-class brothel. The Hays Office ordered more than 30 revisions to the script before it was finally deemed acceptable, including a shift of setting from bawdyhouse to casino—even then, the potency of the piece was inescapable.

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Sternberg proved the guy gutsy enough to do it, and legend has it he did it whilst lying on a couch all through the shoot. The resulting film is many things, amongst them Sternberg’s expression of enraged contempt for how clean and bogus Hollywood had become. Even the film’s opening credits includes a jab at the hierarchism of the industry as it offers a page in praise of “Hollywood extras,” whose anonymous, massed contributions helped so many films. Another early title assures the viewer that this is a pre-War story, whilst Shanghai of the day was at the centre of an enormous tussle of civilisations, “its fate undecided.” But of course, Sternberg’s time and place is not the real Shanghai of the 1930s, but his imagination’s conjured nexus of mystique and depravity.

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The linchpin of this mythic world is Mother Gin Sling’s gambling establishment in the heart of the old International Quarter. The Shanghai Gesture feels on some levels like the evil twin of Casablanca (1942), with which it shares the setting of a popular nightspot and gaming house at a world crossroads—with Marcel Dalio playing the overseer of games in both—where an old romance comes back to haunt the owner. But The Shanghai Gesture is the virtual negative image of the more famous film: the owner is a woman, and the old romance not only can’t be healed, but sparks a merciless vengeance the moment chance presents itself. For Sternberg, it was also a thematic return to the nature of rootlessness and the corrosive nature of erotic need, which tend in his films to lead directly in to one another, expressed through the exotica of unstable 1930s China in Shanghai Express (1932). But whereas that film emphasised mobility and hope, The Shanghai Gesture is again an inversion, a static, sucking whirlpool of evil.

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The production design turns Mother Gin Sling’s into just such a maelstrom, the terraces of the casino interior evoking a tiered descent into Dante’s levelled hell where the roulette wheel spins on and on in the lowest circle, racking up cash and souls. “It smells so incredibly evil,” Victoria “Poppy” Charteris (Gene Tierney) murmurs in sublime delight shortly after arriving and surveying the motley denizens: “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination.” Sternberg immediately acknowledges through his as-yet innocent, yet already perverse anti-heroine that this is psychological wonderland and repainted reality, where the audience is encouraged to use their own imaginations to fill in the lurid details. Sternberg’s narrative enters Mother Gin Sling’s not with Poppy but with another young woman, an American former chorus girl and exiled chippie, Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks), who’s introduced being shuffled down the street by an angry landlord and his comrades to a cop for failing to make the rent. Luck, or something like that, is on her side, as two of Mother Gin Sling’s cabal, “Doctor” Omar (Victor Mature) and gone-native English financier Percival Montgomery Hower (Clyde Fillmore) pass in a car and, taken by her looks, pay off her debt and take her to be assessed for a job as decorative furniture in the casino.

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Mother Gin Sling’s hardly seems like a safe repose, however, as a player’s attempt to shoot himself is dismissed as “Saturday night.” This week’s would-be suicide is regular player Boris (Ivan Lebedeff). Gin Sling makes her first appearance after his failed attempt, chastising him: “I thought we were good friends. Why do you choose my place as a springboard to the upper air?” Gin Sling is the film’s fetishistic heart and villain, as archly formalised in her dragon lady affectations as Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader or any other pulp villain, whilst also recalling the icon of stylised femininity Sternberg always tried to turn Dietrich into. She treads the aisles and stairs of her palace with angular precision, a high-fashion Nosferatu in her rarefied castle. Poppy is brought to this establishment by an asinine guide to the lowlife (John Abbott) in search of cheap thrills, but it soon proves that Poppy has some yearnings to be a cheap thrill. Poppy swaps politely barbed words with Gin Sling when introduced: Poppy teases her about her unlikely name, and Gin Sling pleasantly insults her back by suggesting her name might have been something as generic as Poppy, with the suggestion that there’s scarcely a thing different about where each of them has come from and where they’re going.

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Gin Sling learns from a circle of rich businessmen she counts amongst her regular customers, including Van Elst (Albert Bassermann), that her establishment is the target of strict new laws being imposed by corporate interests on Shanghai. “This is not a moral crusade, which might be easier for you to oppose than big business,” Van Elst warns Gin Sling, on giving her the news she has to clear out. “What do you call this?” ripostes Gin Sling’s bookkeeper (Eric Blore), referring to Mother Gin Sling’s. The herald of change is a newly arrived representative of the India-China Trading Company, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who is also Poppy’s father. Gin Sling doesn’t recognise the name and is scarcely interested or concerned by this threat, until she finds that Dixie was a former girlfriend of the incoming plutocrat.

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As Dixie describes one of his signature physical mannerisms, Gin Sling suddenly realises that she knows Charteris, and a look of lethal intent comes upon her. Her plot starts in encouraging Omar, her spruiker, pimp, and in-house gigolo, in his attentions towards Poppy, drawing the young woman, who’s fresh from a girls’ school in Switzerland, down to the roulette table, where she gambles with increasing fervor while spouting that eternal line of the neophyte, “I can stop anytime I want to.” But Gin Sling keeps her tethered to the tables by giving her a ready line of credit. Poppy’s real character begins to appear from behind the shield money and social insulation provide. She proves to be a spoilt, dictatorial brat with streaks of outsized carnal desire and contempt, and her jealousy is carefully stoked to a white heat by Omar’s simultaneous attentions to Dixie. Gin Sling barely bats an eye when Poppy is quickly reduced to a drunken harpy decorating her bar.

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Whilst not as floridly stylised as Sternberg’s earlier works, like Shanghai Express, Docks of New York (1928) or The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Shanghai Gesture is just as hypnotic in its less shadowy, but equally artful images, where characters are turned into stylised types defined by physical attitudes and modes of dress. The visual style suggests a touch of Art Deco infused with Sternberg’s prior baroque sensibility, with more emphasis on flow and geometry as organising principle—planes, angular lines, elegant curves and circles explored with tracking and crane shots, particularly the grand, slow descent of the camera into Gin Sling’s casino pit. As opposed to the tangled, semi-surrealist forms of The Scarlet Empress that entangled the protagonists, here, the interiors are spare and spacious, yet just as organic and entrapping, the carefully constructed physical expression of Gin Sling’s understanding of the most putrid parts of her customers’ psyches. The wide shots offers mural-like studies in form and content, as rich and sprawling with detail as the decorative artwork that clads the walls of the casino and Gin Sling’s abode (notably, that artwork was provided by the Chinese-American actor Keye Luke). Close-ups reduce the actors, particularly Munson in Gin Sling’s finery, to kabuki masks of stylised affectation and the fanning shapes of her increasingly ornate pseudo-Mandarin hairdos. It’s easy to think of Dietrich in the part of Gin Sling (in fact, Munson, who’s probably best remembered as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, 1939, had, like Sternberg, been Dietrich’s lover in the ’30s), but Munson’s blend of icy malignance and an arch survivor’s cautious precision is excellent. The way Munson walks through Gin Sling’s joint, blind to the human cacophony about her as she contemplates her upcoming consummation with the gait of an empress walking a tightrope is sublime physical characterisation.

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The Shanghai Gesture may represent one time when a censorious attitude from studios and the revisionist instincts of the director made for a work far superior to the source. Colston’s hysterical work was sordid and racist in the extreme, and like many such works (including another film starring Huston, 1932’s Kongo, which was a remake of Tod Browning’s silent film West of Zanzibar, 1927) offers insights into the hothouse nature of sexual fantasy in the Western mind of the era, channelling images of sexual sadomasochism and the simultaneous desire to protect and pillage virginal white femininity through racial Others. Sternberg’s reordered narrative and new characters constructed an infinitely more ironic piece of work. He added two significant characters, Dixie and Omar, to offer protagonists who are observers and alternate voices in the story. Dixie’s American garrulousness is present mostly to deflate the pretensions of the two versions of the Old World, Chinese and European. Her earthy, experienced sensibility directly contradicts the fetid sexual and racial politics at play in Gin Sling’s revenge on Charteris, and she retorts to a jealously bossy Poppy who’s accusing her of trying to steal Omar with a roaring putdown that notes that real character has nothing to do with birth or lot in life. In the finale, Dixie is the lone character who manages to detach herself from the awful spectacle of blackmail and cruelty with cheeky humour. Sternberg delights in throwaway character actions, from the Sikh policeman directing traffic with imperious elegance in the midst of urban chaos, Gin Sling’s accountant gleefully scooping out the night’s profits like a kid fondling his Halloween candy, or Dixie mucking about at a swanky dinner trying to leaven the oncoming mood of disaster.

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Omar is Sternberg’s archest conceit, a character who fits neatly into the line of such Sternberg alter egos as Count Alexei in The Scarlet Empress, whilst painted interestingly as a corrupter who knows but doesn’t much care that he’s a zone of moral nullity because he’s a creation of multiple worlds, a misfit who’s found his place as an imp of Gin Sling’s Satan. A self-appointed doctor (or maybe not) and a self-described mutt of the East with part-French, part-Armenian heritage and Damascene birth, Omar is a conceited lothario who seems to think he’s Greek chorus to his own life. He’s given to perpetually reciting appropriate passages from Omar Khayyam (“If you wanna, you can listen to that Persian tripe, I’m goin’,” Dixie tells Poppy at one point.). He greets his weekly paycheck, dropped from the bookkeeper’s booth to him in the casino pit, with a sarcastic salaam and plays Gin Sling’s bait to get and keep Poppy on the hook. Mature, several years away from major stardom, is splendidly smug in his role as he wears his character’s bogus exoticism on his sleeve and slouches through the film with the lazy sensuality of an experienced libertine until the very finale reveals something more serious long dormant in him. Tierney, another soon-to-be star who would prove an uneven actor, capable of performances both refined and stiff, is equally fun here as the prim British fashion plate who steadily devolves into a neurotic addict and harridan, glimpsed in one marvellous moment seated on a bar top, whining for attention and satisfaction, delivering a backward kick of one foot like a stroppy yearling to a wine glass and sending it flying. Her behaviour wavers between poles like delirium, as she soaks Omar’s face with a G&T before pleading forgiveness in desperate erotic obeisance. Great touch here: Omar holds up his robe to hide their kiss from the room, perhaps less out of gentlemanly discretion than embarrassment to be seen kissing such a brat.

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By comparison, Huston’s performance as Sir Guy, like Munson’s Gin Sling, seems to belong to another species: the world’s aristocrats, who specialise in much daintier cannibalism. Sir Guy is a suave man of the world who seems to have long burned out all his excess passions and now only has a measured solicitude to him. Gin Sling first tries to contact him when he’s in a meeting with the International Quarter’s bigwigs, and when told she plans to keep phoning until he answers, he simply unplugs the phone and gets on with his business. Gin Sling then sends a Russian coolie (Mike Mazurki) over to Charteris’ apartment block to fire a bullet through his window. A fascinated Sir Guy understands the implied message that the coolie will try to kill him if he doesn’t let the winds of arranged fate steer him towards Madame Gin Sling’s place.

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Gin Sling invites Sir Guy and other doyens of Shanghai’s European community for a soiree on Chinese New Year. Gin Sling has some kind of hold on most of them, through threat of scandal or humiliation. She provides a dining table arrayed with little statuettes of each guest; the figurine of Poppy has its head strategically removed. An intervention by Omar, who sells a necklace Poppy pawned for gambling funds, alerts her father to her increasingly fraught, indebted nightlife. He calls her to his office where he announces he’s sending her out of the country. Poppy seems grateful, and Sir Guy sees her off on a plane, leaving him free to venture to Gin Sling’s lair and find out what she’s on about with maximum savoir faire.

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Gin Sling’s Chinese New Year banquet proves to be rather a delirious theatre of cruelty, a banquet where revenge will be served at sub-Arctic temperature, a sequence of slow-uncoiling poison and suppressed hysteria, punctuated by nervously raucous laughs and Gin Sling’s potent, whiplash-like threats to keep her guests in their seats for the purpose of dealing up to Sir Guy a certified public scalding. The evening entertainment starts with a wild spectacle of women in cages being sold off to fishermen as sex slaves, angling just outside the window of the casino’s dining room, a show Gin Sling explains that has only been staged for her male guests’ edification.

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Gin Sling assures her guests this is a show for the tourists only based on past practice, but the show looks frighteningly real, and soon Gin Sling has all but stated that once she was one of those girls, kept at bay by having the soles of her feet cut open and pebbles sewn inside to stop her running off. What exactly happened between Sir Guy and Gin Sling back when he was a young adventurer under a different name is only partly revealed in what follows, as Sir Guy certainly married her back when she was the daughter of a good family, and had a child whose apparent infant death sent Gin Sling running off in a wild grief. Now she believes Sir Guy abandoned her and stole her family’s wealth. Sir Guy is initially confounded as he realises who Gin Sling is, a possibility that seems impossible to him. Gin Sling’s neat line of recrimination is, however, disputed as he claims her family’s money is lodged in a bank even though he thought her dead.

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Still, Gin Sling trots out the crown of her bitter banquet: Poppy, who returned to Shanghai on her own, now thrust into her father’s sight, poured into a glittering silver gown, bow-legged and tousled and swinish in mood and humour, clearly having been treated to every degradation under the sun by Gin Sling’s minions, and having enjoyed it. The tar-thick sense of evil eroticism lurking under the surface of the film finally oozes out here, and plays out in the exchange of close-ups of Huston and Munson, grim wounding and malicious pleasure underneath their studied surfaces. Sir Guy’s attempt to make a graceful exit is forestalled by Poppy herself. Wild-eyed in her drugged-up rage, Poppy has pretences to play the same bitch-queen as Gin Sling, only without the finesse or the smarts. She levels a gun on Dixie, proposing to shoot her for presuming to attract Omar’s eye. Only Omar’s quick intervention stops her.

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Meanwhile, Gin Sling unsheathes a peculiar kind of reverse-racism as she gloats in her triumph over Sir Guy and his weak genes, only for Sir Guy to reveal his own secret: Poppy is his and Gin Sling’s daughter, the child who didn’t die, and so she’s gone to great effort to reduce her own offspring to a wretch. Gin Sling’s attempt to intervene and restrain Poppy in her newfound aggression is met with utter contempt that only grows when Gin Sling tries to argue maternal right, cueing Poppy’s immortal line, “I have no more connection to you than with a toad out in the street!” Mother Gin Sling, her title all the more perverse now that it matches her status, reacts with less than restrained maternal chastisement, whilst Sir Guy, poised on the threshold between dreadful past and empty future, hears a gunshot. Omar has already delivered the epigraph earlier: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit, Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.” “You likee Chinese New Year?” the Russian coolie asks, for one of the most casually, coldly sarcastic final lines in film history.


13th 08 - 2012 | 15 comments »

Imitation of Life (1934/1959)

Directors: John M. Stahl/Douglas Sirk

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among master directors of women’s films are two men whose careers are intertwined. John Stahl, whose heyday occurred during the 1930s, and Douglas Sirk, the 1950s king of technicolor melodrama, each made versions of the same three novels: Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life, Lloyd C. Douglas’ Magnificent Obsession, and James M. Cain’s Serenade (Stahl’s film was called When Tomorrow Comes, and Sirk’s film was titled Interlude). It is hard to say what attracted Stahl and Sirk to genre films often disparagingly described as “weepies” and “soapers,” but it is fair to say that these two men wanted more from these stories than to give women a vicarious romance and a good cry. Neither Imitation of Life is a run-of-the-mill women’s film in any case. While its main story involves the fortunes and loves of a central female character, this story intersects with the racially charged travails of an African-American woman and her light-skinned daughter. Both films offer the view that a white woman can improve her circumstances with enough guts, ingenuity, and physical attractiveness, but that African Americans, even those light enough to pass for white, are inherently unable to realize the Horatio Alger dream of the self-made person that infects Americans to this very day.

Stahl’s film, a faithful adaptation of the Hurst novel, centers on Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a widow barely supporting herself and her three-year-old daughter Jessie (Baby Jane) by running her late husband’s maple syrup business. On a very busy morning, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) and her four-year-old daughter Peola (Sebie Hendricks) fetch up at Bea’s door answering an ad for a live-in maid. They have come to the wrong address, and Bea offers her regrets. Just then, Bea runs upstairs to rescue a crying, fully clothed Jessie from the bathtub she slipped into to retrieve her rubber ducky. When Bea comes back downstairs, she sees that Delilah has been fixing her breakfast. Delilah basically volunteers to be Bea’s servant in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter, who has been a handicap to Delilah’s job search. Thus begins a relationship that will see an uncomplaining Delilah give up her secret pancake recipe, come along with Bea as she sets up a pancake house, and become the face of Aunt Delilah’s Pancake Flour and a household fixture as Bea’s success affords her a luxurious lifestyle and the attentions of ichthyologist Stephen Archer (Warren William).

Sirk’s film maintains the basic outline of the novel, but provides all but the Stephen Archer character with new names, and makes Bea, called Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) here, an aspiring actress. Lora and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) meet at Coney Island beach while Lora is looking for her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham). Lora brings Annie and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker) home because they are homeless. Lora also meets Steve Archer (John Gavin), an aspiring fine-art photographer, on the beach. Lora finds the same success as Bea, and like Delilah, Annie comes along for the ride.

Both of these films remark on race and gender relations, as well as the times in which they were made. Stahl’s film reflects the social consciousness of Depression-era America, saving its sympathy for the economic precariousness of women without men. Although the story makes both Bea and Delilah widows, many women lost men to the road as they looked for work and to despair through the bottle and abandonment. Bea must finagle her store using hard bargaining, charm, and a generous amount of bull. Delilah’s character is just as desperate to hold her family together, but Stahl plants her character firmly in a caricature of the jolly mammy.

Stahl’s treatment of Bea’s story is standard Hollywood glamour. Bea wears one luscious gown after another in the success part of the story, falls into a very quick and intense romance with Archer, who despite his seemingly ordinary career as a marine biologist, seems to be independently wealthy. The pair steals kisses, Colbert’s head tilted so far back I thought it would break off (couldn’t they have provided her with a step stool?). Finally, Bea and Stephen deal with the complication of a college-aged Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) falling for Archer by delaying their marriage with tortured longing until Jessie has gotten over him.

Delilah and Peola’s story is treated in both a demeaning and paradoxically realistic way. Louise Beavers’ Delilah is simple-minded, ignorant, emotional, and religious. There are ways to ask for room and board in lieu of payment that aren’t so butt-insulting as the way Stahl directed Beavers, making it sound like Delilah’s main delight in life is serving white folks. A close-up of Beavers posing for the image Bea wants on her restaurant sign is a caricature of the Aunt Jemima caricature; I can just hear audiences of the time busting a gut at her lengthy, demeaning mugging. During Delilah’s death scene, we get a full chorus of the black servants in Bea’s employ singing a field hand lament from behind closed doors, and Beavers is never accorded the dignity of a close-up. We really never see her full face in a scene normally so important that Alla Nazimova rewrote the story of her Camille (1921) so that she could die without Rudolph Valentino’s character in attendance to pull focus from her.

The paradoxically realistic parts, however, are Delilah’s religious faith and Peola’s perception of how different her life would be if she hadn’t been born black. Peola persistently tries to pass for white throughout the film. Fredi Washington, a light-skinned African American, plays Peola as a young woman who hates the restrictions on her, yet Fredi, with those same restrictions, never denied her race; indeed, she refused to pass for white when the studio bosses wanted to build her up, and went on to form the Negro Actors Guild to expand opportunities for African-American actors and fight discrimination. Although her character disowns her mother and comes to regret it in two emotionally wrenching scenes, Peola’s feeling of being white, which I read to mean she knows she’s as good as everyone else, announces her as a member of a new generation, one that would eventually go on to fight and win the battle for civil rights.

Delilah’s attempts to get Peola to accept who she is arise from her deep faith. She believes God made folks black and white for a reason and that it is nobody’s place to question that decision. Beavers makes Delilah’s professions of faith so effortlessly sincere and idealistic that she manages to flesh out her character and provide some believable motivation for her acceptance of a second-class role in Bea’s household and business. When, in the end, she is given the grandest funeral New York has ever seen, the film brings into focus the success of Delilah’s lifelong goal—her glorious assumption to heaven. That Bea honors her wish to keep house and accedes to her decisions about her daughter, for example, suggesting Delilah send Peola to an all-black university in the South, may seem as though she is reinforcing the limitations on the black community. Yet I felt more camaraderie between her and Delilah, a shared fate as widows and mothers, than would be evident in the 1959 version. Perhaps the most famous moment of this inventively shot film, one in which both women go off to bed, Bea climbing the stairs of her mansion and Delilah descending into the below-stairs quarters, may be Stahl’s one statement about the inequality that all the characters but Peola accept as the natural order of things.

Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life is a different animal altogether. With a script much more layered and explicit with regard to the evils of the world, it poses a greater indictment of the relationship between Lora and Annie. At the same time, it indulges in its own stereotyping, offering either objectification or infantilization of the women in the film.

Right off the bat, Steve, a photographer, snaps Lora’s picture as she searches frantically for her missing daughter. He insinuates himself into her search, wheedles an “invitation” to her home by offering to hand-deliver a photo of Susie and Sarah Jane, and then assumes prerogatives over Lora that seek to control how she pursues her acting career—a far cry from the genteel Warren William who is willing to do anything Bea says. While Lora puts him in his place, as well as talent agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), who agrees to get her work in exchange for her “escort” services, the choice to make Lora an aspiring actress puts her squarely in the ’50s mold of objectifying women; while post-success Bea was certainly a glamorous figure, she herself was not characterized as an object. Using her intelligence as well as her feminine wiles to get started in business was made to seem admirable, whereas Lora’s outright lying about being a film star to get in to see Loomis seems tawdry.

Lora and Annie are nowhere near equal footing. Annie exchanges domestic duties for a place to live. She offers no secret recipe or services that could help Lora advance her career aside from answering the phone “Mrs. Meredith’s residence.” Although Lora only rents the apartment in which all of them live, it is clearly her home, not Annie’s. There doesn’t seem to be any real camaraderie between Annie and Lora—the bonding that developed when Delilah rubbed Bea’s tired feet has no real match in this film. There is one foot-rubbing scene between Lora and Annie late in the film that is fleeting and rather perfunctory, and the film takes pains to show that Lora barely knows anything about Annie. When Annie describes who she’d like to have come to her funeral, Lora says she had no idea Annie knew so many people; Annie’s reply is the gentle rebuke, “You never asked.” Therefore, while Annie has a much richer on-camera (or, at least, scripted) life in Sirk’s version, the “all in this together” ethos of Stahl’s Depression-era film is largely lost.

Sarah Jane’s character, beautifully played as a young woman by Susan Kohner, is much more blatant in her contempt for the place of African Americans in her world. When Lora finds out Sarah Jane has a boyfriend, she asks if he is “the Hawkins boy”—the black son of the chauffeur in a neighboring household. Sarah Jane is deeply offended, and later puts on a shuck-and-jive show when her mother asks her to bring a meal tray into Lora and her guests. Sirk expressly ensures that we understand why Sarah Jane wants to pass. When her white boyfriend finds out she is actually black, he asks her if it’s true that she’s a nigger, slaps her silly, and leaves her laying in a puddle in a dark alley. This scene is brutal, but tracks with the ambivalence shown by the white lover in Cassavetes’ Shadows, which also premiered in 1959, and the general unease of the white community toward the burgeoning civil rights movement. On a less generous note, Sarah Jane leaves home to find herself as a scantily clad showgirl, not the respectable store clerk Peola tries to be before Delilah and Bea track her down. The ’50s didn’t leave women who wanted to make their own way in the world many options, and call girls and actresses abound in films of this time.

Among the supporting characters in each film, I found the contrast between Rochelle Hudson and Sandra Dee, who plays the college-aged Susie, to be almost freakish. Hudson’s Jessie is young, but not unintelligent or lacking in social graces. She and Stephen keep company together while Bea is tied up with work or helping Delilah find Peola; despite their age difference, Jessie manages to be decent company for Stephen and seems justified in thinking she could be a good wife for him. Sandra Dee’s Susie is a blithering idiot who seems hopped up on amphetamines. It’s hard to believe Sirk couldn’t rein her super-fueled perkiness in, so I smell a bit of studio interference on this one to keep the controversial aspects of the story from infecting their virginal starlet.

Ned Sparks is a wonderfully comic presence as the general manager of Bea’s company who begged for some free pancakes at her restaurant and gave her the million-dollar idea to box the flour and sell it. By contrast, Robert Alda’s presence in Lora’s life is an insult. He practically rapes her, and yet later, she’s happy to have him represent her and get his 10 percent cut. Maybe this is a comeuppance for Lora, whose crime of neglecting Susie and Steve is pure ’50s sexism.

Finally, ’50s notions of where a woman’s place should be, as well as the era’s blatant racism get the final word. Annie’s funeral offers a thrilling performance by Mahalia Jackson singing “Trouble of the World,” but truncates Sarah Jane’s moment with her mother’s casket. In the end, Lora shepherds Sarah Jane into the mourners’ limo, as the camera lingers lovingly on Lana Turner throwing a meaningful look at Steve and Susie that signals family life has finally won out over self-actualization.


16th 03 - 2011 | no comment »

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (Ehky Ya Scheherazade, 2009)

Director: Yousry Nasrallah

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is possible in the most general terms to assign outstanding characteristics to various national cinemas. For example, Swedes seem to excel at introspective films with a fatalistic edge. Czech films tend to be absurd, sardonic, and visually stunning. And though my exposure thus far has been very limited, I’m starting to think of Egyptian cinema as excelling in the use of fables as a storytelling device. Perhaps it is only that Yousry Nasrallah learned at the knee of a master Egyptian fabler, Youssef Chahine, that he was drawn to depicting the political conditions in Egypt, particularly for women, through a modern-day Scheherazade. Whatever the reason, Nasrallah’s beautiful blending of political content and compelling storytelling makes Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story both an entertaining film and one that helps Western viewers understand the recent, courageous protests against government repression that drove President Hosni Mubarak from power.

Hebba (Mona Zaki), the beautiful host of a hard-hitting talk show on one of Egypt’s private television networks, has been married for seven months to Karim (Hassan al Raddad), an ambitious journalist who expects to be promoted to editor-in-chief of the state-owned newspaper where he works. The film opens with Hebba having a frightening dream in which violence silences her voice. She gets up and tries to work her tension off on her treadmill while watching herself grilling a government official on a tape of her show. Karim awakens, remarks jokingly on her vanity at watching herself, and then suggestively offers her another way to relax.

Karim has a problem. The newspaper isn’t happy with Hebba’s criticisms of the government. Fearing his promotion is in danger, Karim assures Hebba that her career is just as important to him, but cajoles her into offering viewers fluff until after he is confirmed. Fearing that this, her second marriage, might fall apart if she doesn’t agree, she decides to concentrate on women’s stories of love. Alas, no matter how hard she tries to find a noncontroversial subject to interview, each of the three women she brings on her show “Dusk to Dawn” highlights the woeful position of women in Egyptian society. Both she and her husband learn that everything is political, even love and marriage, as they reach a horrible crisis in their marriage that provides the climax of the film.

Just like Scheherazade, Nasrallah finds some compelling stories and tells them in such an exuberant way that the 134-minute film virtually flies by. The first story is the most benign, featuring Amany (Sawsan Badr), a 60ish woman who has lived in a mental hospital since she started screaming at a man who proposed marriage to her in a restaurant. To anyone who hadn’t heard the marriage negotiation, she certainly would have seemed crazy, but to us, it is the would-be husband who seems insane. He asks Amany merely to start wearing the veil, give him all her money, cook and clean for him without the maid she is used to, and allow his mother to come live with them to give her orders. In return, she gets a husband. Since he offers her no other tangible benefit than to simply repeat that she gets a husband, Amany rejects him as a lecher who wants to use and rule over her. It’s pretty clear Amany isn’t crazy, she’s simply mad, and has retreated to the hospital, where she is loved and useful, to avoid participating in a society that requires her to give up so much for so little in return.

Amany’s story is a big hit, and Kasim is thrilled with the new direction Hebba is taking. Encouraged by his response and the enthusiastic audience ratings, Hebba decides to track down Safaa (Rihab El Gamal), a woman in her late 30s who is living with the prison guard whom she befriended during her 15-year incarceration for murder. The modestly dressed, quiet Muslim seems an unlikely criminal, but her story is the longest and most compelling of the three.

Following the death of her father, a hardware-store owner, Safaa and her two sisters discuss their inheritance with their uncle. He abdicates his inheritance rights in exchange for maintaining his job managing the store. After three months of this arrangement, the sisters wonder when they will see some profits from the store. Their only worker, Said, says their uncle has been using it to gamble, drink, and take opium. The sisters banish their uncle and start running the store themselves, while paying Said, formerly an unpaid apprentice, as an employee. When they start to long for love and family, they are short on suitors. Reasoning that Said will be good to all of them if he marries one of them, they each begin trying to woo him. He responds to them all with promises of marriage in exchange for sex. When his deception is discovered, Safaa sends her sisters away and takes responsibility, as the eldest, for wreaking vengeance on him for treating them like whores.

This second story does not sit well with Karim or his employers, because it exposes the immorality of the men in her story. Despite Hebba’s protests that she presented a well-known story of love gone horribly wrong, Karim scolds her for not realizing that everything is political. It seems Hebba’s journalistic instincts simply will not be denied, as evidenced again in the third story she chooses to showcase. After seeing a well-dressed woman holding a sign up in the street, Hebba decides she needs to get to know her.

Nahed (Sanaa Akroud) is a dentist from a wealthy, conservative family who is wooed by a well-educated, influential economist. He cannot move in with her until renovations to his villa are complete, but he has a civil marriage with her in front of witnesses to confirm their attachment, and agrees to forestall consummation of the marriage until after the traditional ceremony. Nonetheless, he convinces Nahed, a virgin, to have sex with him—they are legally married after all—and succeeds in impregnating her. When he says he cannot be the father because he is sterile, he accuses her of adultery and tries to extort $3 million from her family in reparations. She finds this is his modus operandi for maintaining his plush lifestyle and finds his previous wife—actually an Egyptian who has a child by him—to testify in her divorce proceedings. But when he is appointed to an important government post, Nahed decides to protest, reasoning that a government that will do business with crooks is crooked itself. This story is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back and reveals Karim to be just as oppressive as the other men in the film.

The fact that each story can be summed up easily shows how self-contained and direct they are. Likewise the characters tend to be types, as is the custom and strength of fable in offering home truths. This is not to say that the acting is one-dimensional. Many of the women in this film, particularly Akroud, El Gamal, and Badr, invest their characters with hopes, anger, and disappointment. I particularly liked El Gamal’s uncontrollable rage in a brutal murder scene that felt earned but that signaled her own destruction, and Nahed’s crestfallen betrayal at her husband’s deception and her simple, courageous protest conducted like the intelligent lady she was raised to be.

Zaki does not lend particular nuance to Hebba, whose story stands as a reverse of Scheherazade’s own tale of begging a night’s reprieve from death with each story. Hebba is eliciting an opposite response, endangering her own well-being the more stories she reveals. The outcome of her telling is more in doubt as well. While Scheherazade slowly allowed her murder-minded husband to understand the worth of women as he came to admire her ingenuity and storytelling abilities, and absorb the morals of many of her stories, it is not clear that Hebba and her subjects will have the same effect on viewers of Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story. Describing injustices to women offers awareness, but it seems these days that awareness is the end of the road of righting many wrongs. Nonetheless, Nasrallah was cagey in setting his “1,001 Nights” on an Oprah Winfrey-style talk show, in which the juxtaposition of Hebba and her interviewee on a background screen gives visual reality to Oprah’s theme “I’m Every Woman.”

Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is a superior melodrama full of intrigue, sudden violence, and knowing humor that I found exhilarating and the hubby found very moving and shame-inducing. I highly recommend this wonderful film with a message.


26th 10 - 2009 | 10 comments »

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Director: Otto Preminger

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By Roderick Heath

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s famous debut novel, is a pseudo-tragic morality play flavoured with haute-couture raciness and 10-franc philosophy. Nonetheless, it was a perceptive work that hit a nerve, all the more so for its author’s youth: Sagan, who took her pen name from a character of Marcel Proust’s, was 18 when she wrote it. Otto Preminger’s film version came out four years later. Preminger was a forceful, inventive, but uneven director most at home in dark, intimate narratives, conjuring an hysterical atmosphere fraught with fragmenting assumptions, and creating irony-laden, ever-evolving analyses of whatever material he chose to work with. One of the great scenes of his oeuvre is in Exodus (1960), in which David Opatashu’s relentless interrogation of Sal Mineo slowly peels away the lad’s plucky, aggressive exterior until he confesses the unimaginable pain in his heart. Preminger’s best films work in such a fashion, beginning with a chitinous but brittle sheen, and then digging until a far more complex vision resolves.

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Bonjour Tristesse is one such film. The opening establishes Cecile (Jean Seberg) as one of those blessed creatures who, as Marianne Faithfull would put it, ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair. But far from enjoying her life, she drifts to and fro according to the whims of her playboy father Raymond (David Niven) and several vying boyfriends. All the while, she meditates with bewildered ennui on the events of the previous summer, during which the blissfully pagan lifestyle of her father and herself was first disrupted. Having made their annual retreat to a villa on the Riviera with her father’s squaw of the moment, the platinum-haired, foolish, but likeable Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), Raymond was thrown into a quandary by the arrival of Anne (Deborah Kerr), a fashion designer friend of his deceased wife’s, whom he had forgotten he also had invited.

Such invitations are, of course, code for “come be my concubine for a while.” Anne, a mature and circumspect professional, was disoriented to find Raymond ensconced with Elsa, but campaigned to snare the wayward male, eventually succeeding in drawing a marriage proposal from him. Anne then had attempted to work influence over Raymond and a resentful Cecile, as when she forbade Cecile from dating law student Cyril (Geoffrey Horne) and insisted (quelle horreur!) that she study and resit the philosophy exams she flunked.

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Preminger’s stylistic gambit is to begin in the present-tense with acidic black and white, and then drift into flashbacks composed in bright ice cream colours. The analytical grace of black and white accords with Seberg’s more shaded portrait, as Cecile charges through life with blithe impassivity, barely paying attention when one of her louche society lovers and a casual pick-up in a jazz den start brawling. The moment Cecile, dancing with her father, allows her thoughts to drift back, blotches of hazy blue eat through the image on screen until the bright Mediterranean coast explodes, and the film’s tenor changes immediately to one of kitschy pastels and playful intrigue. The import is clear, establishing the past as a time of happiness and fulsome fun, and the present as grave and regretful, a visual cue to the mystery of what turned Cecile’s life so sour. It also exploits and inverts a cinematic code familiar to, if not readily acknowledged by audiences of the time, when films of presumed seriousness were generally made in black and white and Technicolor was associated with frivolity.

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Preminger subsequently paints Sagan’s story in the declamatory terms of pop art rather than deep psychology, and it’s a smart choice. Sagan’s story was defined as much by elision—what its naïve heroine cannot discern is as important as what she can—and dazzling, distracting surfaces. The cunning narrative relies on the viewer taking as much offence to the prim Anne as Cecile does. Her entrance into the story does not immediately threaten the gaiety of their lives, but Cecile has made clear her utter satisfaction with things as they are. Anne acts with an impolite self-satisfaction that betrays her own insecurity in the situation. In one scene, she enters Cecile’s bedroom when she’s practising yoga and switches off her record player without asking, establishing in subtle, yet definite terms her inability to adjust to anyone else’s rhythm of existence. Cecile’s irritation is readily understandable, but her general brattiness contrasts her own assumptions of maturity. She tosses books to the floor and slams doors in perfunctory shows of anger, and with suddenly acute vigour, jabs a pin into a surrogate doll. An underlying kinkiness to the whole set-up is suggested in the thoughtless intimacy of the father and daughter, which sees them constantly planting kisses on each other, a strain of incestuous desire seemingly better sublimated through Raymond’s young lovers than through the solicitous Anne.

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The story narrows to a wicked point in two specific moments in which Anne is the victim. First, when she arrives, the casual news that Elsa is in residence causes Anne to smash a flowerpot, an action Cecile soon reports in clipped, unfinished sentences to her father, causing Elsa to declare in frustration, “They even finish each other’s sentences! The perfect marriage!” Language—who says what to whom and in what fashion—delineates the borders of family and inclusion. On presuming to become part of their life, Anne says she won’t scold Cecile, but instead try to “influence” her—influence that swiftly enough becomes command. Cecile eventually abandons communication in the present-day scenes, her alternations of laughing disdain and taciturnity stoking the apprehension of those around her.

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The second moment institutes the climax. After Cecile acts successfully on Elsa’s behalf to provoke her father to jealousy, Anne comes across Raymond and Elsa having a tryst in the woods. Cecile stalks Anne to the crucial moment, prancing like a fawn but proving more the serpent in this particular Garden of Eden, and Kerr communicates by expression alone the disorienting force of her humiliation and horror. She drives off in a distraught state and dies in a crash Cecile thinks was suicide. It’s a sequence that is, in its way, as brilliantly staged as any of Hitchcock’s suspense moments, and it resolves the gaudy playfulness of what’s preceded it.

The figure of a young woman whose yearnings lead her to cause, or whose presence causes, destructive acts was clearly dear to Preminger, who had earlier essayed the same theme in several films, especially in his bodice-ripper hoot Forever Amber (1947), Carmen Jones (1954) and his queasily brilliant Angel Face (1952). In the last, a far more psychopathic heroine (Jean Simmons) annihilates her parents and then herself and her lover (both films build to climactic car crashes), and like Cecile, eddied in perturbed, bewildered grief after perceiving her own destructiveness. In the climax of Anatomy of a Murder (1959), James Stewart’s defence attorney lets his opponent walk directly into a trap of his own arrogance, a trap that finally confirms the absence of any definable truth in the case: all that matters is the case that he built. Likewise, Preminger lets his characters declare themselves in broad terms, and then observes them with increasingly lenient, observational intrigue, handing them just enough rope to hang themselves.

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Using the widescreen with compositional grace, he constantly offers lingering group and long shots in which telling details manifest. Sooner or later, the crucial moment arrives, as when his camera sits patiently waiting as Cecilia and a nightclub pick-up dance, only for the other beaux to instigate a fight; or a shot of the strange family gathering on a terrace whilst their maid sneaks mouthfuls of their champagne. There’s a marvelous moment when Cecile returns from having surrendered her virginity to Cyril, attempting, and failing, to coolly light herself a cigarette, and Anne comes to her rescue with solicitous patience.

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The interrogatory approach alters Seberg, with her glassy Midwestern freshness, into a spry and supple assassin and makes blithely gracious man of the world Niven into a childish jackass. The often rigid Kerr gives one of her most comfortable performances from this era, funnily enough, playing a woman defined by her lack of comfort. Unfortunately, Preminger’s fondness for bottle blondes and digging up unpolished starlets to terrorise and/or sleep with yields Demongeot, who delivers an embarrassingly awkward performance early on; yet, she, too, expands her characterisation with some wit as the movie progresses. Horne, a star ingénue for about two minutes at the time, is a total washout. Still, it’s funny to see Martita Hunt, who usually played stern battle-axes, as Cyril’s gaudy, gambling mother. Greco appears on screen as herself, singing the mordant title song by Georges Auric, whose terrific score contorts its core theme through variations of chanson d’amour, hot jazz, and bossa nova, entwining seemingly disparate scenes and moods in unifying motifs.

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A key set piece of Tristesse sees Elsa, who seems at first a cut-out of va-va-voom feminine lushness, but proves herself equipped with the life-love of a nature goddess, leading the others in a communal dance—a state of communal exaltation that also initiates Raymond and Anne’s affair and signals the swiftly approaching crack-up. It’s this mix of indulgence and cynicism, this wide-open perspective, that predicts subsequent films of Euro-anomie, like La Dolce Vita and L’Avventura and best defines Preminger’s films. The brilliant final shot reveals the queasy grief around which the circular narrative tiptoes, whilst achieving a total disintegration, as the self-loathing Cecile stares into a mirror, swathing her sorrow-contorted face in cold cream until she’s a perverted caricature, and the picture blurs and dies.


1st 12 - 2008 | 12 comments »

Famous Firsts: Only Yesterday (1933)

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

Director: John M. Stahl
Debut film of: Margaret Sullavan, actress

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

According to actress Louise Brooks, Margaret Sullavan remains “mysterious… like a voice singing in the snow.” While this description may itself seem a bit inscrutable, if you think about how snow refracts and muffles sound, then there certainly is something to this comparison. Margaret Sullavan was an actress who made only 16 films, almost all of them hard to find and view. She might be entirely forgotten today if not for her starring role in the only recognized classic she made, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Yet it wasn’t really the paucity of performances and the obscurity into which most of them fell that made Margaret Sullavan an actress who was hard to pin down. She had a presence that seemed to hold dark, tragic secrets, an old soul who seemed mature beyond her years, even in her screen debut. Indeed, Only Yesterday began a string of screen deaths to which Margaret Sullavan would bring her special brand of stoic poignancy.

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The story begins on October 29, 1929—the day that marked the end of the Roaring 20s and the beginning of the Great Depression. Frantic traders milling at the New York Stock Exchange share their collective misery as their fortunes crumble around them. One dejected man moves as though bent by a strong wind; he is persuaded by an eager worker to climb up on his shoeshine stand. Before his shine is finished, the man rises, gives the fellow some money, goes into a nearby men’s room, and blows his brains out.

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In the next scene, we see a gay couple under a shop sign, the slyly named Deux Freres (Two Brothers), catching a taxi to attend one of the nearly daily soirees held at the home of society doyenne Phyllis Emerson (Benita Hume). The stock market crash is the talk of the evening, but it doesn’t supplant the usual intrigues. Phyllis cozies up to her lover, who wants her to leave her husband Jim (John Boles); Phyllis would rather play games with Jim’s latest lover Letitia (Noel Francis), who has just arrived at the party and is flashing the “famous” pearls Jim has not so discreetly bestowed upon her. Phyllis admires the pearls and then tells Letitia to be sure to pay for them—a great line that leaves Letitia nonplussed.

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Jim arrives home and puts off the guests who seek his financial help. The Emersons are wiped out, too, and Jim sneaks off to his study, where he prepares to end it all as well. He sits down at his desk, pulls a gun out of one of its drawers, lights a cigarette, and goes through his mail. One letter catches his eye, and he opens it. Inside is the story of a woman who knew Jim long ago. The film moves into full flashback as we follow the story told by the letter writer, Mary Lane (Sullavan).

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The flashback takes us from the Emersons’ sophisticated New York party to a much more quaint affair—a ball given by a good Virginia family for soldiers about to muster out to fight in the First World War. Mary Lane, just 18, flirts outrageously with Captain James Stanton Emerson, flippantly remarking that she has been in love with him for years. When he asks her to dance, we see from her looks and the way she holds him that this flip remark is absolutely true. The pair leaves the ballroom and goes for a walk in the formal garden. They disappear under a leafy canopy; when they return, Jim is helping Mary refasten her sash. The party’s over, not only for the guests at the ball, but also for Jim. Mary is the last thing on his mind when he musters out a couple of days later. Soon, Mary learns she is pregnant and elects to move in with her suffragette Aunt Julia (Billie Burke) in New York to spare her family embarrassment. She eagerly awaits the end of the war, when Jim will return to her and little Jimmy, the son she bears in his absence.

The end of the war and return of the troops have all of New York out in the streets to welcome them home. Mary works through the crowds, trying to catch sight of Jim, and then running the gantlet of well wishers to reach him as he leaves the parade to join Phyllis and some friends. The series of screen caps below wordlessly tell the story as Sullavan embodies Mary’s quiet excitement, and even quieter disappointment and hurt, as Jim looks her square in the face and fails to recognize her. Once at home, she yields to her broken heart and dreams, then forthrightly faces the reality of her life now as an single mother with little hope of uniting with her baby’s father.

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The director, continuing to use devices like the calendar to place the characters in time, shows Julia perusing a newspaper whose headline indicates that the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) has been passed. That makes the year 1919, only a few months after the troops returned following the 1918 Armistice, and in that time, Mary has made no attempt to contact Jim. That day, however, Mary tells Julia she intends to end her torment and tell Jim who she is. Too late. The newspaper serves a plot-related purpose as well—Aunt Julia shows Mary the Emersons’ wedding announcement in that same paper. (It would have been fitting to have another newspaper announce the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, because Mary becomes the epitome of the modern woman—an unwed mother supporting her child by becoming a success in business. Alas, the film’s greater interest in Mary’s private life counts as a missed opportunity, even though forward-thinking Julia and a suitor of Mary’s look at her unwed motherhood as something that “just happened.”)

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The final meeting between Mary and Jim occurs again at a party—New Year’s Eve at the St. Regis Hotel. Mary and her date are out with Julia and her younger husband. Jim passes behind them and joins his party at a nearby table. Mary is happy and carefree until she notices Jim. He mistakes her stares for flirtation—it’s clear to the audience in this scene and the one that follows in which Jim and Mary take a taxi to his bachelor pad that Mary is very angry. Her every word is a veiled recrimination against a man too superficial and careless with the feelings of an 18 year old—a time when first love can mean everlasting love—to remember a night that meant the world to her. Again, Sullavan’s understated emotions simmering with indignation allow us to understand her as Jim never could have and make her obsessiveness through the years—a telegram every December 31 to Jim from “One Who Does Not Forget”—a bit easier to take.

This ability to act both text and subtext believably would serve Sullavan extremely well in The Shop Around the Corner, where her Miss Novak maintains a prickly, insulting demeanor with her coworker Mr. Kralik (James Stewart) while melting with genuine admiration and affection at the letters this same coworker—obviously a completely different man to her—sends her pseudononymously. However, in playing Miss Novak, it is Sullavan this time who is blind, who reacts to circumstances as they occur, just as Jim Emerson had. Yet, Sullavan’s ability to suggest emotion with the slightest of gestures—for example, the sight of her hand (shot from the rear of a bank of mailboxes) reaching into her mailbox, feeling around her cubbyhole thoroughly for an expected letter from “Dear Friend,” and then shrinking slightly and slowly sinking in disappointment to the bottom of the cubby—always allows audiences to identify with the woman beneath the prickly or stoic exterior.

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Sullavan’s first performance is slightly mannered; even though she really was a Virginia belle, her giggly girlishness at the beginning of the film seems somewhat put on. Her deathbed scene in Only Yesterday is a bit of a wallowfest, but she’d soon learn to tame that tendency. In two other films of hers I’ve seen, The Mortal Storm (1940) and Cry Havoc (1943), she uses her emotional containment to embody bravery during wartime; she goes to her death in each of these films with the same clear-eyed realism tinged with emotional idealism with which she started her film career. Thus, remarkably, Sullavan’s screen persona seems pretty close to fully formed in Only Yesterday, elevating what could have been an ordinary melodrama (reproduced by Max Ophüls in his more sudsy 1946 film Letter from an Unknown Woman) to a memorable debut picture.

Dan Callahan provides an excellent review of Margaret Sullavan’s career in the August 2005 edition of Bright Lights Film Journal.

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19th 08 - 2008 | 10 comments »

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Director: Sidney Lumet

By Roderick Heath

For the past half-century, Sidney Lumet has been modern American cinema’s master of fine-grained mise-en-scène. His sense of life being lived, particularly in big cities, is often unerring, and thus, his touch has always been at its surest in urban dramas and noir films. His recent career Oscar and the ensuing tide of reevaluation has brought him to the brink of the recognition he deserves, but he’s still patronised to a surprising degree. Perhaps it’s the fact that Lumet insisted on having an old Hollywood hand’s type of career, taking on diverse projects for the sheer hell of it, and working steadily through creative barren patches, that’s diluted his appreciation. He is also, to a certain extent, a filmmaker at odds with much of the popular conception of great directors. He’s rarely flamboyant, technically showy, or self-important. He generally uses only the bare minimum of shots he needs to explain a point, and if something can be done in one long take, he’ll shoot it.

Lumet began as an expert adaptor of stage works, and yet he grew swiftly out of theatrical transcription. His movies are distinguished by their lean, actor-centric, matter-of-fact sensibility, and yet they’re always slightly more stylised than you think, with his imaginative use of lenses to emphasise altering perspectives, used most showily in films like Murder on the Orient Express (1975). In this tendency to ever so slightly magnify the ordinary, Lumet achieves something very much like classic American naturalism as defined by Twain, Norris, and Crane. In terms of modern cinema, Lumet is closer not to high-style contemporaries like Kubrick and Frankenheimer, but to Ken Loach and British-style realists.

Lumet’s career is studded with forgettable films that did not mesh with his fundamental gifts, like The Wiz (1978), The Group (1966), as well as with the overrated Network (1976). Yet, his roll of honour represents some of the most rigorous, tough, and intelligent works of American (and British) film: Twelve Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, The Hill, The Offence, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Daniel, and Running on Empty. The ’90s were largely a sorry time for Lumet, apart from some interesting misfires like Q&A and Night Falls on Manhattan, which were all the more sad for fumbling to recapture old greatness.

Working from a script by debut screenwriter Kelly Masterson, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is easily Lumet’s best film since Running on Empty, a welcome return to the dark-saturated, tragic melodrama of his great works. It’s the tale of Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman), two sharply defined brothers who decide to knock over their parents’ jewelry store to extricate themselves from financial woes. Hank hires a sleazy stick-up man, Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne), who gets himself shot by the brothers’ own mother, Nanette (Rosemary Harris), but shoots her, too, before expiring. Unsurprisingly, it’s all downhill from there.

This film is, assuredly, a melodrama. Plot complications stack up with extraneous relentlessness, and most of the characters are defined by a single dominating trait. Yet Lumet and his cast endeavor to bring to the film a Grecian weight with a pared-back, intensive technique, and succeed; the tale and its moral conclusions are blacker than the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat. Lumet lays out the details of these men and their lives like an assassin laying out the parts of his rifle before assembling it—and then proceeds to shoot them dead with it. The film’s biting thesis contrasts self-conscious “loser” Hank with his brother, whose hot wife and higher position in the real estate company they both work for make him apparently more successful, but who is actually an even bigger loser. His debts are larger, his failures broader—how much more he has gained only adds up to how much more he has to lose.

Then there’s grizzled patriarch Charles (Albert Finney), who is confronted first by terrible loss and then an even more terrible discovery that does not dissuade him from pursuing vengeance. Charles is both cheering and chilling in his dedication to restoring a fundamental sense of order to the world once his has been smashed, even to the point of murdering one of his own boys. Before he learns the truth, Charles attempts to apologise for his failings as a father, and Andy attempts to displace his own failings willingly onto his father. But something infinitely malignant, glittering in the dark, has grown between this pair, and becomes pure toxicity when combined with social values and personal desperation that drive a man to seek money at all costs. The main victim is Andy and Hank’s own mother—Harris is an actress who mysteriously manages to become more beautiful every year—who, ironically, displays a level of bravery and pith that gets her killed, but also brings everything else crashing down. All deceits and betrayals are laid bare because she is present where she shouldn’t be, and does what she should not. The old woman who counts for nothing in this drama of masculine fear and rage is actually its catalytic force. Aeschylus would have been happy with the building blocks of this story.

Lumet’s film has some close cousins in contemporary cinema, for example, the recent works of James Gray and Clint Eastwood, in attempting to artfully reproduce the compulsive plot patterns and analytical stereotyping of classic Hollywood melodrama in order to exploit their potential for corrosive social critique. Lumet surpasses these directors in both his refusal to indulge actors and his immunity from sentimentality. Hoffman and Hawke, two thespians prone to showboating, are kept on the strictest of leashes. The reward is some dazzling performing, like the way Hoffman shivers and stutters when he converses with Andy on the phone and realises everything’s gone to hell. Hawke gives his best-ever performance, free of the hipster archness he never before disposed of entirely. Finney continues his incredible late-career resurgence. It’s mesmerising to watch these characters engage in realistic, offhand behavior, like the way both Hawke and Hoffman reveal underneath their attempts to fit into a white-collar world, a fundamental working-class unease—the moment they relax, they pull their shirts out of their trousers. There’s also an eye-catching part from veteran character actor Leonardo Cimino as a hellish minion in the guise of a diamond merchant, all too eager to inform Charles just how evil the world can be.

The film isn’t a true, profound tragedy. It states, rather than explores, the dynamics of the family that’s produced this situation, and the various character relationships are locked in the state they continue in, if more urgently, to the climax. We’re not introduced to the whole Hanson clan together, and so gain little feel for how they work as a unit. Andy outlines his alienation from the group dynamic of mother, father, sister and brother, and Hank has long settled into seething mutual contempt with his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter (Sarah Livingstone).

The role of Gina (Marisa Tomei), Andy’s gorgeous wife, is curious, and ultimately fudged. The film begins with her and Andy in a moment of pure carnal thrill, a marker, reminiscent as it is of Jaime Sanchez and his girlfriend cavorting in The Pawnbroker, of Lumet’s career-long fascination with the brittle excitement and intimacy of the casual lover’s shag. It’s a kind of twilight idyll for them that Andy attempts desperately to maintain, despite the fact that his coke and heroin habits have been rendering him intermittently impotent. Gina mistakes this for lack of desire for her, so she’s been regularly bedding Hank instead. Yet Gina never develops beyond a plot trope, and Tomei is left floundering like an offended valley girl when she finally abandons Andy, a desultory conclusion for an aspect of the story that begins so vividly.

The story of Before the Devil is essentially retrospective, in that it deals with consequences to interpersonal disaster that have preordained worldly disaster. This justifies the film’s approach, which continues circling around the robbery and its grim conclusion, following each character on their separate descent; it’s as if time has stopped, and fate throws up its labyrinthine barriers at every turn. Hank and Andy are wonderfully half-assed criminals. It would take a kind of existential resignation such as James Caan displays in Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) to escape it, but neither Hank nor Andy have the kind of strength required to either avoid or extricate themselves from this situation. Andy comes close, in a final ruthless drive, but his last hesitation and swerving from his purpose to cosset his wounded pride, costs him his life.

Hank survives, at the price of having to run for the rest of his life because of a remaining scruple—he won’t let Andy shoot an innocent woman, and she returns the favor. Ultimately, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is not entirely pessimistic, in that the “right” values do prevail, but Hank’s act of selflessness and Charles’s final act prove that whilst justice can still rule even in the cruelest situations, it can still entail facing the near- inconceivable horror of being exterminated by a loved one, and thus be only one more cruelty. l

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6th 05 - 2007 | 2 comments »

Black Book (Zwartboek, 2006)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Black%20Book%203.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I like Paul Verhoeven’s style. I like his exuberance, his technical mastery and eye for beauty, his clear-eyed, rather pessimistic view of human nature, and his subtle, but insistent, political viewpoint. The fact that his films are like a lightning rod, provoking extreme hatred or backhanded compliments, shows just how challenging Verhoeven’s point of view can be. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of people who will say I see things in, say, Showgirls (1995), that just aren’t there. They are entitled to their opinion. I say there are things in Verhoeven’s films that they fail to see or refuse to accept. I say that approaching Verhoeven with an open mind—which the vast majority of the moviegoing population seems to be able to do—can yield great rewards.

Black Book, one of the most exciting, entertaining, and politically rounded films of the past year, achieved a respectable 75% approval rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes. But many of those critics still saw fit to jab him again as though reliving their reaction to Showgirls and Basic Instinct (1992). For example,

Black Book does not aspire to historical accuracy. Instead, Black Book is pure entertainment, of the hollow variety. Verhoeven gives you your money’s worth of titillation.”

In fact, events in the films, including the murder of Jews and the theft of their property, Nazi collaborators and their humiliation following Germany’s defeat, anti-Semitism, and rationing are entirely factual. Whether the specific story of a Jew who kept herself alive and helped the Dutch underground fight the Nazis during World War II is entirely accurate in every respect, there is no doubt that the spirit of the day and details surrounding this tale are true. On the other hand, I find Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed Schindler’s List (1993) much less accurate in terms of the clean death victims in his film received, and a last-minute reprieve of Jewish women in a shower room that spews water instead of gas.

“Stout-hearted celebration of the Dutch Resistance or total smut? Try both.”

Try neither. In this film, the Dutch Resistance is shown to be fairly ineffectual and rotten from within, and smut is in the eye of the beholder. I was expecting very graphic sex based on comments about the film; it has nothing of the sort—just nudity that works in context to illustrate moral decay, degradation, and a survival mechanism.

So just what have we got in Black Book? A memory film in which Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), an émigré to Israel who is helping to build the infant nation comes face to face with her past when Ronnie (Halina Reijn), a woman she knew during the Nazi occupation of Holland, visits the kibbutz where Rachel lives. Rachel is taken back to the time when as a Dutch Jew from a rich family, she lived in hiding with a Dutch farmer who made her recite a verse from the New Testament from memory before he would feed her. He considered that Jews brought their current fate on themselves by not listening to Jesus in the first place.

blackbook20.jpgShortly after the story opens, we see Rachel spending some precious time outside, sunning herself near a lake and listening to American popular music on her portable victrola. Rob (Michiel Huisman), sailing on the lake, comes alongside her and chats her up. This lighthearted moment is shattered when a bomber flies above and drops a bomb on Rachel’s hiding place. This event sends her looking for a safe haven and in the process, becoming caught up in the Dutch Resistance.

I don’t want to give away too many details of how Rachel becomes Ellis de Vries and goes undercover, but suffice to say that greed for Jewish wealth lies behind it and most of the other events of this film. Once Rachel/Ellis does become involved in the Resistance at the behest of her employer Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint), she dyes her hair blonde and parlays a chance encounter with Gestapo officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) into a job at SS headquarters in Rotterdam.

Black%20Book%206.jpgOnce inside, she befriends Ronnie, who is carrying on an affair with the odious Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), and becomes Müntze’s mistress. Müntze and Franken are at loggerheads over how to treat prisoners, with Müntze favoring a more humane negotiation with the “terrorists” to prevent mutual reprisals. He carries on these talks with notary Smaal (Dolf de Vries), who was entrusted with the Stein family fortune; Smaal, however, is a trusted member of the underground who gives Rachel/Ellis a bug to plant in Franken’s office. When a rescue of some of the resistance fighters, including Kuipers’ son, is planned, the bug is used to ensure success. Rachel/Ellis provides access to the building.
It is about this time that a series of crosses and double-crosses start making themselves apparent. We may have guessed some of them; others are more shrouded. Rachel/Ellis eventually doesn’t know whom to trust. What she needs is evidence of a conspiracy to prove that she is not a traitor, and this search leads to the denouement and a return to Rachel’s present life in Israel.

blackbook06.jpgBlack Book is a melodrama. As with all melodramas, our emotions are heightened through circumstance rather than character development. Rachel/Ellis—plucky, smart, and fatalistic—joins the Resistance because she has nothing to lose. She and the handsome and sympathetic Müntze fall in love because Müntze has lost his taste for war and victory. Both characters act on the horrible circumstances they have endured rather than truly make us feel them. The supporting characters play their parts like pawns on a chessboard, too. And perhaps this is part of Verhoeven’s plan. In war, individuals become “the enemy” or “friends” without necessarily earning either of those labels.

Black%20Book%201.jpgMelodrama is often maligned as somehow more manipulative than a more psychological drama, but I think this is extremely unfair. No films are “true,” and with this story in particular, the aspects of memory fused with the truly harrowing times through which Rachel lived create the heightened emotions that are best served by the conventions of melodrama. To go much deeper could invite a pornographic voyeurism regarding feelings most of us will never understand; Schindler’s List, unforgivably for me, allowed us to do just this. Better choice, in my opinion, to let us see some naked bodies than to subject these unfortunates to an emotional striptease.

There is perhaps a subversive commentary on current times as well. Black Book carries on in the tradition of Hollywood’s heroic war films. Yet the use of the word “terrorist” has a definite contemporary ring, and one that sounds hollow to the ears of Americans who think of terrorists as the bad guys. In this film, only Nazis use the word, applying it to the Resistance fighters. In addition, the Dutch all await the “Tommies” to liberate them, not the Yanks. When the occupying forces of the victorious Allies do set up shop in Holland, they are Canadian, not American or British. This “Hollywood” film in structure and gorgeous production values has cut America completely out of the picture.

Black Book is melodrama of the highest order, and one whose lack of prudishness is as un-American as its cast. Paul Verhoeven has done himself proud and told a story, in his native land, that is much more grown up than the films it seems to mimic. I hope one day that Verhoeven’s critics learn to look a little deeper, too.


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