CONDITION RED: THE FOLLOWING TEXT CONTAINS SPOILERS STOP EXERCISE CAUTION BEFORE PROCEEDING FURTHER STOP
The evolutionary characteristics that would come to define the post-atomic bomb SF genre emerged, not coincidentally, with striking similarities to Hollywood’s failing classic horror film, which after the real-life atrocities visited upon the civilized world throughout World War II, seemed almost childish and certainly preternaturally dated; the menace of cloaked or stumbling representatives of the undead or resurrected dead being hardly comparable to wholesale destruction of cities and peoples, or the unspeakable atrocities commonplace in Nazi death camps, and during the period of postwar psychic healing it was evident that a newly honed sophistication was in order to usurp the cinematic diet of Gothic based terrors in favor of a new modernity in the nourishment of nightmare scenarios.
The baby steps taken by the post-War SF film engaged the genre in the briefest gestative flirtation with more realistically grounded procedural verisimilitude- leaning on aspects of mystery (“Spaceways”), adventure (“Rocketship X-M”) and docudrama (Destination: Moon”) -in which existent genre tropes are used to give narrative integrity to what are essentially how-to primers in escaping the gravitational pull of the Big Blue Planet. Grandiose scientific concepts, many condescendingly thought to be too complex for the audience to grasp, were cloaked in the comforting embrace of overly familiar (and therefore less challenging) cinematic surroundings that burdened a genre- which by its very nature should energize the speculative imagination -with a storytelling attitude bordering on the mundane. However, even this kitchen sink approach to the emerging vista of space exploration was short-lived. Disappointingly, rather than pursuing a continuance of speculative considerations of Man’s place in the universe, the SF film quickly plunged into a degenerative intellectual descent. Thus a brief flirtation invested with a loftier philosophical bent was waylaid in favor endless conflicts with xenomorphic species- either extraterrestrial or the product of an incautious evolution of atomic energy -that favored the seemingly invulnerable destructive menace inherent in a robotic Gort rather than the more pedantic course of Klaatu in Robert Wise’s seminal SF wake-up call “The Day the Earth Stood Still”; a dramatically shortsighted trend which downplays the importance of the human element, most prominently in the important development of full-bodied characters (ironically, Michael Rennie’s Klaatu is one of the most memorable and interesting characters in the genre, yet it is the stolid countenance of the robotic sentinel which has eclipsed the face of human reason in the cultural pantheon).
In 1951, with a genre divided between the polar attractions of intelligent philosophy (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”) and shock thrills (“The Thing”), the industry predictably veered toward the visceral cattle prod, if Hollywood leaned in a direction that was not in many ways dissimilar with a previously lucrative genre it is not surprising. In fact, it was a particularly predictable and understandable choice since the horror genre was lazily regarded by the studios as a lucrative quick buck return with minimal budgetary risk offered the studios healthy returns in a field seen as developmentally simplistic in its easy to duplicate formula tropes. Aliens became the vampires and werewolves of the age of gleaming ships replacing Gothic castles, and atomic mutations became the new Prometheus Unbound.
Within the rather limited menu offerings representing American science fiction films that equally attempt to challenge the intellect as well as the matinee movie-fed imagination, “The Andromeda Strain” occupies a relative middle ground in terms of depicting one of the Sf genre’s most prominent preoccupations: Man’s reaction to the perils living in a universe shared with vast smorgasbord of aggressively anti-Mankind phenomena; in this case, the search to find the cause and cure to whatever the cause of the extinction of an entire town’s populace- with the mysterious exception of two residents -a crying baby and an old man who is addicted to Sterno.
The eponymous imperiling germ is a neat substitute for the usual intrusive socially discourteous behemoth or even the more familiar (in generic utilitarian shape though alien in more specific cosmological design) uninvited outer space humanoid and Crichton’s premise cleverly turns H.G. Wells’ ironic minute conqueror of the Martian invader back on the human race, with the antagonist being a mere microbial sample inconveniently attached to a mote of space rock which has otherwise uneventfully collided with a returned space probe. What follows, and what makes the film seem both comfortably familiar yet brimming with a startling contemporaneous immediacy; wrapped, as it is, in the surface trappings of those 1950’s B-movie SF films in which an (interstellar or otherwise) menace arrives rather abruptly twist the endurance of Earth’s prominent species, usually represented as ranchers, farmers or suspiciously incautious bystanders. The success of this upgrading of SF film’s traditional scientists-to-the-rescue formula is is in the dedicated details of believable investigative technologies, not as decorous- but useless -fixtures of the scientist’s lab (remember those devices in Frankenstein’s lab whose sole purpose seemed to be little more than the obviously unscientific generation of grinding noise and sparks?), but as the legitimate tools of discovery. Regarding the updating of conventional depictions of SF men of science, so often characterized as spending equal time in verbal romantic foreplay with the highlighted starlet du jour, there is a refreshing no-nonsense attitude in the presentation of the quartet of lead doctors (capably played by Arthur Hill, David Wayne, Kate Reid and James Olson, actors refreshingly chosen for their ability to convey intelligent gravitas rather than box-office value) , invaluably assisting the film’s averting a declension into the mire of 1950’s camp. That is not to say that the film is humorless, though there is a welcome absence of extraneous vulgarizing jocularity, and any badinage included sensibly derives from the differing levels of cynicism inherent in individual personalities, though in the case of Kate Reid’s caustic Dr. Ruth Leavitt (whose scouring pad sarcasm is the antithesis of the traditional decorous but otherwise incautiously endangered female scientist), this is also overdone to the perilous edge of uncharitable mockery.
Curiously, Robert Wise’s film of Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain can be best appreciated if one’s acumen is attuned to the intensity of mental concentration demanded by a drawing room whodunit as much as a science fiction film. The story is presented in a pseudodocumentary fashion, an approach which begets problematic issues, concurrently minimizing the risk of subjecting the material to the risk of the genre’s not untypical yielding to cheapening histrionic melodrama, while also resulting in an unfortunately disproportionate reduction of meaningful character development. The decision to favor technical verisimilitude over the human element presumes that the density of details in the medical investigation will be sufficient to redirect the viewer’s attention from the screenplay’s rather shallowly wrought characters; a continuation of the SF film’s preoccupation with plot points over the human factor.
The science presented seems to be, to the layman, of a reasonably realistic speculative level, based more upon reasoned constructs rather than pulpish invention, and if there is a level of hokum onscreen, it is generously disguised with an undeterred immediacy which grants the proceedings an appreciable level of veracity that is rare in film science fiction; and while the thematic substance doesn’t seem at odds with the more formulaic goals to which suspense films find themselves subject (until the finale, but more about that in a moment), the closer the film adheres to faux documentary conventions, the more the danger of draining tension when any part of the narrative flow is abruptly refocused from the central crisis; lending the curious occasional hint of matter-of-factness to the proceedings; the mechanics of doggedly realistic documentation not always finding itself aligned with the requirements of a filmed thriller. This is certainly the case with an extremely extended sequence in which the primary foursome of characters is meticulously sterilized of all form of biological contaminants, a sequence in which Crichton’s fascination with procedure becomes an impediment to the forward motion of his story. Fidelity to the mechanics of microorganism quarantine notwithstanding, the dogged, lengthy depiction of sterilization, despite its adherence to factual biotechnological processes, becomes an unnecessarily protracted distraction from the task at hand; especially in the context of a narrative whose suspense is generated in no small measure from the time sensitivity in dealing with the menace. Admittedly, the script cleverly uses this sequence to impart a great deal of subtly unforced exposition by way of dialogue that educates without once felling like a treatise, but this does not absolve the leisurely pacing which characterizes much of the the initial presentation, including the search of the infected town of Piedmont, New Mexico, where the inherently eerie nature of the sequence is interrupted by the trickery of split screens which merely nudge the viewer with a disengaging reminder that they are, after all, watching only a movie.
Still, while “The Andromeda Strain” focuses on the immediate crisis at hand, it is sufficiently absorbing and mentally nourishing, though the film, not unlike Crichton’s novel, stumbles into a Third Act Crisis that finds the movie resorting to falling prey to a series of obvious plot contrivances, conspicuously placed at the start of the film, all later reemerging simultaneously serving to switch the nature of the crisis at the eleventh hour; a development which causes the imagined threat to be far more personal as opposed to one of global extinction (It doesn’t help that the contributory depiction of an exterior Andromeda mutation is presented as an indistinct idea, muddy in execution, and that the exclusion, in the film, of the book’s final pages makes the point of the plot turn even more obscurely relevant.). That the final minutes of the story are diverted to a defuse the bomb thriller scenario, undercuts the prominence of the menace of Andromeda (the explanation that irradiating the virus will cause an exponential breeding ground is possibly irrelevant considering the last minute mutation) and places the film into a shopworn arena of matinee movie derring-do than intellectual resourcefulness. Crichton appears to have fallen into the gap afflicting many science fiction novels, which is in presenting an initial original concept, finding himself unable to ramp up the climax into something wholly innovative and untested. The finale smacks of clumsy espionage potboilers and Wise seems unable to muster the necessary directorial flash to enliven such overly trod material. What is the point of the interminable adherence to scientific truism when the intention is to undercut it with tired action movie muscle anyway?
Lou Andreas Sand, a high fashion model who over the course of her career descends into alcoholism, drug abuse and madness, is the subject of Jerry Schatzberg’s 1970 directorial debut “Puzzle of a Downfall Child” a film which uses the influences of a non-linear narrative from the Postmodernist movements in 1960’s European cinema (it’s about time the few Gallic lads of the Nouvelle Vague cease to be credited with the entirety of the rapid evolution of visual grammar, where few of the credited aesthetic innovations actually found their origin but merely popular appreciation) as a format to merge contextual elements with a deliberately fractured and obscure aesthete in order to replicate the conditions of schizophrenic debilitation of the mental process.
The effort put in by director Schatzberg is appreciable as the first-time director adapts to the demands of an entirely different expressionist aesthetic, eliciting an uncomfortably distorted approximation of the dislocation of Lou’s shifting break with reality. We are constantly drawn the model’s perspective of events only later to find that we have been subject to an entirely unreliable point-of-view in which uncontrolled delusion, deliberate self-delusion and actual occurrences intermingle within the film’s narrative, ironically made all the more intricately obscure by the dependence on Lou’s clarity of recollection as the film is structured as a biographical inquiry by Lou’s longtime associate Aaron Reinhardt (obviously based on Schatzberg who was also a noted fashion photographer, though as portrayed by the excellent Barry Primus through much of the film with the infliction of a bizarre perm he is more reminiscent of photographer-cum-actor Allan Arbus) who himself is preparing a film based upon Lou’s life and experiences; thus the film travels in a rather elliptical pattern of distancing between first-person experience (however reliable that may be) and its representation through necessary editorial selectivity by an intimate but still exterior artistic sensibility; the film representing several varied layers of truth, itself obscuring the line between reality and fiction as it is based primarily upon Schatzberg’s own similarly taped recollections with 1950’s supermodel Anne Saint Marie.
However, it’s within this structural miasma of perceptual obliqueness that Schatzberg’s film falters with a corresponding narrative, conceived by the director and Carole Eastman (as the pseudonymous Adrian Joyce) and scripted by Eastman, that is a disappointingly laced with a succession of psychologically inconclusive scenes which feed at the trough of tiresome and overused tropes that not only fail to illuminate the nature of her illness (there is a suggestion of both organic and external causes, neither of which is explored for substantiation) but to explain the severity of it. Significantly the film ends with a reverse shot of Lou that becomes immediately unfocused and diminishes in image size, which would seem to indicate that Lou is intended to remain an unreachable enigma, yet there are far too many overtly and obviously symbolic reference points dramatized within her supposedly delusional state coupled with the entirely rational interpretations available through Aaron’s own intimately won insightfulness that should preclude such a surrender to indistinctness. To suggest that such unenlightenment can be seen as anything but a failure is to also surrender to the worship of form over content, with all of the film’s characters are unknowable due to presumably (though this is not made clear either) being filtered through Lou’s disturbed sensibility, which- if we are to take the situation at face value -is entirely unreliable as a witness to events around her or as a keeper of lucid memories. It is certainly possible to include the film in Hollwood’s brief flirtation with what might best be referenced as the Cinema of the Socially Disaffected, especially since Miss “Joyce” is also credited with the authorship of the existentially arcane Monte Hellman western “The Shooting” as well as co-authoring Bob Rafelson’s landmark of American cinematic disillusionment “Five Easy Pieces”, but in the case of “Puzzle of a Downfall Child”, the rather ill-conceived puzzle is comprised of nonconforming pieces, certainly meant to represent a fracturing of the rational from the phantasmagorical to coincide with Schatzberg’s complex structural scheme, but the empty and trite incidents- in many ways the film resembles a far more intricately woven but equally vapid updating of “Valley of the Dolls” -result in an empathetic vacuum which is not aided by the eventual creative slumming which relys on a stylistic bold aesthetic cosmetology to energetically distract from the inert intellectualism at the film’s core.
Certainly the film wishes to be taken as a serious work of Art, as initially suggested by the overly self-conscious and mannered compositions of Lou’s isolated beach house in the opening sequence- note the “No Trespassing” sign which may be symbolically cautionary or may simply mean Schaztberg had recently viewed “Citizen Kane” -which are glaringly reminiscent (as is Lou’s initial appearance) of the formal visual tone in several of Bergman’s Fårö Island films. However, influence and suggestion do not artistry make, and the film’s frequent debilitating concessions to melodramatic tropes cause the film to confusing walk a crooked path between distancing dramaturgical pretensions and gaudy soap opera. There are far too many instances of dramatic insertions which resemble outtakes from Gothic Hammer productions, especially with references to sinister religious overtones suggesting the Catholic Church as an intellectually lazy source of malevolent psychological trauma and sexual inhibitions, especially when placed in tandem with recurring images of possible sexual assault by an older lover/stranger/phantom with which they seem to have seem to have no direct connection, or at least none that it is exhibited. Even an important sexual encounter between Aaron and Lou is made obscure by the staggered references we are given, though this is an example of the film’s unnecessary lack of clarity since Aaron certainly knows what actually took place. If we are to take these visions subjectively, then the film does reveal one undeniable fact about Lou: as these sequences are manifestations of her fantasy life, she has seen and been influenced by too many trashy movies.
Faye Dunaway nosedives into her bag of tremulous edgy fragility that has been her signature performance characteristic even in her more aggressively conceived roles. By exhibiting far too evident a brittle nature from the earliest of flashbacks, she allows for little wiggle room in a role which is already hemmed in by existing within a history of events which retard all opportunities to express growth or erosion in the character with the exception of increasing levels of histrionics; usually signaled by a change in Dunaway’s make-up (the work of Robert Phillipe is quite accomplished and ends up doing most of the work in Dunaway’s performance) and hair. Barry Primus, on the reverse side of the coin, makes Aaron such a quiet and sympathetic character, it feels like a missed opportunity that the film isn’t more focused in his direction. (This might have enabled a better understanding of Lou’s character as well.) The talented Viveca Lindfors is unfortunately encouraged to punctuate every emotion and action in her role of acclaimed photographer Pauline Galba by acting as eccentric and “madcap” as possible, which actually makes Lou’s behavior all the more understandable to go unnoticed by the entire gallery of oddballs and narcissistic iconoclasts who populate the background of the film. The opposite situation is enjoyed (though not enjoyably) by Roy Scheider who plays the small but important role of Lou’s lover Mark with all of the pizzazz of a freshly pressed dinner jacket. Attractively shot by Adam Holender who captures exciting interplay in Dunaway’s fascinating bone structure, it’s too bad he wasn’t able to add equal focus to the rest of the film which as it turns out is as hollow as the actress’ cheeks.
“MARK OF THE DEVIL” (1970)
Beware filmmakers who preface their story with a declaration that the movie about to follow has its basis in historical fact; a claim toward legitimacy that inevitably becomes increasingly vaporous as the film unfolds. This is especially true of exploitation vehicles which have already lured the recklessly daring into the theater with the promise of exotic, erotic or squirm-inducing thrills (ambitious braggadocio will often make claims to all three). Such a notification is posted early in Michael Armstrong’s truly repulsive “Mark of the Devil”: a film which, by this premature juncture, has already gleefully depicted the rape of a nun, acts of dismemberment, torture, a tar and feathering and a group burning at the stake; all lovingly rendered, no doubt, with the dedicated advancement of scholarship in mind. The film’s misplaced pronouncement of historic fidelity never fully explains how a film of such an earnest pedigree corresponds with the advertised distribution of specialty designed novelty vomit bags to every patron (perhaps finding possible use as a fixative against the whirling vertigo experienced by the euphoria of recklessly cramming too much academia at one sitting?), but such are the sometimes contrary vicissitudes of the sideshow barker.
The setting is familiar territory to tourists of Hammer country, where Europe seemed perpetually engulfed in a noxious fog of primordial superstition and cannibalistic societal fissures, a world in a perpetual state of implosive, destructive paranoia sufficient to drive every villager to enthusiastic betrayal of their fellow citizens for any imagined variation of supernatural malfeasance. That “Mark of the Devil” embellishes this peasant class hysteria with an historically sound foundation in Church sponsored inquisitional terrorism is merely the excuse for a succession of vividly enacted scenes of torture; those featuring victimized females lingered over with especially sickening levels of depraved voyeurism. However, what distinguishes the period Hammer film (and their numerous imitators) is the presence of a balancing moral figure (a priest, a professor) who is able to reason through the frenzy of superstition to provide an authoritarian sanctuary against the violent impulses of the unenlightened fearing the dark. In “Mark of the Devil” there is no such moral compass leading to a concluding moral or spiritual salvation. Rather, the film is suffocated by the stench of moral rot that corrupts every character except for the victims of the witch hunters who are too busy screaming in agony to compose reasoned editorials condemning such widespread antisocial behavior. The residents of the town, en masse, collect about public exhibitions of the tormenting and murder of innocents in the opening scenes, cackling and jeering with excited glee, and in the final moments, they reemerge to feverishly participate in murdering the one character in whom there is an awakening of moral conscience. The most depressing aspect of this film, beyond its rampant sadism, open misogyny and unfailing, mindless dedication to celebrating the worst in Man, is that is presents all of these lurid elements without a hint of true historic context. Just what are the filmmakers attempting to do? Even with the primitivism of thinking, the subject of historic witch hunting and religiously based purges naturally opens questions which require addressing. For instance, are we to assume that the brutality of corrupt authoritarianism has infected the townsfolk, or might we infer that the base weakness of the peasant class invites such institutional abuse to take place in the first place? To find answers to such questions, one will have to search elsewhere, in a film less compromised by a surfeit of unexplainable enthusiasm in its maker’s attitude toward the most patently gratuitous exploitation elements.
The film properly emphasizes the venality of unchecked authority, though manages to confuse, misrepresent and obfuscate the subject by ignoring the actual historic sources of the Church’s complex road to inquisitional tyranny including the important papal decree of crimen exceptum where the Church expunged limitations on the use of torture to obtain confessions when corroborative evidence was difficult, if not impossible, to compile. In ignoring such complex and important philosophical doctrines, the film satisfies the need for villainy by infantilizing an important historical crisis of both faith and morality by reveling in that most hoary of modern cinema devices: induced psychosis by way of sexual impotency. In fact, sex, or more specifically sexual sadism, is the catalyst for much of the film’s mayhem- one character even openly inquires about another’s enjoyment of seeing women tortured -though even on that level, the film is mired in confusion and hypocrisy, as the depiction of condemnable aberrant behavior is filtered through the excited exploitative enthusiasm of the film’s creators. Failing in any approximation of a fluid narrative structure, the film merely concedes to record the accumulation of innocent citizens as targets of purposeless persecution (the film hints at historically accurate motivations to steal the property and monies away from the more noble of the unlucky chosen, though this motive seems an afterthought to the more pronounced taste for a disturbing combination of bared flesh and oozing blood, which is the film’s true point of interest), though the continuous cloaking of the proceedings in religiously based terrorism is distasteful- no matter what the historical record may support -when used as a crass fulcrum to a horrific carnival of gore infused sexploitation which, in fact, has nothing to do with the easy and intellectually dishonest role of the filmic scapegoat that has become religion’s cross to bear (so to speak), unless one wishes to follow an unlikely alternative in the film’s skewered view of religion, which is, in essence, the Gospel According to de Sade, campaigning for a presumed natural state of amorality in Man..
After the film’s opening salvo of prosecutorial debauchery engineered by the local witchfinder Albino (the scarred Reggie Nalder, appreciably slumming within any proximity to memories of his appearance in Hitchcock’s 1956 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much”) and his oafish subordinate Advocato (Johannes Buzalski) await the arrival of their superior Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom) in a local tavern where Albino is publicly rebuked by Vanessa (Olivera Katarina), a barmaid who is accused of association with the Devil simply for not wanting to be a one night stand. His attempt to persecute the maiden is foiled by the presence of Christian (Udo Kier), a young man who will serve as a questioning apprentice to Lord Cumberland, but who fails to question Vanessa’s later arrest even though the pair continue to shoot baseless romantic sparks through the dungeon bars.
With the arrival of Lord Cumberland, the remainder of the film gets down to serious business: an almost unceasing stream of scenes of inquisitional torture and sadism, with the occasional pretense toward dramatic legitimacy by depicting a few moments of rather unimaginative juridical falderal between Cumberland and an increasingly physically savaged Deidre von Bergenstein (Gaby Fuchs). The painstaking process with which this woman is pierced. burned and racked, in adoring detail, culminates in the removal of her tongue and the abandonment of even the most strenuously preposterous excuses for this exhibition of Sadian excesses. The screenwriters- director Armstrong and Adrien Hoven, who also produced the film (and reportedly reshot much of the footage) and plays a small part in the film -have an apparent disinterest in developing and advancing a coherent story: just what- except for the gratuitous bone snapping and seared flesh -is the film supposed to be about? Even a most elemental point-of-view is absent from the film; by the end, it is still not clear what the proffered opinion of inquisitional torture is- pro or con? Lacking the most fundamental building blocks of storytelling, the film has nowhere to go except to widen its scope of violence and bloodletting until there erupts a virtual Götterdämmerung, with the violence escalating beyond the boundaries of the accused and toward the accusers themselves, and this proves the indefensible point that the film is a bloodthirsty shooting gallery and all of the characters merely ducks for the slaughter. To present a parade of atrocities against both the innocent and corrupted becomes a situation of stark bedlam when all human contact is suspended for the sake of a continuous showcase of death without meaning- even to those who are the purveyors of the mayhem. For example, Albino is strangled to death by Cumberland for the flippant suggestion that the nobleman may be impotent, and yet- despite his very public presence throughout the first half of the film -his absence fails to raise the slightest notice (with the exception of Christian who witnesses the murder), nor does his absence create any discernible vacuum within the story. Similarly, Advocato’s impalement through the eye seems to go unnoticed by everyone, until an eleventh hour reappearance when he is seen leading the villagers in revolt against the witchfinders, despite the fact he is known by the entire town as one of the greatest offenders! The circuitous illogic of the film reduces every character to an crimson-filled piñata, available for beheading, impalement or mutilation at a moment’s notice.
On a brighter note, there is not a distinguished performance in the cast, so there is little excuse to see the film, not even for the estimable Lom, who seems rather bored by the whole enterprise, though his work is that of a practiced thespian next to Herbert Fux who either grins malevolently or grins like the village imbecile as Jeff the Executioner. The women are only memorable by the startling similarity of their bosomy cleavage, and as the troubled Christian, Udo Kier spends the entire film acting as if he needs a bathroom break, expressing far less consternation than constipation.