Scorched: “Suntan” (2016)


suntan_still-1024x577         Scorched:  “Suntan”  (2016) 

A caveat: the following review may hint at details distressing to viewers who wish to experience a completely fresh viewing of the film.

    Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ “Suntan” follows the disastrous trajectory of Kostis (Makis Papadimitriou), a lonely middle age doctor on the summer resort of AntiparossuntanOS Island, whose suppressed emotional instincts are violently disrupted by the sudden appearance of Anna (Elli Tringou), a young pleasure seeking vacationer and her hedonistic coterie, who adopt the doctor as a kind of mascot and foil for the group’s male revelers’ irreverent but demeaning humor, the latter which is absently deflected by the doctor as he finds intense distraction when his previously blunted sex drive is reignited by what he mistakes as romantic designs by the carefree but careless Anna.

    The film begins with Kostis’ off-season arrival and Papadimitropoulos’ camera charts the lonely details establishing his residency with extended and formal framings that emphasize the static solitude of his days. The last shot of this sequence is truly extraordinary in the economy in which it relays the loneliness of the character as a type of self-incarceration, where just outside of his window blink pathetic Christmas lights, mocking his disconnection with their generic intrusion of holiday cheer. This extended pre-title sequence quietly offers up a wealth of expository details which becomes useful in measuring the deterioration of Kostis’ stability with his abrupt foray from introversion to overly enthusiastic sociability signaling an eventual dark journey from an initial innocent  romantic crush to frightening obsession.

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/chandler-swain-reviews-art-house-cinema-2/

 

 

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Posted in art house cinema, movie reviews, Movies, Romance, sex, women, writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Battle Fatigued: “Wicked Woman” (1953)

 

wickedwoman3      Battle Fatigued:  “Wicked Woman”  (1953)

     Belonging to that smaller, less critically regarded, yet potent 1950’s offshoot of film noir proper, the “bad girl” film, Russell Rouse’s “Wicked Woman” offers up a portrait of awickedwomanINSERT young woman prematurely aged morally by experience, suggested but mercifully not given lurid exploration, and clearly, as they once so colorfully phrased it, “on the skids”.

    As played by Beverly Michaels, that statuesque cheesecake siren from a pair of Hugo Haas dramas, “Pickup” and “The Girl on the Bridge”, drifter Billie Nash has the outer appearance of a classic blonde film noir femme fatale-  she certainly has the body language down cold  -but what differentiates her from the standard heartless gold digger is that while in the pursuit of the standard rewards (money, men) of questionable behavior, she seems to be suffering from a chronic bout of asthenia; her actions and very movements weighed by an enervation that is not standard equipment in the seductress arsenal, but rather a result of extended struggle which has exhausted her psychologically, though based upon the awkwardness of her line readings, perhaps the actress was simply in need of a refreshing nap. 

    When Billie gets a job as hostess in a bar owned by married couple Dora (Evelyn Scott) and Matt Bannister (Richard Egan), it only takes a few furtive glances before she is wrapped in the beefcake arms of Egan’s bartender. Before the first heated kisses cool, the pair are conspiring to run away, their plans only complicated by the problem of the increasingly alcoholic Dora.

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/matinees-at-the-bijoux/

 

    

 

Posted in crime, film noir, movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, Romance, women, writing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Mop Tops: “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week- The Touring Years” (2016)


eightdays11.jpg     “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week- The  Touring Years”  (2016)

     Just when you think that the documentary coverage of The Beatles had reached the saturation point, along comes Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week- The Touring Years” which fails to add anything new worthy factual revelations to the already voluminous coverage of The Fab Four, but what it achieves, and it does so excitingly well, at least in the first half of the film, is to recreate the frenzied sensation that was that was known as Beatlemania-   surprisingly sweet in eightdaysaweekOSnature, and this is he only film to openly rely on this phenomenon as its driving engine since 1978’s delightful “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”   -generated by a particular quartet from Liverpool. However, in doing so, Howard disappointingly squanders opportunities he himself creates by effectively accounting for only one half of his subject’s potential.

    That the scale of this innocent enthusiasm is repeatedly referenced as historic, and that the unchecked energies of the extraordinary numbers of fanatical fans compressed into unnaturally confined areas led to incidents of unintended destruction and injury was a sign that something new and impactful on a grand scale was afoot; it was if all of those hysterical premonitions from 1950’s morality soapboxes concerning the lure of the “devil music” (despite the fact that much of that consternation was prejudicially based upon rock and roll being an evolutionary offspring of black centric rhythm and blues) had come to fruition of an epic scale. However, what minimizes the film is its complacency in giving a first-hand accounting of this very frenzy surrounding The Beatles’ concert tours from the perspectiveeightdaysaweek6 of those most closely associated with those  spontaneous eruptions of individual emotional delirium, which when multiplied by millions, created a game changing cultural phenomenon: the fans themselves. There are a number of newly filmed recollections from celebrity admirers such as Eddie Izzard, Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg (who provides the most heartfelt moments in the film), but in limiting the bulk of the reminiscences to well known personalities, Howard fails to follow through on the greater story he is tackling: the everyday teens who comprised the vast bulk of The Beatles’ fandom. Surely it would have been possible with a minimum of detective work to track down some of the excited youths who appear in the concert footage, and absent this first-hand reminiscence, Howard misses the opportunity to plumb extra dimensions from the perpetually overlooked partner in the Beatlemania phenomenon.

 

To read the complete review, click the following link to: https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/documentaries/

 

 

 

Posted in History, movie reviews, Movies, music, Reviews, The Beatles | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Stayin Cool: Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, Special 4th of July 2018 Edition, Vol. 1776


underwater11Cool and Refreshing:  Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, Special 4th of July 2018 Edition, Vol. 1776

With the current East Coast heatwave setting record temperatures exceeding those of the last time we had a warm day (it’s not really global warming, it’s called Summer… get a calendar), it seems a opportune time for a bit of relief for those in the Great Undeveloped Northeast who have yet to understand the concept of installing air conditioning in buildings (“But Summer is only a few months of the year”, say they. The logical response being, “So is Winter, so why have heat?”), but instead retreat to beach areas where the sand is only likely to magnify the temperature tenfold. (MIT grads, all.): So,underwater GIF for those sweltering in the holiday heat (awaiting the inevitable pseudo-arson fires that are bound to checker the local neighborhoods throughout the night due to injudicious usage of homemade bottle rockets in the living room, in celebration of yet another American holiday that has been vulgarized to resemble little more than car sales and yet another occasion to perform a perplexing Russian musical composition as the unofficial overture for what is undoubtedly our most significant American holiday), we present a brief, cool and refreshing respite from the sun with a very special edition of the Founding Father’s favorite pastime (though such a addictive distraction, they deliberately excluded  all mention of it in the Declaration of Independence), the Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, brought to you today by the makers of SKITTLES, America’s most patriotic breakfast candy. In this edition we celebrate the cooling effect of complete immersion in liquid in the cinema. Your task is to view the following sixteen images and to identify the movies from which they have been sourced. The first to successfully do so will receive that obvious replacement for the Order of Lenin, the CSR Culture Shock Award. Good luck.

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Posted in animation, biography, books, British films, comedy, holidays, Movies, photography, Romance, science fiction, women, writing | 7 Comments

State of the Art: Isn’t Brie Just Another Name For Cheese?

 

briecheese

WITH PROMINENT MICROPHONES COMES A GREAT RESPONSIBILITY NOT TO MAKE A BLOODY FOOL OF YOURSELF: Why are those in Hollywood such slow studies with such a simple concept?

     At a recent celebration of the annual Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards (which once again demonstrated that [1] all of the good names for award presentations have already been taken, and [2] if there were ever a sudden shortage of Lucite, the self-congratulation branch of the entertainment industry would face its greatest internal crisis since the Great Sequin Famine of 1943-45), actress Brie Larson entered the current roster of righteous Hollywood figures who rage with public indignation, offering up yet another apportioning of media attentive outrage intended to advance their own sense of superior humanitarianism by promoting an ill-conceived notion of forced social diversity (a diversity which, one might note with interest, never intrudes upon their own career opportunities); an intellectual Charge of the Light Brigade consisting entirely of transparent shaming tactics, empowered, ironically enough, not through persuasive, cogent dialogue, but with an aggressively faulty logic steeped in blatant sexism, ageism and racism.

    And just what was the subject of this diatribe, addressed to the collected enclave of empowered industry women? Unfortunately, instead of directing well deserved constructively deconstructive observations at the increasing creative bankruptcy afflicting Hollywood, the focus of this particular current personal embarrassment mistaken for enlightened cultural activism seems to be aimed at that most non complicit of industry punching bags: the film critic (always at fault for an unbiased recognition of the stench of cinema offal, don’t you know?); with this latest attack unaccountably centered about the generally lackluster critical response to the current terrible incarnation of “A Wrinkle in Time”, which, according to Ms. Larson’s rather unevolved progression of logic, would have been rightfully deemed a work of meritorious accomplishment, if only it had been fairly judged; not by the existent critical roster, the majority of whom are caustically dismissed by the actress as “some old white dude”, but by a more hand-picked cadre of enthusiastically nurturing cheerleading sycophants, comprised entirely of women, persons of color, teens, or more favorably: an amalgam of all three.

To read the complete text of the post, click the following link to: https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/notes-on-the-critical-establishment/

 

Posted in books, Culture, Film Criticism, movie reviews, Movies, racism, women, writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Who Needs That Ther’ Book Lernin’?: Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, July 2018 Edition, Vol. 451

 

library30

WHAT A DUMP! Demonstrative of the foolishness of concepts like Nations Without Borders, our experiment with LIBRARIES WITHOUT SHELVES wasn’t exactly a boast worthy success.

Who Needs That Ther’ Book Lernin’?:  Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, July 2018 Edition, Vol. 451

    Despite such contemporary wizards as Mark Zuckerberg asserting the notion that modern life requires little more wisdom than can be drawn from indicating a “like” on such essential internet pages as Photos of DeNiro’s Mole (perhaps whoever steals yourlibraryGIF2 identity thanks to the tee shirted one selling your personal information to such trustworthy individuals as shadowy Chinese corporations [Do lead laced baby toys ring a bell?] will do better as you on the SAT tests), the need for genuine knowledge continues. (Listen here Butch, CSR likes-  loves, actually  -pepperoni pizza, but that doesn’t indicate the necessity for a reality detached lifestyle.) In a world saturated by billions of websites, and with almost ninety five percent of them quoting misinformation from Wikipedia verbatim, it occurs to the clinically analytical mind how truly unreliable the Internet has become and how seductive the siren call is to return to that increasingly overlooked resource, that resting place of the wisdom of the ages: the library. Why are books necessary? Natural selection. Presumably people too stupid in the proper use of books will suffer grievous amounts of paper cuts and bleed out, thus thinning the herd so the rest of us can enjoy our weekends without the annoyance of those extra multitudes (not to mention the promise of future idiot offspring). And with that pre-Holiday message of cheer and goodwill to all (but fewer) good Men (Meant in the sense of Mankind. If you want to take issue here with the “proper” usage of gender neutral pronouns, I have a sharp edged book you might wish to consult.), we present this month’s edition of that most erudite of brain puzzles, the Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, brought to you this month by the makers of SKITTLES, America’s favorite breakfast candy. In this edition we celebrate the library as depicted in films. It’s that simple. No need for a refresher course in the Dewey Decimal System, just identify the film from which each of the following twenty five images have been taken. (And in deference to our readers, this once is a cinch.) The first to identify all twenty five successfully will receive the coveted and somewhat terrifying CSR Culture Shock Award. Good luck.

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Posted in book reviews, books, Boston, children's books, History, Movies, Musicals, Mystery, short stories, women, writing | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Stairway to Heaven (Or At Least To The Mezzanine): Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, June 2018 Edition, Vol. 384


Stairway to Heaven (Or At Least To The Mezzanine):  Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, June 2018 Edition, Vol. 384

    Life has its ups and downs and so do staircases. If you’re looking for a philosophical musing that’s deeper, you’d better consult Bertrand Russell. But in the absence of such intellectual ambition, we present yet another episode of that most challenging of regularly scheduled couch potato mental appetizers, the Classic Film Images Photo Quiz brought to you by the makers of SKITTLES, America’s most beloved breakfast candy.  In this edition we celebrate that most useful of architectural features used in going from one floor to another (absent an elevator or escalator and not nearly as much fun as a firehouse pole, but I digress),  the humble staircase, and its appearances in the motion picture (but without compensation in the form of the same SAG benefits as other inert constructions, such as the cast of “Twilight”). The following twenty images each feature a movie scene in which a stairs are prominently featured, and your task is to identify all twenty films. Sounds easy, but so does cold fusion. The first to identify all twenty correctly will eventually receive the fashionable and lactose tolerant CSR Culture Shock Award. Good luck.

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Posted in books, horror, Movies, Puzzles, science fiction, short stories, silent movies | 10 Comments

Shake and Quake: “San Andreas” (2015)

  

sanandreas1

FORGET THE WALL: Nature may have its own method of dealing with suspicious border crossings as amply demonstrated in the offensively brainless “San Andreas”.

           “San Andreas”  (2015)

SPOILER ALERT: There is a reference in the following piece, which reveals climactic events in the 1970’s disaster films “Earthquake” and “The Poseidon Adventure”.

    California is hit by a series of catastrophic earthquakes. Appropriately large numbers of helpless extras die for your entertainment. Hitchcock was right.

    “San Andreas” is essentially an undated version of Mark Robson’s “Earthquake” only with enhanced CGI effects substituting for the much ballyhooed sensorial experience tosanandreasOS be had with Sensurround, but in relieving the viewer of the earlier film’s cranial shaking, “San Andreas” presents an emotionally barren panorama of tectonic plate movement rudely dismissing the surface squatter’s rights asserted by mere humans. What transpires is a visual smorgasbord of devastation of such unrelenting, unfeeling efficiency that boredom quickly sets it; after all, when you’ve seen one skyscraper fall, you’ve seen them all, and it’s this apathy inducing causality that is the unhesitatingly squirm inducing problem (well, one of them anyway) with the film.

    In essence, this colossal apocalyptic vision of cities dissolving into so much pixilated dust is simply the latest and deadliest steroid driven version of “Son of Lassie”, though that children’s film’s demonstration of honor and loyalty in a perilous journey to save a loved one has been perverted into an ugly pseudo-epic, in which the deaths of millions are callously dismissed as long as the cutest featured player is pulled from the well in time for hugs, kisses and insanely myopic jubilation (always accompanied by a blast of shamelessly sappy musical scoring, just in case you don’t get the point) at the fade out. That the intended (though fraudulently sought) sentimentality at the finale utterly fails to move is a testament to the rest of the film’s designed emotional distancing in which the filmmakers  demonstrate a remarkably singular dedication to cold-bloodedly depicting as many ways for urbanites to be turned into jelly as possible, without raising an eyebrow of empathy.

To read the complete review, click the following link to: https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/multiplex-movies/

Posted in movie reviews, Movies, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

When the Chase Is All There Is: “Ronin” (1998)

 

roninGIF

          “RONIN”  (1998)

  Why is it that movies featuring people involved in Intelligence always seem in short supply of that very ingredient? If one were to admire a movie simply for its technicalroninOS polish, its proficiency of  craftsmanship alone, then John Frankenheimer’s “Ronin” would find an elevated mantel of honor above the diminishing crowd of far less impressively wrought but eminently more substantial films. However, a motion picture of consequence requires more substantive attributes than a capable cast, razor sharp editing and an exhausting abundance of extremely well designed and shot action sequences (all of which “Ronin” has in spades); it also requires a minimum of creative acumen in plotting and character development to elevate the film above the generic equivalent of a cinematic B12 injection. In this regard, the film suffers from an acute case of artistic anemia; a circumstance that is particularly troublesome since the deficiencies of the film’s narrative coherence are a result of deliberate design.

    The film is constructed as an elaborate series of chronically circuitous actions, which are propelled by motivations deliberately obscured through painfully colorful ronin3convolutions of dialogue (so unnaturally stylish that it is bluntly obvious that J.D. Zeik’s co-scenarist is none other than that master of chatter who effortlessly sacrifices subtleties and truth for an overly inflated quotability quotient: a pseudonymously concealed David Mamet), making even a marginal synopsis virtually impossible. A shadowy Irish lass named Dierdre (Natasha McElhone) assembles a group of five equally shadowy men-  Sam (Robert DeNiro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), Larry (Skip Sudduth) and Spence (Sean Bean)  -whose sole shared qualification (though this too is questionable) seems to be a résumé including service as a Cold War operative. The reason for their assemblage is the pursuit of a metal case, the contents of which continually come into question, but will forever remain unrevealed. 

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/views-from-the-screening-room/

 

Posted in Cold War, espionage, Ireland, movie reviews, Movies, Mystery, Paris, writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My Dog Didn’t Eat My Homework, He Wrote It: Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, Mid-May 2018 Edition, Vol. K9

dog15My Dog Didn’t Eat My Homework, He Wrote It:  Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, Mid-May 2018 Edition, Vol. K9

   In deference to the mass fraud being perpetuated on a global scale by the proponents of  the British Tourism Council in which we find True Love (Tower of London-Style) being reduced to a three-ring circus (sans tigers and elephants, thanks to progressive activists who would better serve society as shark chum) in which the nuptial sharing of a couple’s favorite tune is regally replaced by a more stoic and traditional proffering (no, not Sinatra’s version of “The Second Time Around”); after all, what speaks the languagedogsGIF of young love more than a hardy liturgical chant (?), we bring you a special edition of America’s (that’s right, we’re still a feisty and rebellious bunch of Colonial hooligans) favorite self-righteous application of Constitutional freedoms, the Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, brought to you, in this special Royal Wedding Edition (what?), by SKITTLES, America’s favorite non-prescription oral contraception substitute. (And if you can decipher what any of that meant, send your transcription, in a SASE, to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Washington, D.C.) In this edition, we celebrate the True symbol of the greatest love of all: the furry pooch (Unless they’re wet, then they smell like a pack of New York Yankees fans on a crowded E Train.) and their appearance in the cinema. (Wasn’t it Robert Burns who said “No greater Love has Man than for that which has kibble breath”? Maybe not.) The following twenty images feature those lovable little lugs who will surrender to eternal allegiance without the necessity of a ceremony more costly than the annual GDP of Denmark. (In actuality, it’s a lot less than that; usually amounting to little more than an open bag of Snausages.) It is your job to identify the twenty films in which these frisky little furballs appeared,  and let us know (without the use of wiretaps, if you please) your findings. The first to correctly identify all twenty films will (eventually) receive the coveted CSR Culture Shock Award, unavailable for bridal registry in department stores near you. Good luck.

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Posted in animation, books, Boston, Culture, Disney, humor, Movies, Romance, weddings, yul brynner films | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Revisit: Mismatch: “La petite marchande d’allumettes” / “The Little Match Girl” (1928)

 

lapetitemarchandedallumettes“La petite marchande d’allumettes / The Little Match Girl” (1928)

(Originally posted on March 13, 2014)
 

   Jean Renoir’s film version of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1854 story “Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne” (“The Little Match Girl”) alters the original story considerably by featuring the casting of Renoir’s then-wife Catherine Hessling in the title role. Hessling, already proving herself a disastrous muse in Renoir’s ruinously expensive film version0000littlematch of Emile Zola’s “Nana” in 1926, here takes on a role for which she is, generously, at least fifteen years too old, nor does the forced theatricality of her acting style, which usually becomes both overbearing and obnoxious, have the ability to convey the requisite waif-like delicacy necessary for the role, unless it is substantially reconceived as having the requisite fragility of a tumbling boulder, though in this particular circumstance- perhaps due to exhaustion over her unrelenting mugging and grotesque cavorting in the Zola epic- Hessling finds a new method of intrusive overplaying by massive underplaying, a unique experience in which, while playing a starving young girl, the decades of overripe heft, highlighted by her fleshy mug, contradicts any reasonable facsimile of either a young girl or someone who hasn’t been sated with three squares a day. Nor does she seem capable of conveying the simplest of emotional states; so stone faced is the actress that she gives the impression of being prematurely flash frozen.

    However, the film’s greater failure comes from a mistaken conceptual alteration of the nature of the original story’s hypothermic hallucinations- the very visions which impart either the ethereal aspect to the original story or the strictly phantasmagorical to Renoir’s film vision, where spiritual comfort makes way for gimmicky effects laden fantasy beholden more to E.T.A. Hoffmann than to Andersen, with the addition of needless and extended banal editorial demarcations on class privilege.

    Andersen’s brief story, despite its unbroken solemnity, is a particularly hopeful story of the salvation of the innocent through heavenly ascension despite its mortal surface fatalism; a young girl escaping the abuse of home by wandering the frigid streets on New Year’s, pathetically attempting and failing to earn money by selling matches she eventually succumbs to hunger and the cold while using the matches in patheticuntitled attempts to stave off the winter elements. Each match ignites a new fevered hallucination until she sees her deceased grandmother, “the only person who had loved her and who was now no more” who guides her to heavenly salvation.

    While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with changing the thematic emphasis from a source story, such alterations should form palpable consistency between the narrative’s events and the newly existent theme. “La petite marchande d’allumettes” suffers from an insoluble blending of Andersen’s parochial viewpoint-especially in the finale -and Renoir’s decision to turn the same sequences into a parade of fantasy unrelated to the character of Karen (the name given to heretofore unnamed match girl) culminating in an inappropriate and blatantly “arty” stab at visual poetry with a wisp of her hair becoming entangled on a cross standing over her grave turning into a blossoming of flowers. This would be a heavy-handed bit of symbolism in the best of circumstances, inexcusably empty of meaning when applied at the end of a story which in a very short running time veers wildly from social drama to fantasy to Byronesque symbolism without finding a common foothold on which all of the disparate find, at best, tenuous companionship, and which negates the spiritual aspects of the story for a more severe (though fantastical) descent into hopeless death. (The difference between Andersen’s ending and Renoir’s isuntitled important as Andersen, despite his heroine’s expiring, intended her fate to be an ascension into a state of Grace, whereas, despite Renoir’s eleventh hour grasp at transcendent profundity, Karen’s death is merely the consequence of overexposure to the elements.

    The actual callous passivity of her passing (if put into the context of earlier sociological finger wagging ) is represented with the curiously unfeeling line of dialogue on the intertitles- “How stupid to think you can warm up with matches”, as opposed to the more sympathetic line in Andersen’s story. It’s a particularly cold hearted acknowledgement of Karen’s demise that Renoir renders, an unnecessary gesture which is meant to compliment earlier disparate societal snubs of Karen (as a matter of fact, she has the opportunity to sell matches to one particular socialite, though out of convenience fails to notice his interest); a dismissive line meant to shed a generally uncaring light on the disposable nature of the dispossessed. Andersen’s story is cruel in the conditions under which its heroine exists, but in his replication of events Renoir favors a harsher denouement (though admittedly, the mortal outcome for the girl is the same) in which the redemptive spiritually-based outcome is ignored in favor of a more concrete and agnostic approach.

    However, in taking Renoir’s ending at face value, this leaves the question as to the true nature of Karen’s hallucinations. In the original story, the girl’s visions are fueled initially by images of comfort taken directly from her views of holiday delights through shop windows, culminating in a welcoming vision of her late grandmother, though it is questionable- given the Christian undercurrent of the story -if Andersen intends the apparition of the grandmother to be taken literally or on faith; the culminating passagesuntitled suggesting the former. The difference in Renoir’s version is startling, with illusions beginning with similarly sighted observed holiday elements, but quickly evolving into an active scenario in which Death gives pursuit in a relentless sequence of flying horses until brought to a halt with the aforementioned grave site ministrations. Since the match girl’s hallucinations are born of her own observations (a Christmas tree, a feast of food)and later her own personal experience (her grandmother), leading to her correlating spiritual epiphany, then what of the cinematic Karen? From whose mind are these fantastical images supposed to have sprouted, Karen or Renoir himself, and if the lengthy sequence- which one would presume would spring from the character’s own imaginative extensions -presents a dark equine pursuit through cloud formations, just what in her experience would lead to such an apparition? Also, if the fantasy sequence is to be taken at face value, then just who is imagining the transformation of the cross into flower blossoms at her burial site? If Karen is imagining the moment of her own passing, and it is to be taken as a simultaneous literal occurrence- as in Andersen’s story -the continuation of the dreamscape with the concluding symbolism becomes illogical from the film’s point-of-view.

    All of this is contributory to the wild variance of making the short film feel as if either the wrong reels had been placed in the projector mid-stream or that Jean Renoir has no handle on his material and that in adapting this deceptively simple story, his interest was muddled by a desire to experiment (clearly within his early films especially in “Sud un air de Charleston” he displays a fleeting interest in Surrealism, though his thinking is far too conventional to maintain this a continued course of expression) with cinematic effects rather than in concentrating on the human story within the fantasy.movie

Posted in books, children's books, fantasy, French cinema, Jean Renoir, Movies, religion, short films, short stories, silent movies, writing | Tagged | 2 Comments

Revisit: Wait Training: “Day of the Fight” (1951)

 

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        “DAY OF THE FIGHT”    (1951)

(Originally posted on Feb. 14, 2014)

    Stanley Kubrick’s first attempt at motion picture movie making is this short film inspired by his own photo essay on middleweight boxer Walter Cartier published when he was a young staff photographer at Look magazine. It may be unfair to judge a basically homemade inaugural effort of a film maker by the same standards of sophistication through which his later filmography might be appraised, especially a director as artistically esteemed as Kubrick, however, what one can do is to note any seeds of thematic or visual dayofthefight8content which may find expansion or reoccurrence in his later works;  both of which can be found in “Day of the Fight”, especially in certain elements which find significant revisitation in Kubrick’s second feature “Killer’s Kiss”. It is also quite obvious, that of his initial trio of short films, including the 1951 RKO Pathé Screenliner short subject “Flying Padre” and the 1953 short documentary “The Seafarers”, “Day of the Fight” is by far the most interesting, acting less as a strictly informational documentary than as a psychologically ingrained docudrama, attempting to elicit a particularly intimate point of view within the larger- more familiar -framework of following a fighter’s training for his match; eschewing the usual intensity of physical seasoning by concentrating on the more meditative- almost spiritual -end of a fighter’s preparatory process: the agonizing waiting game.

    Kubrick emphasizes the specificity of the film’s perspective by skimming over the broader arena of the boxing world in a rapid opening sequence which (in a voiceover narration written by Robert Rein and spoken by newscaster Douglas Edwards that contains more than a hint of the colorfully hyperbole as moralizing observation which later became standard practice in Ed Wood films) touches on the world of dayofthefight3prizefighting from a spectator and fighter’s point of view, though quickly focusing on the latter, and then becoming specific to the perspective of Walter Cartier to the point that the film ungenerously excludes any consideration that his opponent, Bobby James, might be experiencing similar gnawing feelings of anticipatory anxieties, thus Kubrick mentally isolates his subject (despite the close proximity of sincere moral support from both his eerily identical twin brother Vincent and Walter’s dog, the latter focused on with lingering cuteness attempting a heartfelt sentimentality at odds with the brooding- almost noirish -nature in which Kubrick expresses his story, and a quality at this formative stage of his career already seems alien to his emerging artistic sensibility) from a broader fraternity of like-minded modern-day gladiators, into a Sisyphean figure condemned to anguish over the absurdist task of perpetually seeking to win matches which will elevate his professional career standing while each match brings a harrowing repetition of the agonizing waiting process through which he must suffer. (Is it any wonder that during a scene of pre-bout communion, Kubrick attaches a distorted Dutch tilt to a shot of a witnessing statue of the Madonna and Christ, as if to italicize the idea of Cartier, by way of a martyrdom that sates the appetites of the boxing fanatics, enters a consecrated state of sanctity?)

    The film’s length opening expository section, cheaply philosophizing about the world of boxing, betrays the impatient excitement of the first-time film maker, ambitiously attempting to cover far too widespread a range of  concerns, by raising far too many points than his film is capable of adequately addressing; asking interesting questions which are then dismissed, or worse yet, contradicted by explanations undermining the script’s initial assertions: Edwards’ narration informs us that the reason men drop their livelihoods to enter the ring is economic yet immediately details thedayofthefight4 depressingly minute numbers of men who actually make a living salary from the profession. In an earlier series of observations, the attractive nature of the sport to the fan (rather openly designated as “fanatics” as if the matches feed a primal bloodlust) by “hammering each other with upholstered fists”  to satisfy “the primitive, vicarious, visceral thrill of seeing one animal overcome another” in an arena “where matched pairs of men will get up on a canvas covered platform and commit legal assault and lawful battery” is a subject which merits intense exploration, yet once the unbridled violent psychopathy inherent in the sport of boxing is delineated, the subject is abruptly abandoned as if the director is assuming the awarding of brownie points merely for the acknowledgement of the possibility of a more profound exploration that his film is willing to fulfill. Clearly with the rich dichotomy between the solemnity with which Cartier is shown to approach his task (remembering that Kubrick deliberately chooses to narrow the film’s attention to the quietude inherent in a relentless waiting game rather than the more kinetic atmosphere of physical preparation) and the unreasoned ferocity which rules the boxing audience’s behavior, there appears to be an initially richer vein of thematic ambition intended to be mined, though in conceding to the limitations of both format and resources, Kubrick’s skill with.the necessary discipline of conceptual blue penciling is not yet matured. The opening salvo (approximately the first four minutes) of the film seems constructed of mostly stock footage, and is briskly edited with the staccato rhythms associated with newsreels, but when the film shifts from a general overview of boxing to the story of Walter Cartier, the film immediately changes visual and editing styles and transmogrifies from informational document to sedate, faux arty docudrama. Kubrick’s attempts to capture the artistry of the still frame into that of the motion picture are waylaid by a lack of consideration that the aesthetics of each art form differs. Yet there is a psychological inquisitiveness about the subject which extends its intentions beyond the mere recording of the background of a sports event into a thumbnail portrait with literary pretensions. It is here where the seeds of the young filmmaker’s career long thematic interests begin to find first legitimate expression. In “Day of dayofthefight7the Fight”, Kubrick is less interested in the process of the physical training (thus the rather perfunctory overview characterizing the preparatory portion of the film)  than in the psychological, in the tensions between thought and action- there is no real interest in the physical toll of the profession -and in a bold move for a first-time film maker, Kubrick subverts the visceral excitement of his subject into an almost placid waiting game-it’s certainly the most serene boxing film you’re likely to see. It is the anticipation of action which becomes the subject at hand. Kubrick cannily undercuts the anticipation of his audience from the traditions of boxing films with their hyperbolic drive toward violent climax; the finishing punch actually comes so quickly it virtually escapes notice. The film ends without an exultant fanfare, but only the realization that the end is but another beginning, a finale which might suggest existential leanings but actually addresses earlier notations concerning the numbers game in boxing; that only one out of a hundred aspirants may make a living in the profession, and thus admitting the field of prolonged competitive competition as a general exercise in futility.

    This is a subject which reoccurs in different forms throughout Kubrick’s career, though as his  became less intimate with the psychological particulars of his characters in favor of matters of distancing formalism. There are few if any characters in Kubrick’s later films who make psychological sense; a fault disguised by the hokum of visually expressed ambiguity as long as his scenarios are removed from a greater interaction with “normal” socialization. Kubrick’s films have the inescapable feel of unfolding within a bell dayofthefight10 jar, alterations of representative social situations in miniature whose rules of behavior exist only within the narrow confines of his character’s isolation. (Even “Full Metal Jacket” gives the feeling of a chamber piece in the midst of an event of grandiose design. The ultimate failure of that particular film- among many -is that particular sense of isolation which diminishes the film into a not particularly fresh anti-war- it is instead dishearteningly transparent in the limitations of its lack of emboldened ideological conception -instead of having the artistic courage display an intuitive intelligence which might impart ideas specific to the moral quagmire that was the Vietnam War. Kubrick’s platoon could be dogfaces in any war, even one of his own invention. Indeed, his view of Vietnam is simply yet another sterile Kubickian exercise on Man’s inhuman nature than an artistic expression specific to the nature of that particular conflict.)

    If there is a major flaw in “Day of the Fight” it is that is succumbs to the coldness of Kubrick’s overall design; there is a feeling of a lack of spontaneity; peculiar in what is passed as a non-fiction piece. In the end, Walter Cartier is merely the first of a succession of men-as-chess-pieces in which his full humanity is subsumed by the director’s need for his appropriate visual effect. Still, there are some interesting touches, exhibiting Kubrick’s experience as a skilled photo journalist in capturing a dramatic moment: a shot of Cartier as seen through the legs of his opponent’s stool in the ring, the deliberate tightness of framing in the pre-bout waiting room, suggesting the previously mentioned claustrophobic atmosphere (including one powerful shot of Walter’s bandaged hand in the 000000000000foreground flexing in the foreground, his brother sitting in the distance, the hand seeming to be reaching for salvation) and a quiet but moving moment of Walter studying his face in the mirror in wonderment as to what his damaged face might resemble the next day; though one wonders whether or not each of these are not deliberately staged as a calculated dramatic directorial effects rather than recorded by a fortunate and observant photographic eye, (the peculiar shot of Cartier and James exchanging punches from ground level is a particularly artificial moment unless one entertains the possibility of Kubrick laying on his back in the middle of the ring during the fight!) not an inconsequential question as it goes straight to the heart of the director’s integrity insofar as his willingness to eclipse reality to fit his own variant vision of that reality. It is not insignificant that despite his obsessive career-long desire to film non-fictional subjects, most importantly Napoleon, all but his earliest films were sourced from published novels and one short story. This exploiting of the psychodramatic tools of literature into an embellished documentary form is what separates “Day of the Fight” from Kubrick’s two other short subjects; blurring the dividing barrier between truth and an interpretive suggestion of that truth (interestingly, the scripting, Kubrick’s despairing tone and the scoring all reveal the heavy influence of film noir). Hints of the later, more mature director’s footprints are in stark evidence.movie

Posted in Documentaries, Movies, short films, sports, Stanley Kurbick, writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Revisit: Scenes From the Scrapbook: “That’s Entertainment” (1974)

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        “That’s Entertainment”      (1974)

(Originally posted on May 18, 2014)    

    “That’s Entertainment” is a compilation of some of the best (many not) musical numbers extracted from the great musicals (many not) from the studio era known by some (many not) as “the Golden Age of Hollywood”.

     The all-encompassing intention of the film is entirely self-serving as the films shown arethatsentertainmentOS limited to those productions emerging from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which leaves out a great deal of equitable material from companion studios, and also, in several instances, gives attributable mention to performers whose more justly celebrated efforts emanated from artistic rivals, thus the pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is given brief representation with “The Barkleys of Broadway”, their sole collaboration at MGM and certainly their weakest shared vehicle, while there is not a single acknowledgement of their landmark partnership in the 1930’s as those films were produced by RKO. Similarly, there is no reference to Betty Grable ( at 20th Century Fox) or Rita Hayworth (at Columbia), though the inclusion of Deanna Durbin in a short subject, fails to mention the fact that she quickly left the studio to cement her at stardom Universal. Then there is also the strange case of Bing Crosby, questionably chosen as one of the segment hosts despite the on-screen admission that the appreciably formative and successful portion of his screen stardom was outside the purview of Leo the Lion’s domain, though there is (naturally) no nod to his productive years invested at Paramount Pictures.

     Thus as a useful historical document, “That’s Entertainment” is an utter failure, though despite the surface trappings, it is not intended as a documentary per se (that would require the participation of experts more impartial than the even different hosts- including Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli (representing the late Judy Garland) , all of whose commentary is limitedroyalwedding1 to scripted business designed more for unquestioned adulation rather than cultural illumination. Nor is there any attempt at a contextual look at the evolution of the film musical form, the reason for the prominence of musical performance in film at the beginning of the sound era nor any thoughts (or on-screen acknowledgement) on the decline of the form. In fact, the film is merely a souvenir scrapbook of musical highlights of three decades of MGM musical production, and though highly entertaining as far as the limited scope of this ambition is able to keep the film chugging along, there are two elements of the film which reduce the gloss of what is shown by several important degrees, the first being the utter absence of context and the second being the continual return to the hosts as they wander the ruined backlots where the studio created these lustrous fantasies. But more about these points in a moment.

     The film presents clips of the musical sequences from select MGM musicals produced between 1929 (“The Hollywood Revue of 1929”) and 1958 (“Gigi”) with an emphasis stressed that the chosen sequences are representative of the highest standards of artistic expression within the genre, yet this flies in the face of several curious segments in which meetmeinstlouis1the film finds wasteful and unwarranted emphasis on novelty performances- actors unskilled at either singing or dancing but of sufficient box-office clout to justify their being placed in roles ill-suited to their evident lack of musical performance skills (Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, James Stewart),  and an extended segment exclusive to the campy aquatic films of Esther Williams, which- especially if the film is limited to MGM -certainly merits mention, but an entire segment as if the actress were at the same level of cinematic artistry of a Gene Kelly, Judy Garland or Fred Astaire? Or that any of her films were of the same caliber as “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Meet Me in St. Louis” or “The Band Wagon”? Why then the disproportionatesingin in the rain amount of time spent illustrating this particular performer’s admittedly idiosyncratic but exponentially increasingly kitschy oeuvre?  Why spend the time to include almost embarrassing clips from “Idiot’s Delight” and “Suzy”or trivial nonsense like the  Debbie Reynolds/Carleton Carpenter duets from “Two Weeks With Love” and “Three Little Words” when a genuine genre masterwork such as “It’s Always Fair Weather” remains unceremoniously absent? This also becomes an occasion where the dearth of background information becomes problematic as the several clips celebrating the contributions of Carpenter are unsatisfying by lack of association with 0000wizardofozthe consideration of the film failing to incorporate corresponding information identifying, to those outside of obsessive fan magazine archivism, just who Carpenter is, how did he become featured in several successive MGM musicals and what then what happened to him? However, the film has no time to address any particulars about its featured performers as its too busy getting to the next soprano trill and high kick. Similarly, there is something wrong with a film celebrating the Hollywood musical (or a large chunk of it) in which the charitably noted non-musical Clark Gable is referred to as much as the immensely talented Cyd Charisse.

     The very format of the film ensures that all of the musical sequences exhibited are divorced from any explanatory nor connective material which might give the performances a contextual basis linking them to an intended emotional core. Presented is this vacuum of context, the clips emerge as merely a succession of jukebox selections: moments that may0000anchorsaweigh excite yet still without without the additional intended emotional resonance.  The film becomes, in essence, a series of performance crescendos existing for their own sake,  a cinematic ‘greatest hits’ album which fairly nullifies (if we are to concede to the film’s myopic perspective) the importance of the individual song or dance as a cumulative effect of the emotional underpinnings of the story rather than (as presented) stylized but hollow exercises in emotive excess. (Quite often the scripts to musicals may seem insipidly simplistic, and this often the case if their level of invention is reduced to the elemental purpose of linking these musical expressions together to form a rudimentary dramatic arc, just how many successive but unrelated scenes does it take to0000bandwagon   recognize and actively crave the absent emotional connection? If the viewer is familiar with the specific material, it is possible to rekindle the intended resonant catharsis with a nostalgic fondness, but those who are making an initial journey through these colorful waters- without a requisite foreknowledge of context  -may find the film more of a curiosity than en enticement to seek out the complete features (why sample the whole steer when you’ve tasted the choicest cuts?). There’s an odd, irrational beauty to a form in which a neo-surrealist method of communication- vocalization and body movement in synchronization to 0000babesonbroadwaynon-source music -which is by its nature entirely artificial in the service of expressing the most elemental of feelings:  yet no where in the film is the beauty of the musical form for its own form’s sake given any consideration. There is something quite wondrous in the very concept of the song cue, that most obvious and criticized element in the construction of a musical, that minor yet all important miracle segue between the commonplace and the abstract, the dividing line between modest reality and an art form in which intimacy of thought becomes metaphorically transmogrified by way of theatrical ritual. This is amply demonstrated by the film’s final clip: the ballet from “An American in Paris” which in the0000gigi context of that feature was meant to build to the ballet as a cathartic climax: the entire film acting as a prelude to this explosive and sensuous finale- a vivid, metaphorical enactment of the evolution of the idealized romantic arc as art form: meeting, longing, seduction, passion, consummation, loss; which explains the seemingly truncated ending to Vincente Minnelli’s film as, with the conclusion of the ballet, there is nothing left to express.

     By the end of “That’s Entertainment”, the relentless serving up  of these emotive climaxes becomes a bit numbing, though there is little point in arguing that as a collective example of extraordinary talents using those abilities for no other purpose than to dazzle the audience, the film is undeniably entertaining and at times exhilarating, though once the summer stocknostalgic glow of this colorful cavalcade subsides, there are unpleasant aftertastes which are inevitably dredged up by the director’s method and by the inevitability of several questions the film raises.

     No doubt the intentions of director Jack Haley, Jr. were to create a simple celebration of the talents before and behind the camera during the heyday of the studio produced musical, though the limitation of the film’s scope (as previously stated in the opening paragraph) opens gaps in regard to historical balance and fairness (and is certainly exclusionary of a great many equal talents at rival studios), and the simplistic, fan club level of the scripted commentary (by the director) denies the opportunity for genuinely insightful and spontaneous thoughts by the actual talent?

     There is also more than a minor undercurrent of cynicism present in the film and its production. The various hosts wander the scandalously shabby, unkept backlot all the while burbling the script’s lofty platitudes about art and dedication to craft while the audience is given a tour of a studio that (unmentioned in the film) is being sold off to commercial developers while MGM abandons its commitment to motion picture production for the construction of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Waxing nostalgic over the past accomplishments of an art form is one thing, but given the specificity of the film’s attention- the MGM musical -and that the film is a product that same studio, just what is the justification for accepting kudos for these same past accomplishments without addressing the disinterested contemporary mindset of the studio’s filmmaking manifesto? (If the executives at the studio insist in the value of a form which they themselves helped to nurture, why did they stop making such films?) When MGM advertises the film with the phrase ” ‘That’s Entertainment’ ….. Boy, Do We Need It Now”, it’s a shocking admission that they have given up.movie

 

Posted in Documentaries, Frank Sinatra, Movies, music, Musicals, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Revisit: Love Intestinal-Style: “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” (1974)

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“Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein”  (1974)

(Originally posted on April 18, 2013)

   Filmed immediately prior to “Andy Warhol’s Dracula”, more popularly known as “Blood For Dracula”, Paul Morrissey’s “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein”, filmed under and later re-released under the title “Flesh For Frankenstein” after initial U.S. engagements which capitalized on the fame of the pop art icon who actually had little participation in the actual production itself except for a close prior association with Morrissey,  bears little resemblance to prior WarholMorrissey collaborations with its reported adoption of a structured andywarholsfrankensteinOSscreenplay in lieu of the usual spontaneously improvised technique which lent a raggedy aesthetic texture as well as emphasizing the personae of the performers in deference to any appreciable interpretation of written characterization;  Morrissey, evidently the more willing of the two film makers to succumb to the necessities of narrative structure despite his previous observance of improvisation armed with little more than an outline. Pre-production and a crew of experienced 35mm technicians- as opposed to the seat-of-the-pants 16mm self-lensed underground shooting  -lends itself to a more professionally polished physical production (this is also true of the following “Dracula” film as well, produced under the same circumstances, though that production, due to the absence of the limiting three dimensional lenses made interior location shooting far more flexible than the more theatrically influenced studio bound interior settings of this film) with a genuinely impressive and expressively atmospheric production design, captured with an attractive color and vibrancy by Luigi Kuveiller and accented with a musical score of stately understatement by Claudio Gizzi ; and to underscore the film’s ascension to the unlikely terrain of commercial (sellout) respectability, (as if being produced by Loren spouse Carlo Ponti wasn’t sufficient indication of a complete removal from the “glory days” of underground cinema) it was filmed in the 3-D format.

     Unfortunately, what this film does carry over from the earlier days of Warhol-Morrissey collaborations is Joe Dallesandro, as inert a performing presence (if standing as unwavering and as expressively as an oak tree passes for committed performance) as ever graced the proverbial silver screen. Dallesandro’s emotional paralysis actuallyandywarholsfrankenstein served him well in Morrissey’s 1970 “Trash” as a strung-out junkie in search of a fix and consciousness (though that film had the good fortune of compensatory entertainment value with the inimitable Holly Woodlawn) and was passable as the Joe Gillis stand-in in Morrissey’s riff on “Sunset Blvd.”, in 1972’s “Heat”, if the film is interpreted as a reverse satire of unsated sexual energies in the older Hollywood (though that film had the good fortunes of compensatory entertainment value with the inimitable Sylvia Miles) who ultimately finds a a lack of fulfillment with the attraction to the younger though empty vessels of New Hollywood. However, cast as an interactive dramatic leading man he is less hero than zero. andywarholsfrankenstein2If Dallesandro’s Marxist proletariat in the subsequent production of “Andy’s Warhol’s Dracula”  emphasized his distancing foreign accent (his unconcealed Brooklynese is galaxies away from either the Germanic or Italian accents of the rest of the cast) as a humorous proletariat  counterpoint to the aristocratic bearing of the rest of the film’s characters, thus (perhaps) emphasizing the undercurrent of sociopolitical satire in the film,  in “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” there exists no such forgiving contextual excuse for his shameless lack of effort. In the Warhol/Morrissey cinema tradition, Dallesandro is once again typecast as the roving gigolo; a willing and available walking phallus (with the exception of his flaccid- in more ways than one -appearance in “Trash”), though ironically the only visibly stiff thing about him is his dramatic range.

        The film itself borrows heavily from the recognizable filmic mythos which has evolved with the title character (specifically referring to the creator of “the monster”, not the creation itself which has become a curious tradition of comfortable misidentification throughout its cinematic incarnation) since its initial representation in J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 one-reel version, though even in Morrissey’s sexually derivative mutation, follows the basic concept of Mary Shelley’s novel, featuring Frankenstein creating artificial life from dead tissue, and even features the creation of not only the original “monster” but a female counterpart, but there the resemblances end, as theawfrank extreme level of sexual perversity is certainly new, reinterpreting the figure of Baron  Frankenstein as a man of deviant appetites aimed at both his wife/sister and his female creation, thus finding avenues toward satisfying his incestuous and necrophiliac cravings within the narrow time frame of the story. This is certainly a new addition to the Frankenstein mythos, at least in the intense, explicitly wrought depiction of those aberrant proclivities, though the gestation of the Frankenstein/sexual obsession is present in the Joseph L. Green film “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”, where a scientist abandons his already shaky ethics while experimentally restoring his decapitated  fiancee, by changing the exphasis to a newly created body which would satisfy his carnal appetites, and can be found in more overtly related films such as Mel Welles’ 1971 “La Figlia di Frankenstein” and Marc Roddam’s 1985 “The Bride”, though in neither film is there such a derivation from the sexual norm andywarholsfrankenstein(regardless of partner, artificially animated or not) as depicted by Kier’s Baron as in satisfying his perverse urges. There are several moments in Morrissey’s film when the Baron actually opens a labial-like incision in his female creation and achieves sexual climax while fondling her internal organs. His excited utterance- “To know death , Otto, you’ve got to fuck life in the gall bladder” is fairly indicative of the film’s eccentric view of  the rogue scientist: clearly a chosen profession of defiling graves and assembling body parts like a Grand Guignol Rubik’s Cube no longer registers on the pantheon of the sufficiently offbeat. The Baron’s desire to create life is less of solving the mysteries of Nature as in creating breeding stock for a race of Serbian super beings, as if the mating of his creations would hardly the genetic attributes of the combined tissues, nor do his creations seem to be imbued with the invulnerability of the Universal creation, though both are blessed with impressive posture. He is obsessed with the sexual nature of his “zombie” creations (in finding a head for his male, he insists his “overriding urges must be sensual”), assuming they will proliferate and obey only his commands, though it is this sexual preoccupation that will prove the undoing of almost the entire cast of characters.

     The sexual aspect of the film is the most pronounced, rather than the creation of life itself which is treated as a rather ho-hum achievement, clearly relying on the over familiarity of the idea in taking the source novel’s central themes as traditionally defined by filmmakers with film audiences, and if one aspect of Morrissey’s thematic indulgence is clear: it is that Man’s sexual impulse is host to all manner of unhealthy appetites. There are no healthy sexual relationships depicted in the film: each is an aberrational version of the cinematic standard of normalcy (even within the often perverse sphere of horror). The creatures of the Baron’s creation are meant entirely for their sexual characteristics (rather like Dr. Strangelove’s conditions for post-apocalyptic female breeding stock brought to realization), with the scientist’s plan for world dominance through procreation (unless he’s altered the female’s reproductive capabilities to deliver progeny in litters, the mathematics of the plan seem rather impractical and time consuming).

    The film opens with a pair of children curiously regarding the instruments of a laboratory until they come upon a doll which they proceed to eviscerate, the boy massaging the stuffing of the toy until he casually beheads it with a miniature guillotine- though what dolls or a guillotine are doing in a scientific laboratory remain unexplained mysteries of art direction. Reminiscent of the opening of Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” with its own nihilistic vision of innocents unleashed in feral behavior, this preludeandywarholsfrankenstein7 may similarly be looked at as a foreboding omen of the complete moral corruption of the entire family line as a matter of an inbred unclean nature. Since it is suggestive that the children are also meant to represent earlier versions of their parents, the incestuous siblings- the Baron and the Baroness -…with both showing a predisposition toward morbidity of attitude and a propensity toward spying on the sexual indulgences of their parents, their own inbred nature relatively unconcealed and their own burgeoning imitative incestuous behavior rather prominently unveiled. From the start, there is an almost puritanical streak of condemnation toward the children as damned from birth, and though the finale of the film is technically open-ended, it is evident Morrissey’s intentions are to show the children as naturally debased by their own nature and therefore bound to carry on the pattern of their parents and to duplicate their behavior in the opening title sequence, only now with a live specimen.

    Distinguishing the film apart from other Frankenstein in films, beyond the abnormality of sexual elements, is the increased level of graphic gore, intensified with the use of the rather effective though headache inducing 3-D. The horror film has long been subservient to the andywarholsfrankenstein6thematic intertwining of sex and violence with the former often being the subconscious catalyst for the latter, however in this case, the violence of the film (and there is a plentiful amount) is not joined to the carnal in the expected manner- sex as a neurotic catalyst of both violence and terror -but far more subversively as a perversion of medical science mingled with psychosexual obsession (not dissimilar to the blurring of sex and medically-fed psychosis in Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers”). The horror genre is simply the latest backdrop for Morrissey to hang his shingle of outdated underground cinema posturing (a reminder of more adventurous film making days occurs when Nicholas greets the blowsy brothel madam with “Hi Viva”, an obvious, mean spirited reference to the significant Warhol Factory Superstar of whose saucy energy this movie could have benefitted with a healthy infusion). Sex has always been a primal constituent of the Morrissey-Warhol oeuvre, and “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” (as well as the following Dracula film) might be better understood if the film is andywarholsfrankenstein7viewed, not as a personal embellishment of classical horror themes directly combed from the Mary Shelley novel (any close resemblance between cinematic depictions and the novels have been invisible for years, the most harmonious distillation from one medium to another coming in the unlikely form of Roger Corman’s “Frankenstein Unbound”, and that was based on a Brian Aldiss novel) but from a satiric extension of the familiar narrative tropes which had by that point become to exhausted by overuse, the genre had lost its ability to shock or horrify, instead being regarded as quaint. Certainly not the material which was felt capable to shock and horrify, as was the case in the initial Universal cycle, but of a more familiar formula in which variations were hard won and reaching the point of exhaustion, as in the Hammer cycle. This was also apparent in the timing of the release of the parody “Young Frankenstein” which played on the recognition of the formula in which humor seemed the last natural course of expression, not dissimilar to the production of “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” which effectively signaled Universal’s acknowledgement of the end of its own lucrative horror properties.

    None of the performances could be remotely considered as characterized by any level of distinction. Though the screen titles credit Morrissey with authorship of the film (which is unusual since his films rely on improvisation), it is doubtful, from the evidence, there was much of a prepared scenario for the actors to work with, with most of dialogue, if not outright ludicrous, then reeking of the desperation of forced spontaneity. As the Baron,andywarholsfrankenstein3 Udo Kier (previously featured in Michael Armstrong’s “Mark of the Devil”) speaks with an accent approximating Peter Lorre by way of Elmer Fudd; his line readings providing an equal source of translatable befuddlement and amusement. Kier’s antic behavior evokes a pronounced sense of self-parody though perhaps still less off-putting than the oddball combination of the stiff with the theatrically hammy that informed Colin Clive’s depiction in the James Whale original; but certainly not comparable to the robust serial interpretation of Peter Cushing’s Baron, though Morrissey’s film does share the Hammer angle of making the creator the more increasingly murderous figure  than his creation. Arno Juerging, (who serves a similar function in “Andy Warhol’s Dracula”) is monotonously pop-eyed as the feckless lab assistant Otto and Monique van Vooren is merely creepy, resembling an Abyssinian cat, as the Baroness.

    Whether meant as satire or as an extreme extension of the traditional elements inherent in the Gothic trappings of the genre, Morrissey’s film fails in two fundamental aspects, both of which are symptomatic of incoherent- if existent -writing: the horrendous level of dialogue which would inhibit the most resourceful of thespians, and an unfocused scenario which introduces a particular strain of consistent sexual depravity into the Frankenstein mythos, yet fails to coalesce this element into the narrative with an intention of a thematic relevance, but rather consigns the film to devolve into a sleazy carnival boardwalk of infelicitous exhibitionism.movie

Posted in 3-D MOVIES, Andy Warhol, books, horror, Movies, sex, writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Revisit: ORWELL LITE: “ALPHAVILLE, UNE ETRANGE AVENTURE DE LEMMY CAUTION” (1965)

Anna Karina as Natacha von Braun and Eddie Constantine as tough guy Lemmy Caution in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 detective/SF hybrid “Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution”.

ALPHAVILLE, UNE ÉTRANGE AVENTURE DE LEMMY CAUTION                                   (1965)

(Originally posted on May 21, 2013) 

    One of the interesting characteristics of many of the young men associated with La Nouvelle Vague was their affinity toward what in higher literary circles would be regarded as trashy pulp fiction. Francois Truffaut, for example, was drawn to this type of material as witness his productions of “La marièe était en noir” and “La sirène du Mississipi” both the product of novels by Cornell Woolrich, (“The Bride Wore Black” and “Waltz Into Darkness”, respectively) as well as his  1960 “Tirez sur le pianiste” which was an adaptation of the 1956 novel “Down There” by David Goodis.

     Jean-Luc Godard, of course, began his feature film career in 1960 with “À bout de souffle”, a nod to the noirish influences on both literature and film (not insignificantly, the screen story is by Truffaut) and in 1965 wrote and directed “Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution”, a continuation of a popular series of French detective thrillers based on the very pulp/noir influenced adventures of Lemmy Caution, a character invented by British writer Peter Cheyney, and the subject of ten different novels before Cheyney’s untimely death in 1951 at the age of 55. Caution was originally conceived as an agent of the F.B.I. (though British, Cheyney wrote Caution in the American noir idiom) until later becoming a private investigator. Caution was depicted as hard and no nonsense man of immediate and violent action, in the tradition of other American hard-boiled detective characters like Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne (that literary characterization heavily watered down in the still enjoyable series of films starring both Lloyd Nolan at Fox and Hugh Beaumont at PRC) and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, though his writing style in the Caution books contained strained imitations of the characteristic lyric similes in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. Caution became the basis of a popular series of French detective noirs starring expatriate American Eddie Constantine, who at the time was finding popularity as a European recording artist, and was a protege of the legendary Edith Piaf; his dour, pock-marked countenance finding a perfect home in the hard-boiled world of detective fictions where these same characteristics found relatively closed doors in finding any momentum pursuing a career in Hollywood studios.

    “Alphaville, une ètrange aventure de Lemmy Caution” was the eighth Caution film to hit the screens, each starring Constantine. The character made his screen debut in 1953 with Bernard Boderie’s “La môme vert de gris” (“Poison Ivy”) and followed in rapid succession in 1953 again with Jean Sacha’s “Cet homme est dangereux” (“This Man is Dangerous”), in 1954 with Boderie’s “Les femmes s’en balancent” (“Dames Get Along”), in 1955 with Pierre Chevalier’s “Vous pigez?” (“Diamond Machine”) and three successive films directed by Boderie, 1960’s “Comment, qu’elle est!” (“Women Are Like That”), 1962’s “Lemmy pour les dames” (“Ladie’s Man”) and 1963’s “À toi de faire…mignonne” (“Your Turn, Darling”). All were typically straightforward tough guy detective stories with varying degrees of humor thrown in.

    Enter La Nouvelle Vague enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard whose vision of the no nonsense tough guy Lemmy Caution was not straightforward, nor even conventionally hard-boiled, but a philosophic wanderer in trenchcoat and hat, waxing poetic while blasting his revolver and stuck in a science fiction universe of no discernible location. To say this idiosyncratic mixture was puzzling and off-putting to many is an understatement, yet there is an interesting method to this mad melange that has outward pretensions of venturing beyond merely random pastiche; an increasingly favorite convention of later filmmakers whose life experience seemed formulated and defined completely by film schools. (Joe Dante is an example of such a “director” who consistently throughout his films feels compelled to feature references to his favorite films- as if recalling trivial movie details bestows brownie points for excellence on his own paltry efforts- and pointlessly anachronistic cameos of the players who fed his childhood imagination.)

   The film finds Caution as a Secret Agent (designated 003, which should indicate the ingenuity of pop culture satire in the film) entering Alphaville from the Outlands at 12:17 Oceanic time, greeted by a sign which reads: ALPHAVILLE-  SILENCE  LOGIC  SAFETY  PRUDENCE. Clearly any allusions to “1984” are blatant and intentional, as are later references to Nazism and the Cold War. Despite the film assumedly taking place in a futuristic world, the constant attributions to 20th Century experiences places the events in a possible “alternate” world. Nor are references to other galaxies reliable as Godard seems to be having a fine time developing his own vernacular, a cinematic version of the Orwellian doublespeak.

    The “1984” connection is central to the film and the essential formative influence. The previously mentioned reference to Oceania, the sign notating the four precepts of Alphaville mirroring the four ministries overseeing Oceania, the allusions to doublespeak as Natacha says one thing but physically gestures the opposite intention, the omnipresent electronically engineered voice of Alpha 60, as smothering a presence as the Big Brother is Watching You posters, the dictionaries misleadingly called “bibles” with the explanation that vocabulary is continuously replaced or entirely deleted, plus the invention of compound words such as Caution’s statement he is “driving through intersidereal space” have vivid resemblance to the concept of Newspeak and most central, the words “I Love You” which in the novel Julia passes to Winston Smith in a secret message, whereas in the film they are the final words from Anna Karina’s Natacha to Caution, her moment of independent break from the influences of Alpha 60 and the triumphant return of her own individualistic impulses.

    While pastiche is used for more than cosmetic effect, it is an overplayed conceit that pulls the viewer out of the immersive filmgoing experience to continually remind of the artificiality of the film’s universe,  no doubt a ruse by the director to explore more forcefully his desire to deconstruct film into its purest form of “truth”, which is an entirely legitimate idea except that the tired content of the film does nothing to advance such an approach. At the same time, why attempt such an exercise partially using a cinema genre in which realism is, more often than not, jettisoned in the adherence to the examples of Expressionistic artifice then deconstruct that layer of artifice, but without a cogently developed reason for doing so? Many of Godard’s central reference points, especially those with a profound literary basis- Borges, Cocteau, French surrealist Éluard– would initially appear to find a relevant inclusion in this patchwork tale of dystopian society,  while the more pronounced culture references are almost insultingly surrounded in quotation marks as if Godard doesn’t believe his audience is smart enough to pick up on his trail of pop art bread crumbs. The scientist  von Braun is an obvious reference to the German scientist instrumental in both Nazi and NASA programs, and the later reference that he may have been previously known as Nosferatu; the Stoker/Murnau reference applied to a Romanian word (which in actuality does not exist) presumed to mean “undead” – an tenuous allusion of Orwell’s “unman”? Obvious, and rather infantile references are also made to, amongst others: Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy and Terrytoon magpies Heckle and Jeckle, belaying what presumably is meant to be a further extension of the SF/noir genre osmosis into a more appealing melange of hipster pop-art. The inclusions of such reference points are not only thematically irrelevant, they come of as alarmingly smart-alecky, as if Godard is consciously sneering at the audience for their attention.

    The ultimate failure of the film lies in the fact that pastiche is not merely used as a form of narrative grouting, but as the structural design of the entire film, the reason that its distinct parts fail to coalesce, exposing the empty head of the film. In the end, there is very little originality at work here. The halfhearted noir element becomes is only a gimmick on which to present the narrative, but then it seems the integration of any genre might have equally sufficed: western, musical, circus film. And if there is no meaningful contributory reason to have the genre elements introduced, how are we to view the director’s decision except as a bit of self-indulgent affectation? And what of the inclusion of the science fiction element? With the exception of the very idea of the supreme controlling entity being a machine, a concept brought to the screen with far greater finesse in Joseph Sargent’s neglected “Colossus: The Forbin Project”, there isn’t much there. (A few fleeting references to galaxies do hardly a formidable SF concept make.)

    Filmed on the cheap, with no budget for the grandiosity of production design and effects that usually distract from the paucity of ideas expressed in modern film SF, “Alphaville” was filmed entirely within the achitecturally sterile modernity of various Parisian environs, It is a landscape both familiar and foreboding, utilitarian and functionally labyrinthine; a world in which the cold hand of the Alpha 60 impressed logic deprives human perception of the concept of warmth, comfort and expression. On the other hand, as representing the ideological alternative we are presented with the  granite-like countenance of Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution, and there is little hint that this agent of the “Outlands” comes equipped with a stirring agenda with which to incite a revolt against either von Braun or his dictatorial creation. Caution’s method of destroying Alpha 60, by presenting the logic obsessed machine with an imponderable thought- poetry- is rather a bit of inexcusably lazy and illogical screenwriting when you consider this same computer opens the film with a far more arcane contemplation from Jorge Luis Borges.

    Consider that the conventions of the film noir genre are atypical of other cinematic forms, due to the depiction of the hero battling in a completely anarchistic environment whose very immoral components were anathema to the censorial leash of the Production Code, and thus required an elemental shift from what was normally put under a rigorous moral scrutiny, to an alteration of tone and substance which would masquerade offensive issues of morality under a polarizing cloak of shadowy surfaces and disproportionate levels of  fatalistic retribution. Whatever its aesthetic flourishes, film noir was about the creative depiction of the “bad” under the baleful glare of the “champions” of the “good”.  Science fiction, on the other hand, was under no such restrictive considerations. Morality with regards to science is a philosophical construct, not necessarily consistent with the violent and sexual undertones of Godard’s approach to the material which, as stated, is  admittedly unconventional right from the start. The film begins with many of the expected characteristics of the noir genre: voiceover narration, menacing nocturnal backdrops, a cigarette smoking tough guy in a trenchcoat, dramatically overwrought musical punctuations- yet, there is something disarming at the same time. There is an inordinate amount of time (for a man who supposedly revolutionized the concept of the jump cut) spent setting up scenes. Arrivals at hotels and rooms are composed only seemingly endless tracking shots in corridors (Raoul Coutard’s photography is ingeniously creative throughout the film, and scholars might note the quality of Godard’s films took a distinctive nose dive when they ended their long association.) as if the talk of “the outer cities” and “the galaxy” indicates that long distance space travel is taking place; a hybrid mixture of scientific reference with the noir vernacular. (This predates Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” by seven years, in which he also symbolized space travel through an extended auto travel sequence.) In that Godard has removed the character of Caution from his normal stylistically artificial environment of the noir thriller and placed him in an equally “unreal” alternate SF landscape, one might have expected there to be a knowing commentary about how the artificiality of genre conventions subvert “truthful” explorations of any meaningful emotional or intellectual depth, but the truth is, the only reason Godard conveys for the odd hybrid nature of his film is there is no reason at all.

    When Godard depicts the women of Alphaville as either numbered, tranquilized pleasure drones, or as participants in an aquatic circus that ceremoniously retrieves or finishes off execution victims in a gymnasium pool, what is his point? Is this a satiric take on women in SF? In noir? Or is it the hint of a deeper, more personal misogyny? After all, if the society were controlled by the logical brain  of the Alpha 60, it would seem that gender specificity would hardly be an issue in the assignment of social roles. This is hardly the logic of the machine but of the director and his complete confusion of just what it is he is attempting to express.  Ultimately Godard doesn’t seem particularly interested in his chosen genre conventions except  to use them as hooks to hang costumes on borrowed ideas that have fractionalized meaning outside of their original context, and remain annoyingly inert in the vacuum he substitutes for his own lack of substantive thematic contributions. What he attempts to do using both the foundational elements of both SF and noir is to present legitimate ideological impressions on an ill-conceived novelty skeleton but in doing so actually deconstructs “literary” truth into “cinematic” triviality.

    Godard has been publicly possessed by his arcane concept of “truth” in Cinema but the sadder truth, evident on the screen, is that with this misconceived and often shamelessly cannibalized fusion of disparate genre elements masquerading as profundity, the director has proven he is wearing no clothes.

 

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Revisit: Through a Dark Glassily: “Puzzle of a Downfall Child” (1970)

puzzle1        “Puzzle of a Downfall Child”       (1970)

(Originally posted on June 14, 2014)

    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 puzzleofdownfallchildOS 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 puzzle3the 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 thepuzzle6gif 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 puzzle7gifeither) 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 Hollywood’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 relies 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 puzzle4artistry 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 puzzle2malevolent 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 puzzle1opportunities 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.movie

 

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Revisit: The Good, The Bad and The Baddest: “The French Connection” (1971)

“The French Connection”  (1971)

(Originally posted on April 9, 2012)

    Being a narc is assuming the role of a soldier in a never-ending war with the urban streets as the battleground; the debris littered alleys and dark, smoky dive bars being the jungle in which only the criminally depraved thrive and the determined soldier enters with both eyes open and one hand on the trigger. This is the world of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo as portrayed by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider in William Friedkin’s seminal cop drama “The French Connection”.

     Never before or since have the streets of New York City been rendered so effectively to elicit the disparity between the privileged criminal and the wasteland of scarred victims of their illegal enterprises, brought to the screen in spectacular pseudo documentary fashion by director Friedkin, who himself had years of non-fiction filmmaking expertise and spent valuable time following real-life counterparts of the fictionalized detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, on the beat to soak up the grimier details of police work. In this case, the homework has paid off handsomely, the film achieving a ideal pseudodocumentary visual scheme which immerses the viewer into the gritty minutiae of procedural verisimilitude. The viewer is  entrenched in the genuine feel of the investigative nuances, each imparting an intensifying textural density in which the natural tensions of the vicissitudes of detective surveillance work are in a constant state of hypervigilance. So submersive is the attention to gritty detail, that the later emergence of what can be codified as elements of Hollywood hokum may not seem apparent, until upon later reflection of the film. However, in this case, the hokum is entirely acceptable in consideration of Friedkin’s intentions in following the character Detective Doyle as consumed by a growing obsession that borders on madness; a favorite theme of Friedkin’s which commonly finds expression in his films over the years, most perfectly realized in his overlooked 1977 masterwork “Sorcerer”, a stunning rethinking of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “La Salaire de la Peur” but also impressively conceptualized in such disparate films as “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Bug”.

     This was the second of producer Philip D’Antoni’s crime thrillers produced between 1968 and 1973, the first being the Peter Yates directed “Bullitt” and the latter being “The Seven-Ups”, also starring Roy Scheider and finding D’Antoni assuming the additional role of director. The three are known as D’Antoni’s “chase trilogy” as each is highlighted by a spectacularly staged chase sequence and each, despite their immediate differences in style, find attributable characteristics of their protagonist’s evolving from one film to the next. In the Yates film, Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt clearly saw himself as an outsider who found it necessary to stretch the boundaries of his authority to get the job done. his “infractions”, however, were aimed at a police hierarchy that nestled in the safety of oily political expediency whenever it suited to advance their career ambitions.

     This was a significant advance in how police had been portrayed throughout the preceding three decades due to the Production Code, where there were strictly enforced standards as to the portrayal of authority figures, most prominently clergy and law enforcement. That police may have occasionally been portrayed as corruptible, but that was usually in the context of the film noir where nihilistic power grabs were a matter of basic genre construction.  It wasn’t until William Wyler’s 1951 “Detective Story” where a cop was portrayed as creating his own set of inflexible moral standards which actually supplanted his almost vigilante-like fury for justice; but this was portrayed as a product of obsessive psychological aberration and not any signpost of a new kind of abusive police authority in the cinema.  At least until the year 1968 (the year after the final disbanding of the Production Code) which also featured several other interesting changes in the portrayal of the law enforcement hierarchy as portrayed in Don Siegel’s “Madigan” and “The Detective” (and “Bullitt”) where   departmental corruption and weak concessions to expedient political interests conspired to hinder the police in their sworn pursuit of the lawless elements. That this rise in public apprehension toward traditionally respected authoritative bureaucracies surfaced (no doubts this negativity was always existent, simply more concealed in public forums) at the same time as the general social and political unrest of the late 60′s gave way to open rebellion against anything connected to “the Establishment” was not exactly coincidental, but residual of long festering antagonisms waiting for the right circumstances to ignite the fuse exploding the decades long curse of Hollywood studio artifice.

     Enter into this societal maelstrom Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Popeye Doyle, with which we have entered into completely uncharted waters. As depicted in the film, Doyle is a bottom feeder by way of practical necessity, a scavenger through the fervent application of due diligence toward his profession; one senses that beneath his scruffy exterior beats not the heart of a well meaning humanist, but the fiery zealotry of a transfixed crusader. It is mentioned several times during the film that Doyle’s detective instinct has “backfired” in past cases, with referenced fatal consequences- another cop was killed -the mention of which seems to have but one effect on him and that is to exacerbate already strained tensions with his fellow detectives, causing him to further alienate himself from his peers. Except for a fetishistic preoccupation with women in boots, Doyle seems to have very little in the way of a private life,  spending his late hours in dim bars, catching a few moments of sleep hanging over a beckoning shot glass. His life seems to find purpose only is his compulsion: to get the bad guys and put them away before going out and starting the entire process all over again; a modern day Sisyphus in heavy overcoat and porkpie hat.

        Doyle and his partner Cloudy (Scheider’s portrayal, in comparison to Hackman’s, is  low-keyed and realistically dogged, as if he’s heard and seen all of this from his partner so many times before) spend their waking hours tending to the phantom society perpetuated by the finely garbed criminals- who in a famously ironic scene enjoy a fine five star meal while Doyle freezes on the street with a repulsive pizza slice and an undrinkable cup of coffee -waiting for the big break in interrupting the drug supply chain. The partners are even reprimanded by their Captain (played by the real Eddie Egan) that their efforts are at a stalemateIt is only through a provident combination of blind chance and professional intuition that they uncover a scent of something “dirty” about a table of fellow nightclub revelers that will eventually snowball into an intensive investigation leading to the largest narcotics bust in New York City history, up to that time.

     The film is actually one extended chase, not in the sense of a high impact motor pursuit, though the film famously features one of the classically executed examples of these later in the story -but of pursuit of a more extended nature: through the more ponderously (for the detectives) exacting techniques of hidden surveillance, wiretapping and ingeniously triangulated tracking by foot through the crowded downtown streets. The details to the verisimilitude of narcotics investigation gives a new meaning to the term “police procedural” as Friedkin’s relentlessly active cameras break with the traditional polished camera set ups, instead employing a point-of-view approximating a cinéma vérité sense of spontaneity.  Though not as overtly apparent as its descendant contemporary films in which a fashionable overly jittery “nervous camera” style has distracting taken root, replacing the old-fashioned values of clearly delineated narrative storytelling and intelligently designed editing with spastic jolts of blurred actions representing a child’s version of action and forward motion,- the most obvious beneficiary from Friedkin’s visual blueprint is the later Dick Wolf television series “Law and Order”, especially in its early seasonscinematographer Owen Roizman’s camera is forever on the move, insinuating itself  around columns, over shoulders, through streaked windows, truly engaging the viewer as a participant in the hunt- the “fourth wall” as active bystander -building a palpable immediacy that brings to the commercial American cinema reminiscent threads of such landmark exercises in “faux” documentary fiction such as Peter Watkins’ “The War Game” and Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers”.

     Equally of interest are Doyle’s antagonists: the drug smugglersthough not in the usual Hollywood role as the more “colorful” characters of the piece, but as a more refined class of international criminal who treat their dealings as an extension of multinational commerce (albeit one concealed from the eyes of the law) instead of the bearers of a societal poison that will damage and destroy thousands. The fascination with this criminal element is not one of personality, (as was the case in the days when a Cagney or a Bogart would portray a bootlegger) but again of verisimilitude, though of the opposing side. Ernest Tidyman’s efficient script (based on “The Green Berets” scribe Robin Moore’s eminently readable non-fiction book) provides a luxury of opportunities to understand the various  stratagems which make a major drug shipment possible, especially when the police are noticeably alerted to the incoming contraband. The chief importer of the heroin, Alain Charnier, (a dapper though typically shifty Fernando Rey who sidesteps the more odious aspects of his character by an effortless effusion of what might best be described as Gallic charm) nicknamed “Frog One” by Doyle, is a richly successful businessman of indeterminate background (though there is mention of a past on the cranes of the Marseilles docks, there is nothing suggested as to his specific role in industry) who ingeniously plants a shipment  of heroin in a Lincoln Continental which he imports into New York, finding the cover of legitimacy behind a television artist who is visiting the city for a documentary. Charnier is accompanied by a sinister compatriot Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), who demonstrates his cold-blooded capabilities in the film’s opening scenes, and will later precipitate action that results in the film’s famous chase sequence. The New York toughs, headlined  by the always interesting Tony LoBianco, are a mixture of established gangland big shots and eager wannabes out to make their first big score. The business dynamic of upper echelon crime  explored- the conversations could just as easily be about a shipment of party dresses -is fascinating in its casualness as opposed to the lower level  junkies who are the ultimate targets of this camouflage of respectability; a far more palpable depiction than the similarly applauded “crime as big business” image of the overrated “The Godfather”, where the workings of criminality are saturated and celebrated in the golden glow of  a very “Hollywood” vision of the mobster life, in sacrifice of genuine insight, and a  curiously unacknowledged reticence (by both critical and audience factions) to blithely ignore the existence of the victims of their criminal enterprises.

      Though Doyle and Russo attempt to maintain a covert status, the criminals- especially “Frog One” -seem keenly aware of the police surveillance almost from the moment of their arrival; as if it were an expected deadly pas de deux in which only one dancer will be left standing. This awareness increases the tension of the film and accounts for a particularly witty game of cat-and-mouse between Doyle and Charnier in a subway station (The probable high point of the film, even surmounting the stunning chase.) that escalates with nervous energy until exploding with a visual gag that is later replicated in a most satisfying twist of irony.

     There is an equally festering schism between Doyle and the federal agents- especially one agent Mulderig, portrayed by famed stunt driver Bill Hickman, who provided the chase stunt driving in all three D’Antoni “chase” productions -assigned to accompany the detectives in their investigation, the underlying reason for their being there, explains Russo, is that they have unlimited financial resources in which to set up drug buys; an odd assertion since no such transactions are ever in evidence. Facing the problematic distractions of a police hierarchy increasingly unconvinced of the value of Doyles’ hunches and an interdepartmental friction that challenges his very competenceDoyle’s obsessiveness in nabbing his prey is doubly intensified, emerging as not simply a case of cop vs. criminal, but righteousness versus an appropriately opposite evil. It’s at this point that the film casually diverts into a territory peppered with incidents that veer away from the pointedly realistic to conceits more consistent with a film “going Hollywood”.

   Reaching an impasse in which the New York buyers become apprehensive over the amount of police surveillance and advise patience and caution, unexplainably Charnier and Nicoli  attempt an assassination of Doyle (who unbeknownst to them has just been taken off the case) by sniper thus leading into the chase sequence, an inventive and witty variation of the film’s pas de deux motif, in which a rapidly deteriorating automobile battles for survival against an out-of-control el train. In this sequence, Doyle crosses the line from societal protector to pseudo-vigilante by demonstrating that even the safety of the public is a sacrificial concern in his goal to capture “Frog One”. This escalation of personal emotional intensity reaches such a fever pitch it begins to obscure the reasonable boundaries of the documentary approach to the character and begins to extend into the range of a tragic literary persona. (Hugo’s Jauvert is not a stretch.) If some of the later events in the narrative simultaneously begin to blur the prior pseudo-documentary approach toward more commercially fictionalized implausibilities (the chase, the car reconstruction, the  decision to shoot a suspect in the back instead of apprehending him) with the intense character modifications to Doyle, this serves to turn the detective into more than an ordinary policeman and something approaching the modern urban mythic. (Film and literature share the common tendency to enable a character of modest dimensions to become extraordinary through the permutations of fate and the character’s purposefully audacious attitude to the “perceived” hostility of that same environment around them.)  Doyle is fated to become (within the confines of this story) the singular protectorate of a society too weak to assert its own foundations of laws and morality against a more determined criminal element, and which requires (though significantly- and this will be an important element in serious cop films to the present day -will not acknowledge, especially to the chosen protector, its need) the man of action (thus the film casts it’s shadow into the primal conceits of that most American of cinematic moral arenas: the western) who is outside of the functions of normal society but is necessary to do the dirty work, invaluably useful by way of his innate disregard for those same rules which the society employs him to defend. Doyle becomes a modern extension of that greatest of cinema western  enigmas, Ethan Edwards from “The Searchers”; the outsider essential to a society that reviles him for the very strengths that make him necessary.

     Friedkin may be criticized for abandoning his fastidious adherence to the pseudo-documentary due to the vagaries of the introduction of the commercially acceptable/realistically implausible elements, (though only in matters of narrative vicissitudes and not diverting from his neorealistic directorial scheme) yet such a late hour concession to more insensible elements within the context of the increased mania of Doyle’s obsession actually facilitates a fixed emotional balance to the film that prepares the audience for the otherwise dispiriting twist of the finale. Were the audience not privy to the manipulated excitements and momentary victories inherent in both the chase sequence and the car deconstruction sequence (not to mention Doyle’s deliberate shooting of Nicole in the back as he turns to flee, a moment of both emotional exhaustion- coming directly after the thrills of the chase sequence -and after Nicole’s callous assassination of a flic in the opening sequence; the act becoming a much needed moment of visceral release where a modicum of retribution finally eclipses the successes of the criminal’s actions) the ending might be unrelievedly disconsolate, with concluding title cards (clearly inspired by the similar ending of Costa-Gavras’ “Z”, which also upended audiences expectations for justice) revealing that the entirety of the preceding efforts were for naught. With this, the memory of judicial retribution insisted upon by decades of The Production Code was not merely wiped clean, but kicked down the stairs and thrown into the street; while the protective bubble of the Hays Office perpetuated the illusion of American justice triumphant, real-life was not always as accommodating. Police dramas, whether on film or television would never be the same after “The French Connection”. Rarely, if ever again, would there exist a morally sanitized universe in which there would be a clearly delineated boundary between the cop and the criminal, each now fated to exist in their own moral purgatory bookended between the increasingly savage criminal activity of multinational crime organizations and the increased publicly exposed layers of interdepartmental  law enforcement corruptions; with few if any on the side of good emerging completely triumphant, and certainly none “clean”.

 

 

Posted in books, crime, gene hackman, movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, Roy Scheider, writing | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Revisit: 35 Lb. Monkey Business: “The Man With the Golden Arm” (1955)

manwithgoldenarm_franksinatra

“The Man With the Golden Arm”  (1955)

(Originally posted on July 30, 2013)

    One of the characteristics of the movies of the “Golden Age” studio era of filmmaking was the anesthetizing comfort they were intended to provide the audience, explaining the essential homogenized blandness in which innovation and true artistry- always enemies of the bottom-line purveyors of West Coast entertainment -deliberately emerged only through the rare instances of career suicidal, rancorous headbutting combativeness (which resulted manwithgoldenarmOSin the exclusion of some of the most creative artists of the day, summarily dismissed as being “unworkable”, or later, conveniently,“unfriendly”) or often blind luck. Throughout the Great Depression and the onset of the Second World War, Hollywood benefited from serendipitous circumstances in which the public sought the solace of the American cinema for its inherent escapist characteristics, allowing the art form to assume the role of a national cultural psychic band-aid; a situation which would be fully exploited by the enforcers of The Hays Office in the employment of their manifesto- the establishment of an independent authority which would oversee the intellectual properties in development in the motion picture industry and disavow the inclusion of any element which did not meet with strict adherence to the stated guidelines within The Production Code.  This unchecked authority, became de facto judge, jury and executioner in any matter relevant to the creative process within the Hollywood community.

    The resulting films conceived under this self-inflicted moral simplification- a studio approved emolliating shield for an entire industry (a self-defining word which speaks more of the movies often being resisted as a true Art form than any succinct caveat conjured by external critical forces) -are characterized by a conventionality that worked against breaking through the archaic moral boundaries of the censorial foe/safety net (depending on which side of the artistic looking glass you were standing) under which the complacency of the reassuring redundancy of calculated formula thinking (one can hardly label it creativity with a sober voice) might find a procreative auger. It is not that the specific content of the films are the same but that (and this is an critical distinction) the moral tone goldenarm2is, and one that is forcibly imposed by dishonestly motivated watchdogs, unnatural to the actual creative process, which inevitably leads to a stunting of a complete and honest depiction of human behavior. Surely with everyday life beset by both a protracted economic strife and a  savage, globally endangering armed conflict, with one situation magnifying the national anxiety of the other, the circumstances was ripe for explorations of the darker corners of human behavior (How could anything in film be as shocking as the horrors of the still fresh-in-the-mind atrocities committed in both European and Pacific Theaters of battle?), yet the Hollywood industry, instead of directly addressing the realities of the new post-war transformations occurring in America, continued to present idealized, sanitized films which failed to address the simmering social issues which would explode seemingly overnight in the mid-1960’s when a neutered art form was suddenly given the freedom of expression it had never enjoyed: from separate-bed Doris Day to “Deep Throat” in as many years as a hand has fingers.

     The frustrating censorial repressiveness continuing during the post-war years becomes especially apparent in adaptations of works from differing cultural arenas- specifically literature and legitimate theater -which had always found their materials transmuted to fit the narrowest of moral guidelines, and were now doubly debased by enthusiastic producers who would claim admiration for a work’s integrity and then reshape that same work (now considered, in Hollywood parlance, a “property”), not only to fit the needs of their perception of narrow commercial marketplace, but also to reconfigure the elements of the story so that it might still feature a hint of that characteristic of challenging artistic provocation which engaged their interest in the first place. Such are the steps in which a highly regarded work might become a pathetic shadow of its former incarnation, although less harmful to the reputation of the original, which remains unmolested on the printed page, as opposed to the increased tarnishing of Hollywood’s already dubious reputation as the manufacturer of dreams.

    That being said, it is doubtful, even with the movies of this era which have been fervently branded, by those afflicted with incurable romanticized nostalgia, with the idiomatic moniker of “film classic”, that the end result would have been even remotely representative of the existing work had those films been nurtured, developed and produced in a freely open atmosphere of artistic expression instead of the unfortunate morally hysterical fanaticism welded with a retarded sense of false puritanism which defined the Production Code. Behavior became a forced formula of repetitive actions as the goldenarmprogression of normal human reactions found itself impeded by feet encased in a paralyzing cement,  limiting free expression with the excuse of protecting the innocent against the “deviant” core of the heart of Man and applying a broad stroked glaze of a zealous though misguided authoritarian piety. If there is truth to the axiom that action defines character, then it must be admitted that Hollywood imposed a predisposition to a lack of full character between the years of Production Code enforcement, an inevitable consequence when constructing a barrier against any action which may lead to behavior deemed indecent, not by societal, moral or philosophic standards, but by an authority blind to all but the most archaic and socially regressive puritanism. In essence, virtually every film made by Hollywood in the “Golden Age” is a bone fide fairy tale, a narrative skirting the true complexity of the full human experience for the sake of deliberate social artificiality, intended to mollify the darker impulses of the audience; actually one of the original excuses for the conception of an overseeing cultural entity known as the Hays Office. If the unnaturally stunted behavior molded under the withering restrictions of The Code had any effect at all, it wasn’t the intended mollification of the audience’s Mr. Hyde, but a suppression of that audience’s yearning for intellectual stimulation based upon its own unfiltered experiences, unmolested by the agenda of an outside agency. The horrors of both World War Two and the Great Depression, not to mention the later paranoiac tensions of the burgeoning Cold War immersed the citizenry in decades of psychic assault; seeds of moral frustrations that were simplified and thus rendered meaningless by a bland absence of complexity as advanced by the century’s most popular and influential Art Form.

 If the efforts of the Hays Office resulted in reinforced behavioral thought patterns, one not unintended side effect was an actual perpetuation of antisocial tendencies reflected in American cinema as far as racial intolerance. Given the historical circumstances during the Code's enforcement, the tortuous route for black artists in the cinema is reflected in the relative scarcity of major Hollywood studio...

If the efforts of the Hays Office resulted in reinforced behavioral thought patterns, one not unintended side effect was an actual perpetuation of antisocial tendencies reflected in American cinema as far as  racial intolerance. Given the historical circumstances during the Code’s enforcement, the tortuous route for black artists in the cinema is reflected, in no small way, in the absence of major Hollywood studio talent on-screen. Though often attributed to the vagaries of marketing to racially inflammatory regions such as the Deep South, there is little doubt that institutional racism was a comfortable industry policy made palatable by all concerned by its simple acquiescence  to the Production Code. This unconvincing excuse making finds even less basis in merit when one is reminded that adherence to the Code was not mandatory but voluntary, a self-designed oversight mechanism engineered by the collective studios themselves. The continued advancement of prejudice and bigotry in the industry during this period is an appalling surrender of the supposed Judeo-Christian values which purportedly were at the heart of the Code’s formation.

    Therefore, for all of the distinction in of dramatic materials, the outcome will generally be the same. The route to the allowable, predetermined fates of film characters often called for some remarkable feats of narrative contortion to reach their final destinations, for unlike the dramatist or literary author whose exploration of behavioral complexity is limited only to their individual artistic capabilities, the filmmaker of the Golden Age studio era was bound by moral canons which were not only infuriatingly restrictive, but often illogically self-contradictory and indecent, including the assertion that miscegenation was tantamount to bestiality (see sidebar, right). The limitations of “acceptable” behavior unnaturally reshaping the content in every film to ultimately become the intended lesson in  sanctioned morality;  all films made under the Hays Office engaged in, by the very nature of the controlled restrictive process, a methodology of conditioning the audience away from perceived antisocial behavior by way of a redundant pattern of conditioning stimulus. This stimulus finds its foundation in a multitude of technological as well as scriptural aspects of the production’s grand design, the manipulative stimulus arises from a cultural form uniquely collaborative and therefore accessible to a far more complexly sophisticated form of respondent conditioning.

    Nelson Algren’s novel “The Man With the Golden Arm” occupies a special place in the annals of modern American literature. The first recipient of the National Book Award, it is a searing read; an unrelenting descent into the lives, minds and souls of a community of fallen people. The population of Algren’s Division Street are characters without hope and beyond the conception of hope, who shuffle through the dead-end paths where their lives have converged and simply exist from one moment to the next; desolately enduring the hopelessness of every waking moment in an endless purgatorial shuffle. It is not a tale in which the doom of Death looms over the characters, as life itself is too hard, too unbearable a day by day process to endure that something as abstract as death would hold sufficient terror; life has taken that unenviable position. It is about the end of the line for people who have never been graced with a vision of the beginning. It is, in many ways, a cruel- almost nihilistic -novel, with punishment and hopeless destiny seemingly predetermined by an unforgiving God (or more accurately, novelist as Supreme Creator), the very circumstance of each character so depressed, that their individual willingness to brave a further step through life might seem to imbue the characters with a type of sickly heroic nobility, though more accurately, they might be better described as victims of their own poor instincts, with judgment meted out in disproportionately sadistic quantities. On the other hand, the novel’s accomplishments are legion, beginning with an artistic courage to carry a manwithgoldenarm1concept to a logical conclusion, completely eschewing, almost Gorky-like, the comfort of sentimentality or forced optimistic plot developments. It’s a stunning though highly discomforting read, unrelievedly grim, with the conviction that a despairing societal angst is a universal human condition worthy (but seldom given full measure) of serious, committed examination in American literature-certainly without the intrusion of the myth “American dream” as a comparative condition, and an easy out with its suggestion of possible happy outcomes. In Alger’s Division Street universe, the happy ending is courageously unconsidered, the denizens of the novel’s universe finding their fates varied only in the different levels of Hell in which they find permanent residence.

    In bringing the novel to the screen, that most underrated of visual film stylists, Otto Preminger, fails to penetrate the characters in any meaningful way; substituting a glossy Hollywood bowdlerization of dreams only delayed and happy endings accompanied with disgracefully convenient bows that tie up life’s loose ends, the very antithesis of Algren’s novelistic view. Before examining Preminger’s directorial approach, it is essential to dissect the differences between Algren’s source novel and the screen adaptation by Walter Bernstein and Lewis Meltzer who seem to have procured a dull knife to slash away the substance of the novel. The film is a complete betrayal of the Algren’s work, both stylistically and substinatively, yet has sustained an unwarranted reputation as being a barrier breaking film- an illusion of creative integrity only possible within a cultural form in which the bar is set exceedingly low, weighed with the most stringent congress of anti-creative regulations -when in fact it soft peddles its own exploration of unsavory territories with the gloss of Hollywood artifice which, in the end, merely retreads the same tired melodramatic formulas of salvation and redemption the film capitol had been peddling for over two decades under the desiccating influence of the Production Code.

    Preminger’s impressively intelligent fluidity as a director- his open disdain for the crutch of editing for its own sake makes him one of the true anti-Eisensteinians in commercial cinema  -was always at a counterpoint with Preminger the producer, the showman, and this film is an example of hubris over purported courage under the guise of artistic frankness while abusing the very materials from which those very very claims spring. There is nothing in Algren’s novel to suggest a tidy summing up of the multifarious complications defining each of his characters, most already simplified or eliminated to the point of meaningless cliché. By simply tackling the subject of drug abuse itself, regardless of the falsification and melodramatic refinishing of goldenarm3the novel’s relentlessly grim edge, the director has been afforded a latitude of escaping criticism for adaptive abuse of a genuine artistic work of modern American literature as if he were merely pruning a trivial subplot for the sake of concision. When one emascalates the very pulse of a work, its heart, its soul, then no amount of glossy Hollywood whitewash can sustain the illusion of artistic credibility. However, artistic reputation often finds itself counterfeited through the announcement of cultural provocation and Preminger the Producer was skilled at promoting the efforts of Preminger the Director toward commercial viability, often at the expense of the director’s artistic capabilities. Convinced that the controversy of defying the Production Code’s explicit ban of depiction of narcotics use, Preminger clearly feels victorious in producing a film defined with substance by the simple act of anti-authoritarian nose-thumbing. None of this, however, takes into consideration the dessication of a work of high literary merit, by the reduction the novel- outside of the supposedly “provocative” drug content -into the most basic of melodramatic urban formulas done to death in any number of faceless 1930’s Warner Bros. assembly line vehicles: artistic integrity be damned.

    Frank Sinatra plays Frank Majeschik, called by his friends as “Frankie Machine”, a gifted card dealer (hence the reference to the “golden arm”) who returns to Division Street after a prison sentence, accompanied by a brand new set of drums courtesy of the penal system who in this film’s version of punishment has been converted into an ersatz Santa Claus. Frankie stops off at Antak’s, a bar and ersatz communal meeting ground for many of the players in the drama to come, including his sidekick Sparrow (Arnold Stang), the dope dealer Louis (who as played by the normally capable Darren McGavin, puts enough goldenarm1oily affectation into his performance, you expect him to break into a chorus of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” at any moment) and Scweika (Robert Strauss, who apparently never met a piece of scenery that didn’t resemble a buffet table). The consistently broad nature of the supporting performances suggests there is a deliberation in how Preminger approaches the material: presenting artificial, exaggerated performance as a substitution of the novel’s uniquely stylized voice; by replacing prose with cartoons. This is either a complete misreading of the source material, or more likely, a pragmatic shortcut which enabled the producer/director to maintain the provocative element of drug addiction- producer Preminger’s censorial battleground du jour -while discarding the actual form of the novel: a communal kaleidescope in which Frankie may be the binding narrative fulcrum, though not a central catalyst to the destinies of many of the characters. Bernstein’s linear redressing of the novel makes many understandable excisions, including many lengthy passages of internal monologue expressed in poetically allegorical pseudo-stream of consciousness, but more importantly,

    In the film, Frankie Machine arrives back on Division Street, after a stint in prison, armed with a brand new set of drums given to him to pursue his dream of becoming a professional as if the penal system were an extension of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. The divergence from novel to film is immediate, the tone of the book is forever crushed in the opening scene when Sinatra departs the bus flashing his signature smile (the film is far too eager to have the audience like him) in that Frankie’s desire to become a drummer (certainly not the reference, as made here, to his drumming skills), a pipe dream mentioned sporadically in the novel, is, in the film version, the dramatic hook in which the entire film is based, altering the focus of the novel from a community kaleidoscope of despair to only Frankie’s story with the supporting players whirling about him like satellites vying for crumbs of screen time, while the suspense of the film equally divides itself between Frankie’s addiction and whether or not he’ll ever succeed as a musician: an unthinkably altered simplification of the novel with which Preminger undercuts with further lackadaisical spurning of the novel’s content, with not-so-incidental changes that damagingly change the dynamic of the novel in several specific ways. Frankie’s incidental desire to become a big name drummer is magnified so far out of proportion as to render the narrative almost unrecognizable, softening the hopelessness of the characters by Frankie’s story in the film becoming the only character perspective explored- a devastating mistake -and with those motivational  alterations in place, the film becomes a bland story of shooting for show biz stardom, a favorite theme of a Hollywood industry which clearly considers ambitions in the performing arts to be the self-inflating height of  honorable aspiration. There is also the ruinous shift in making Frankie’s addiction open and sympathetically accepted knowledge in the community, an attitude directly contradictory to the novel in which the central characters (and by extension, the mindset of the novel’s community) are repelled by those who indulge in narcotics- an interesting moral boundary in a society where gambling, petty theft, alcoholism, adultery and confidence games run rampant -but a telling communal  line in the sand which fortifies the innate  this is where Preminger cheats his audience, in bringing about hackneyed plot twists instead of having the courage to follow the characters to their almost predestined ends; a stunning lack of courage from a filmmaker whose perpetual breast beating was intended to signal the presence of a personage of unshakable artistic conviction.

    By reducing the whole of the novel’s communal conception to a singular focal point, not even to that of a single character, but to a singular aspect of that character’s story and to advance that aspect as the fulcrum of your adaptation- drug abuse as a marketable claim to artistic courage -the filmmaker deliberately abandons what makes the source material vital and simultaneously concedes the exploration of the character of Frankie to the timid, limited boundaries of Hollywood flummery. When a character has been created, bound to a goldenarm4certain aesthetic principle, and that conceptual context is discarded, what is left is a mere phantom of that character. In blindly allowing the carving out the viscera of the novel in service to a falsely prideful stance against censorial repression, Preminger has conceded to the very tenets of the Production Code, by homogenizing the very substance of a difficult story into a delusional fable in which all anxieties will are naturally absolved by the cooling ministrations of milquetoast melodrama. To have translated an unexpurgated version of the novel to the screen and reached the fatalistic conclusion of Algren’s work would have been an effort- in the repressive atmosphere of 1955 Hollywood -meriting consideration as an act of cultural courage, but the existent film version of “The Man With the Golden Arm” is merely- despite claims to the contrary -Hollywood business as usual.

    Considering the talent involved, it’s depressing when the best part of the movie is the opening title sequence, comprised of Saul Bass’ stark, fractured graphics which when underscored by the increasingly hysterical jazz composition of Elmer Bernstein manages to convey an inescapable whirlpool of desperation which, disappointingly, never arrives. (The film certainly, never again, rises to this level of energy.) Both Bass and Bernstein elevate their chosen fields with their contributions, and the synthesis of their efforts which open the film, impresses with a startling leap forward in the evolution of the title form, investing the opening credit sequence with an entirely new cinematic vocabulary, an example which Preminger, (Walter) Bernstein and Meltzer all failed to emulate.movie

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Revisit: Beatles in a Bell Jar: “Let It Be” (1970)

letitbe9“Let It Be” (1970)

(Originally posted on Nov. 5, 2013)
    Sitting through Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s “Let It Be” is not dissimilar to sitting behind someone in a theater and staring at the back of their head, mentally trying to make themletitbeOS turn around: it’s pointless, it doesn’t really work and, in the end, its a pretty much a waste of time. This film features recording sessions during which The Beatles perform material which would appear on their penultimate (though the last to be recorded) album “Abbey Road” and their final album release “Let It Be”, though from the evidence presented in the film- and that’s scant – it is unclear as to what the actual purpose of this filmed document is meant to serve. Originally conceived as a companion workplace documentary to coincide with a planned televised concert and corresponding album release which would return the foursome to its technologically unfettered musical roots, the eventual grand scheme collapsing under the weight of collective indecision and growing personal animosities. The footage comprising “Let It Be” is, therefore, merely cobbled together material from an abandoned project, but retains the possibility of significant historical significance since in the intervening time between the filming and the film’s release saw the release of both “Abbey Road” and the “Let It Be” albums, but more significantly, the break-up of The Beatles as a group. Certainly, with reportedly hundreds of hours of footage shot, even the most rudimentary of documentarians would manage to capture- under the dispassionate but observant eye of the film’s cinéma vérité technique -the creative mind in flux. If it is meant as a inside look into the creative process, it is apparent that the compositional work and major musical discussions had already taken place outside the range of the cameras, and if the filmed performances were meant to represent a companion to the vinyl recording, why not include the contributions of the record producer Phil Spector, whose eventual “Wallletitbe_johnlennon of Sound” irretrievably altered the resulting album’s sound? If the film is meant as a document to witness the end of the major cultural phenomenon that was the group, where are any direct commentaries or confrontations related to such a fracture included in the film- beyond the incessant moping -that would justify the film’s very existence? It is rumored that such strained footage indeed exists, but was excised at the insistence of the musicians, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that “Let It Be” is not a documentary in the truest sense, but merely a promotional film gone astray. Whatever the explanation, there is no denying that the film has an feel of being carelessly unfinished. even the finale is abrupt, which may be due to unpredictable intrusion from local bobbies, however, there is no visible attempt at any sort of summing up.

    The first thing immediately noticeable is the drastic shift in tone from all previous Beatles film projects, the air of solemnity if not outright directionless apathy is a reversal of the carefree and breezy public persona the quartet nurtured throughout the prior decade; an interesting portrait of collective fraternal diffusion, but oddly antithetical to the purposes of an intended background document with the sole intentionletitbe4 of commercial promotion. With the exception of the final outdoor rooftop concert, the film is claustrophobically set in the dim space of the film cum recording studio, the isolated atmosphere magnifying the, at times, not-so-simmering hostilities. The tensions in the room (and they are considerable) are never explained, though artistic dissatisfaction is a good bet, and the film has the fly-by-night, grainy quality of 16mm unceremoniously enlarged for uncharitably grungy looking theatrical proportions (it is).

    Worse yet, with the original promotional intention of the film being abandoned during production, a renovated motive for the film finds no substitute focus: as an eventual commercial for their last collaborative album “Let It Be”, there is far too much unexplained animus- though the Sphinx-like omnipresence of Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono letitbe8.gifin the sessions could not have helped to develop an air of conviviality (the later arrival of Billy Preston enlivens the boys considerably), as well as the film showing no cohesive intent to demonstrate the creation of the title album when it also contains versions of songs which would be used on the “Abbey Road” album. Additionally, as a form of public confessional, the members of the group remain aggravatingly mute, communicating little with each other except by way of furtive glares (few get the chance to speak as McCartney never stops); the choice of footage seems to be randomly assembled, without an eye toward following the most rudimentary aspects of album compilation: novices will leave the film equally ignorant of the group’s creative process as before they purchased their popcorn.

    Those following the dubious philosophy that the greatest of actors would be compelling reading the phone book might well take a lesson in cultural icon-based optimism from “Let It Be” as there is very little to command the attention when the first two-thirds of the film are taken up in a rhythm deficient succession of what appear to be outtakes of guitar picking, unintelligible mumblings and fractured bits of songs: the world’s most famous band seems absolutely stymied at the very concept of having to usefully occupy its time. So random and broken are the music session that the filmletitbe7 begins to resemble an unfinished jigsaw puzzle that forgiving minds might find intentional as symbolic of the group’s eventual fracturing, though the slipshod editing only makes the film feel unfinished: members will argue over minutae in playing a particular bar of music and the film cuts to an entirely different song, making the insider view absolutely meaningless. The resulting film leaves the impression that the talent involved assumed that as long as the movie is filled with wall-to-wall music- no matter how fractional -that admiring viewers would be satisfied, though only dedicated aficionados of the albums in question will be able to identify the music through all of the abbreviated segmentation. It is, however, doubtful that even admirers will find anything but frustration in the continuous self-interrupting nature of the film.

    Eventually, there are a few relatively uninterrupted (and expurgated from Spector’s later transgressive influence) performances of “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”, but these McCartney close-up heavy rendering only emphasize the controlling mindset of this particular member (evident in the way others seem to drift off when he’s talking) and the film’s heavy imbalance given him, often to the point where the film might be considered An Evening with Paul McCartney and Friends. However, the final third is a breath of fresh air (literally) as the group finally emerges from its somnambulism in a lively rooftop concert which seems to not only awaken their musicianship (which is alarmingly sloppy many of the earlier segments), but also their camaraderie and their signature sense of humorous anti-authoritarianism, as they seem rejuvenated in ignoring the bobbies who have arrived (in the film’s only unexpected and spontaneous bit of fun) to shut down what would prove to be an historic concert (it would be the group’s last in “public”).

    Which leaves the film either as a historic document or a peep show curiosity. In either case, “Let It Be” can only be truly appreciated as the cinematic equivalent of the most uninformed, confused set of liner notes an album has ever inspired. movie

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Revisit: The Colour Out of Place: “South Pacific” (1958)

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SMOG ALERT: The cast of “South Pacific” often seems either encased in amber or subject to a very smoggy L.A. afternoon with the indiscriminate use of color filters intended to “enhance” the emotional resonance of Rogers and Hammerstein’s wonderful songs; perhaps the most ill-conceived and unsuccessful example of audience manipulation since Smell-O-Vision.

       “SOUTH PACIFIC” (1958)

(Originally posted on April, 15, 2013)

The 1958 Joshua Logan film of “South Pacific” is a perfect demonstration of the value of the movie soundtrack album as a preferable experience over a film. In the former, there is much pleasure to be gained aurally without the distracting aesthetic visual offenses of the latter.

    Curiously, the film asserts the technological advances of widescreen Todd-AO and six-track sound, while simultaneously becoming a throwback to the aesthetics of the silent film; certainly a bizarre model for a musical film. In the process of producing the film, the inconceivable decision was made that the songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein were insubstantial in evoking an emotional response from the audience and therefore needed the assistance of color tinting, a common practice in the days of silent pictures with their monochromatic photography, but a supremely absurd when used in coordination with full color photography. The resulting filtering effect not only obscures the spatial clarity that is one of the hallmarks of the Todd-AO process, it creates a murky, muddy visual density that distances the viewer from what the actors are emoting, in both song and dramatic performance, as the suffocating distraction of the thermal hues- making those particular sequences look as if they’d been filmed on the surface of the Sun -exacerbate the artificiality of a film that is contradictorily shot through great logistical effort on actual tropical locations. What God has created as natural South Seas splendor, let the optical engineers at 20th Century Fox transform into the best impression of watching a film through cataracts.

    There are further problems, also aesthetic, but outside of the realm of the technological. Director Joshua Logan directs as if an imaginary, oppressive proscenium arch were inhibiting his staging of both the dramatic scenes (the scenes in Capt. Brackett’s office are especially artificial) and, more disastrously, the musical numbers, which are already burdened with the appalling filtering. Despite the limiting “clothesline” compositions of actors that were necessary for spatial focus in the earliest southpacific3Cinemascope features, the more refined anamorphic clarity of Todd-AO brings an enhanced sharpness to the cinematography that accommodates a greater opportunity for dynamic widescreen compositioning, an aptitude not readily evident in Logan’s visual vocabulary: his actors are continually placed playing directly to a consciously acknowledged fourth wall, relinquishing all illusion that they are not performing specifically to the audience and inhabiting their own three dimensional universe. However, this artificial staginess is enhanced with another yet distracting optical offense: ersatz iris shots as if the actors are swimming in a fishbowl of Vaseline, actually giving the illusion (in concert with the heavy color filtering) of a seriously deteriorated film element. Since these visual gambits are used reserved for those scenes where the romantic intensity is meant to be heightened, it appears as if the film makers lacked the confidence in their own material (an odd situation since Logan not only directed the original Broadway production, but co-authored the theatrical book as well) without bludgeoning the audience into submission. Unfortunately, the digressive techniques are so primitive, the opposite effect occurs: the audience is violently pulled out of the emotional core of the film.

    The dilution of what should be the central relationship of the film, between Navy nurse Nellie Forbush and the French-born island plantation owner Emile de Becque, continues with an unfathomable restructuring of the original theatrical plot, with the film now opening with an original extended sequence featuring the aerial arrival of Lt. Joe Cable (John Kerr, accompanied by future “Billy Jack” star Tom Laughlin) and movingsouthpacific1-e1525535693734 the original initial expository scene and songs featuring Cable, Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), Luther Billis (Ray Walston) and the Seabees. This pushes aside the initial of the set-up with the film’s two lead characters until every major character- except for Liat (France Nuyen) -is introduced, making the central romantic plot secondary to Cable’s story which has already been developed both in establishing his mission on the island and the genesis of his haunted attraction to Bali Ha’i, a paradisiacal island on which he will find the love of his life in the form of Bloody Mary’s beauteous daughtersouthpacific7 Liat. The specter of racial bigotry soon makes its presence known in the fracturing of both romantic relationships: Nellie fleeing from Emile when she discovers he had been previously married to a woman of Polynesian descent and fathered two children with her, and Cable backing away from his love affair in anticipation of the frisson such a mixed race marriage might cause within his family and their elevated Philadelphia social circles. Heartbroken, de Becque agrees to assist Cable in a dangerous reconnaissance mission on a Japanese-held island, a mission that he had previously resisted due to his love affair with Nellie.

    Based on James Michener’s collection of stories “Tales of the South Pacific”, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Seas wartime musical is a truly schizophrenic piece of theater, containing perhaps the famous duo’s score of most consistent excellence while being weighed down with an unnecessarily clunky book. The Pulitzer Prize winning show certainly grabbed the attention of the awards committees for the worn-on-the-sleeve obviousness of it’s plea for racial tolerance ( that it takes place in a war zone, a model ofsouthpacific6.jpg global intolerance, is an irony that often escapes critical assessment), a structurally wobbly plot line with its painfully forced, intrusive insertions of the “Big Theme” in the midst of sappy romance and service comedy hijinks, as if the notion of an important message dutifully pasted in the middle of the plot at certain intervals elevates all of the material to a prestigious state of profundity. However, the insoluble mixture created by the awkwardly assembled variant story elements form a narrative that stalls and restarts at regular intervals (not helped by the movie’s truly awkward segues into the songs- among the most clumsy in memory -which introduce the numbers by the foolishly incohesive decision to have the performers simply stand inertly and wait for the lengthy orchestral intros to finish cuing their songs), none of which is relieved by the blandness of casting.

    Rossano Brazzi provides no heat as Emile de Becque- his Italian accent betraying a lack of Gallic origins -who spends so much screen time absently brooding to the horizon, it is unclear whether he attempting to recall his lines or is merely posing for Easter Island statuary. Ironically, Mitzi Gaynor has the opposite problem: as Nellie Forbush, Gaynor is so full of gee-whiz effervescence she fails to engage on any deeper, mature level of complexity, reducing her role to that of a vacuously immature but smitten post-adolescent, and this leads to an almost palpable vacuum between the two lovers, who southpacific4huff and puff mightily in their respective songs (given the suffocatingly saturated atmosphere, one wishes they had the aid of oxygen masks), but fail to connect: the powerful expressions of longing in their song lyrics wouldn’t possibly emanate from either of these (as portrayed) characters; Gaynor is far more effective in her energetic rendition of “Honey Bun” (one of the few numbers that actually works, perhaps due to the fact that it is performed on a stage and therefore not subject to integration with more the problematic non-theatrical settings), her lightweight charm finding firmer ground in flirtatious giddiness rather than grand high passion. In the important role of Lt. Cable, John Kerr delivers his best impersonation of a banyan tree: both unmoved and unmoving. Only Ray Walston and Juanita Hall rise to the occasion, enlivening their respective roles with a proper nuanced balance of both humor and drama whatever the needs of the scene; both, perhaps not coincidentally, are veterans of the theatrical productions- Walston in London and Hall on Broadway, though in another of an apparently unceasing string of dubious creative decisions, her vocals are needlessly dubbed.movie

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Revisit: The Unkindest Cuts; or, How to use unchecked political correctness to victimize the very people you intend to protect: “Freaks” (1932)

 

freaks1        “FreAKs”                   (1932)

(Originally posted on Feb. 25, 2014)

     Long time the standard by which all “Golden Age” Hollywood horror films are compared for a sense of shock and gratuitous exploitation (it was released months before the decades long inception of the Production Code),freaks poster Tod Browning’s 1932 “Freaks” is actually not a film which, despite the negative fuel of its reputation, deliberately seeks to create an entirely horrific image of the circus freaks who are the source of the more startling images distributed and published in magazines and film books throughout the intervening decades in which the film’s reputation, if anything, has grown. Despite the increased availability of access to the film (for years it was almost impossible to see), the prevailing grotesque impression left by these images has skewered a balanced consideration of the film based more on the individual’s own repulsion of the “abnormal” far more than the somewhat injudiciously manufactured implications of its actual content. Divorced of the context of the Robbins’ original story and the decisions made in the adaption process, it is likely the film will be judged solely on the instinctive revulsion by which first-time viewers may enter into the film with preconceived notions that place a malignant aura about the real-life freaks of the film, rather than regarding the film through a more logical prism, as a series of misguided shifts of empathy which inevitably create many unintended transmutations from text to screen.

 

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THE CASE OF THE OPENING CRAWL: Just what is the story behind the interminably lengthy opening crawl which opens many prints of “Freaks”, taking an inordinate amount of screen time considering the abbreviated length of the film? In the 1940’s exploitation director and producer Dwain Esper, procured the distribution rights to “Freaks” from MGM, renaming the film “Forbidden Love” and later “Nature’s Mistakes” in an attempt to cash in on the film’s already sensational nature. He added the new, extensive opening crawl to the film whose intention is apparently to shed sympathy on the featured freaks but actually callously warns (in a way, a pre-William Castle shock to the anticipatory imaginations of the audience to increase nervous tension) of the horrific nature of the freaks; doing so in an hysterical manner typical of carnival sideshow hyperbole, with the resulting references to the film’s unnatural cast as “misshapen misfits”, “freaks of nature”, “unfortunate”, “the abnormal, the malformed and the mutilated”, “blunders of nature” and “the ABNORMAL and the UNWANTED”, none of which appears to be grounded in vocabulary sympathetic to the cast members of he film, but merely a new form of exploitation; which is fine if that is what Esper was clearly aspiring to, but the pretense toward a sympathetic solidarity is galling. The crawl also exploits the alterations made by Browning from Robbins‘ original text in that it emphasizes the menacing Code of the Freaks, which substantially changed the film’s initially empathetic view of the freaks into one of nightmarish horror. By this emphasis, Esper is ensuring the audience to ultimately find revulsion in the characters toward which the film confusingly spends the majority of its time in drawing audience sympathies. The fact that there is a fatal confusion of intention built into Browning’s film seems to neither bother nor interest Esper (it’s doubtful whether the problem was ever recognized by the “producer”) as long as sufficient macabre elements were retained from MGM’s apparent bowdlerization of Browning’s original cut.

   The source of the film, Tod Robbins’ 1923 short story Spurs tells the story of the heinous revenge of a very small man- both in physical size and psychological timber -the diminutive Jacques who rides the back of his loyal wolfhound St. Eustice, for the amusement of the patrons frequenting the traveling Rollo’s circus. Jacques is bewitched by the bareback rider Jeanne Marie and entices the beauty into betrothal by revealing he has recently become heir to a sizable fortune. Her plans to wait for what she assumes will be a premature death meets with her own impatience, and on during her wedding banquet she abuses Jacques with derisive vocal offenses which inflame Jacques to the point of pathological vengeance. The story skips forwards a year where a knock on the door of Simon Lafleur’s door introduces a haggard woman, who as it turns out is none other than the same Jeanne Marie, who in the intervening year has undergone a shocking transformation, both physical and psychological; suffering an unrelenting and torturous revenge at the hands of Jacques, whose unappeased wrath over her wedding day insult has caused him to devise a punishment by forcing his bride to literally become a person of her word.

      It is an uncomplicated, nasty little story that has all of the elements for an interesting film translation, though what resulted at the hands of director Tod Browning and the executive class of MGM under the leadership of Irving Thalberg was an entirely different story than the one penned by Robbins (the opening credits openly announce the film is “suggested” by the story) and it is these differences where the controversy lies, though, as previously stated, the intention by Browning was not to use the real-life freaks in an exploitative manner, and if the film had followed the original story with greater fidelity as far as the characterization of the circus freaks are concerned, it would have remained a potent tale of revenge, while avoiding the existent elements of the collectively monstrous, and limiting any evil inclinations squarely between Jeanne Marie and Jacques.

      The greatest and most significant alteration (the script is rife with dramatic changes from the original text, though this is the game changer) is an insistence on an unbroken fidelity between all of the circus freaks (and by implication, all abnormally formed individuals): the so-called Code of the Freaks; a philosophic bent mentioned casually, at first, and later becoming an almost feral and menacing alarum of “ONE OF US!”, a call for mindless solidarity which eschews the rules and laws of “normal” society and enjoins a vengeance-based protectorate agenda exclusive to themselves.  It is made clear in Robbins‘ story from the very first, there is as equal a division between Jacquesfreaks3 and his fellow freaks- he is despised as an egoist and regarded as selfishly disagreeable – as there is between the midget and characters based in the normal world. The story truly embraces, despite the physical abnormalities, the sameness of the freaks with those who are normal by a resistance to pandering and condescension and instead affording them the luxury of asserting their own individuality. Jacques is an unlikeable, boorish and sadistic character not through any physical affliction, but simply because that is his character. This is a generosity afforded by the author which presumes that if a normal person can be a jerk, so might the same opportunity afford itself to a midget. Equally, the other freaks are given equal opportunity to evoke their own personal pleasures and shortcomings (conceit, pride, jealousy) to complimentary effect which has the effect of minimizing the regarding of the characters solely through their physical appearances while advancing a comforting banal normalcy to their humanity.

      This is a truly democratic perspective toward the characters which Browning undermines with his forced attempts at eliciting sympathy for the freaks (while constructing an entirely unconvincing explanation for their collective revenge), by first emphasizing their timidity in social environs while simultaneously exploiting a core of coarseness through many, though- importantly -not most of the film’s principle characters. (With the exception of Cleopatra and Hercules, there seems to be no inclinations expressed to bring harm to any of the freaks, and any negativity seems to assert itself in the form of workplace taunting- though often at the provocation of Hercules.) Those who treat the freaks withfreaks5 kindness are summarily forgotten at the end of the film (How the maternal and protective Madame Tetrallini [Rose Dione]– whose character also seems fated with suspicious narrative abbreviation -reacts during the climactic assault is never addressed.) and the developing relationships between all but Hans, Hercules and Cleopatra are also incomprehensibly severed from any  completion of their narrative threads. Browning cannot possibly intend a last minute resuscitation of audience empathy toward the duplicitous lovers, who in the entire film have demonstrated not a note of humanity (and are served up with individual examples of performance gracelessness by Olga Baclanova and Henry Victor that border on the felonious) yet with the collective revenge of the freaks (none of whom thinks to tell of Cleopatra’s scheme to either a friendly ear within the circus community nor the authorities) become the titular figures of injustice, at whom the entire freak community feels compelled to put aside its asserted humanity and descend into barbarous violence. It is important to recall- though the film completely fails to address this point -that Cleopatra and Hercules’ plot to kill Hans is greed driven and has no bearing on Hans’ being a midget; a fact not considered by the film, but become  another issue of inconsistency in the adaptation process. When the freaks scream their mantra of “One of us!” in celebratory delight during the wedding feast Hans and Cleopatra, we are witness to the extension of the Code to now include the “normal” trapeze artist as she has agreed to legal union with the midget provocateur, but we are not apprised as to whether this dispensation has been granted for the first time, or if this is standard operating procedure, with Roscoe also being considered “one of us” (as perhaps in the film’s pendulous view of abnormality, his stutter may alone qualify him a citizen’s spot in the land of freakdom), nor if the sympathetic treatment given the sideshow attractions by Madame Tertallini, Venus and Phroso is only a partial protection against the unbridled frenzy of the freaks unleashed; a tacked-on final sequence in which Venus and Phroso reunite Frieda with the stinking rich but now guilt ridden Hans swings the film again in an opposite direction of sympathy as Hans is now supposed to be considered the grief stricken cuckold, the film entirely dismissing the fact that he is the one who initiated the night of revenge in the first place. Nor does this bizarre finale explain why Frieda would still be romantically loyal to someone who so ill used her (And does not Hans’ initial betrayal of Frieda for Cleopatra not count as a breach of the Code of the Freaks,  or does one have to be “normal” to enjoy violent retaliation?) nor why the previously sensible Phroso and Venus would be complicit in this morally gamey “happy” ending? (As if the fact that Frieda and Hans are portrayed by real-life siblings Daisy and Harry Earle weren’t uncomfortable enough- though this circumstance could explain the peculiar reticence sometimes present during scenes of Frieda’s romantic longing for Hans) Finally, if the carnival barker bookending the drama acknowledges the freaks’ complicity in the fates of Hercules and Cleopatra, what was the response of lawful authority?

       To fairly judge the film, even in the forced state of alteration from Tod Browning’s original intentions, before the studio caved to the whims of panicked and ignorant test marketing traditions, the film initially sought to turn the freaks into the victims of the piece, yet, ironically, due to the calculated but morally inconsistent shifts in empathy taken in the adaptive process, this is the antithesis what occurs. Browning, whose supposed mastery and ease with macabre elements in his silent features is belied by his tepid handling of his most famous production, 1930’s “Dracula” (which is one of the American cinema’s most unjustly praised “classics”, outside of the presence of Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, and an effective and atmospheric opening reel which suggests a greater fidelity to the source novel than the turgid stage adaptation which was used as the basis for the rest of the film’s limp drawing room non-action), though in “Freaks”,  once the initial clutter and confused introduction of characters has been established (this may be a result of one third of the film being removed, and may also explain the existing staggering gaps in exposition) Browning appears to settle into a purposeful, surprisingly nuanced (considering the flamboyant material and backdrop) evocation of society within the circus personnel- most of whom, in outside “normal” society would themselves probably be considered “freakish”; the first two-thirds of the film unfolding in a complex but unhurried manner in which several thematically interwoven parallel story lines progress, all concerning the development of budding romance amid the often lurid atmosphere of the traveling circus, though the casual pace at which the narrative unfolds betrays later serious truncations of character and incident. However, at this stage, Browning is carefully building his narratives as differing angles of the same mirror: the first with a pair who are normal- bothfreaks4 physically and psychologically -the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) whose wisdom and emotional support of the lovely Venus (Leila Hyams) satisfyingly blossoms into an initially shyly tentative and later open show of love (a rare moment of genuine humanity expressed in the giddy moment of their spontaneous first kiss); a second pair who blend the worlds of the physically normal and that of the freaks, in the witty and bizarre romantic triangle that asserts itself with circus performer Roscoe (Roscoe Ates) and his paramour, the charming Daisy (Daisy Hilton), one-half of a pair of conjoined pair of Siamese twins, with other half represented by Violet (Violet Hilton) with whom Roscoe is engaged in a continuous amusing, familial bickering; and then there is the central triangular relationship of the film: between Hans, Cleopatra and Hercules.

   The film version of this last entanglement presents a greater subterfuge on the part of the two “normal” characters, by advancing their willingness to remove Hans from his wealth through merely “anticipating” the brevity of the midget’s life, to immediate act of murderous intent by attempting to poison Hans at his own wedding celebration. This action which results in the malignant unification of the freaks as a violent band  (which is contrary to their portrayal in the story, where they not only universally despised Jacques/Hans, but also reduced the wedding party to a chaotic melee due to the drunken expressions of their own individual egoisms)  is an unqualified reversal of how the sideshow freaks have been portrayed. Up to this point, until the set piece wedding celebration and climactic revengeful comeuppance, they are mainly inserted as exotically decorous but benign props in a rather tawdry, reconceived narrative of backstage carnival melodrama, which fails to engage in any meaningfully dramatic way, especially when it is apparent the film is just waiting to unleash its malformed cast in the infamous finale.

      The visual style of the film changes in these final minutes, with the horrific nature of the freaks now assured through a skillful manipulation of a full director’s bag of tricks: dramatic shifts in framing perspectives, lighting and editing. The nocturnal thunderstorm in which the freak’s attack takes place is in direct contrast with the quietude in which the rest of the film unfolds; a curious circumstance given the almost chaotic atmosphere almost guaranteed by the operation of a traveling circus. (The film is also underwhelmingly populated- where are the spectators? -as if the intrusion of “outsiders” might break the spell of the fantastique were the outside world given too great a presence.) During the stormy assault, the film takes a heavily gothic route consistent with the horror style developed at Universal just prior to and concurrent with the production of “Freaks”; certainly a commercial influence (along with Browning’s participation) that initiated Thalberg’s attraction to getting his own piece of the horror market masterminded by Universal’s Carl Laemmle Jr.

      But by having his objects of sympathy reverting to a collective homicidal presence, Browning completely undermines the entirety of his film’s content up to that point, and its pointed pleas for empathetic acceptance of his sideshow denizens, especially an early scene in which Madame Tetrallini and her charges finding sympathy with a landowner on whose property they are frolicking, made significant by her reference to her wards as “children”.  Certainly the audience is given fair warning as to the Code of the Freaks in a rather perfunctory opening scene which act as the first half of a wraparound structure imposed on the film after its initial screenings. It is here where a sideshow guide initially advises “their code is a law unto themselves… offend one and you offend them all.” This is a message entirely at odds with Robbins’ source material in which the freaks are depicted as socially independent of one another’s concerns as much as would be a group of “normal” people. By placing all of the antagonistic eggs in one basket, Browning backs his story up against an intractable narrative wall in which there is no action possible except as a collective response.

      However, to reach the point where thematically contrary violent retaliation becomes necessary, it is also essential for Hans- who at the start of the film is shown to be attuned to insult which he reacts to with practiced intolerance -to become oblivious to everything taking place around him; a convenient shift in character that is both unbelievable (again, why the earlier examples of  anger, if he later absorbs greater insults?) and patently convenient to allow the extended poisoning of the midget by Cleopatra. For Hans to ignore every warning sign as to the devious intentions in Cleopatra marrying him, not only destroys the character’s credibility, but actually makes him an even greater heel, by his rebuffing of his original fiancée, the equally diminutive Frieda who is treated indifferently by Hans and thus becomes an unsympathetic character who uses Cleopatra for his own personal ascension (as he sees it) to the world of the “normal”. The impractical tug and pull between Robbins’ clean narrative and the film’s entirely confused moral view opens a simple piece of storytelling into an abyss of labyrinthine contradictions and unexplainable loose threads.

  All things considered, if there were any sincere intention to make “Freaks” a film sympathetic to his featured sideshow attractions, then Browning displays an uncanny misunderstanding of thematic constancy. Regardless of the forced exclusions, alternations and revisions done to the film after its now legendary disastrous pre-release public viewings, revisions that reduced the film by a full third of its intended running time, it is clear from the resulting film that Browning’s intentions of sympathetic treatment toward the freaks was in direct contravention to the need for a more visually sensational climax than the creeping dread of progressive and unceasing enforced agonies as featured in the original story. Ironically, for the sake of immediate visceral jolts, the makers of “Freaks” sacrificed a far more horrifying and classically structured tale than the muddled, confused and inconsistent quilt of a film left after initial false “artistic” courage was abnegated by later “commercial” cowardice. In “Freaks”, it is not the midgets who are small as much as the film maker’s vision.

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To read the original Tod Robbins story Spurs on which “Freaks is based, simply click the following link to: http://www.olgabaclanova.com/spurs.htm

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Revisit: A Report On the Desert and Its Guests: “Tarantula” (1955)

          “Tarantula”  (1955)

(Originally posted on Dec. 24, 2011)

  The film opens intriguingly with a mutated figure painfully wandering the desert until fatally collapsing; buzzards ominously circling overhead. Already before the opening credits, director Jack Arnold has established the seeds of a mystery which will lay the foundation for some subtle tinkering with the  rapidly established conventions of 1950’s Atomic Age science fiction cinema. In this context of this seemingly innocuous pre-title scene, Arnold illustrates the film’s thematic duality: the quietude of the natural environment (Nature) intruded upon by Man (Science) who corrupts that environment, setting in motion the most elemental survival mechanisms with which Nature re-balances itself. In many ways, it is Shelley’s Modern Prometheus theme all over again (as most Earthbound SF inescapably tends to be) within the framework of a B-picture, that rises above it’s minimalist genre foundations into an interesting meditation on the reliability of the outwardly rational Scientific mind.

   Jack Arnold was a marvel as gathering disparate elements from the genre cliché catalog and investing them with novel levels of narrative and character nuance that magnified the appearance of richness in even the most threadbare scenarios. Even a cursory look at the exquisite balletic lagoon swim sequence between Julia Adams and the monster in “Creature From the Black Lagoon” with its subtext of eroticism spanning prehistoric eons, demonstrates that Arnold is interested in far more than simply by-the-numbers matinee spook show thrills. His masterwork, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” takes the context of

While Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) surveys the beauty of the desert, sexy lab assistant Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton (Mara Corday) surveys him.

the film’s SF themes to a logical extension where the horrifying journey the protagonist Scott Carey has taken is seen as only the beginning of both a physical state of oblivion and a spiritual state of Grace in which Man divines his true place in the Cosmos. Never before had a “b-movie” been so imbued with such a radical foundation in the philosophic.

   With the 1955 film “Tarantula”, Arnold creates the apotheosis for 1950’s Atom Age big bug gigantism, as it not only satisfies the requirements of the genre suspense elements with impressive economy, it also intelligently incubates themes which surreptitiously leap well past the formulaic characteristics of the genre. Unlike most of its antecedents including the seminal “Them!” and the Harryhausen enhanced “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms”, “Tarantula” approaches the era’s atomic paranoia in unusual directions of moral complexity. Typically this genre of thriller is based on a self-effacing conceptual principle in which the hero is portrayed as a man of science (usually ably assisted by either or both a perky, oversexed female assistant or fellow scientist, and/or a military authority) who works furiously to find a technological solution to impending destruction, but is also a member of the same scientific community which must ultimately assume responsibility for unleashing the menace in the first place; Atomic bomb testing being a favorite scapegoat in these films, even to the point of being derided by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1955’s “It Came From Beneath the Sea” with the dismissive, “H-bombs have been blamed for every freak accident that’s happened since, up to and including marine monsters being disturbed.” Since the advent of nuclear technology, the machineries of Science have increasingly perplexed and frightened a suspicious public, especially in the post-War years where such technologies were advanced by the American Government to ferment Cold War anxieties with the idea that at any moment such devices could be used against the average American by our political enemies. Naturally, the harbingers of such breakthroughs would be looked upon with suspicion, even while they were granted the somewhat contradictory role of the savior. However, there is a new twist in Arnold’s film as the root cause of the menace may still be linked to radioactivity, but here the intentions of the experimentation are altruistic, not destructively militaristic. Still, it does follow the pattern of the Frankenstein legacy with a man of science intruding into the realm of Godlike control over his environs, though unlike the scientists of past films, Leo G. Carroll’s Professor Deemer is not “mad” but truly an idealistic man of science, who is attempting a breakthrough in cheaply produced nutrients to stave off the famine he sees will inevitably occur from world overpopulation, but naive (almost to the point of deliberation) to the possible side effects of artificially altering the balance of Nature.

   It is Nature itself which is depicted as the combative antagonist, with the giant tarantula merely as a representative surrogate for the untamed forces of the natural world. (It is never explained why in testing his formula Deemer would use a tarantula, except out of sheer screenplay contrivance. One only has to regard the poor example of “Night of the Lepus” to convince that giant lab rabbits are a poor substitute in generating thrills in the SF/horror field.) In this context, the desert backdrop serves a multiple function, as a setting of inhibiting geographic isolation and as a source of the profound mysteries of unknowable natural history both wondrous and dangerous. There are several occasions in the film in which these very characteristics are made pointedly clear in expository dialogue. In the first scene Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar), referring to a new birth, speaks of the romantic nature of the setting, saying: “It’s the desert. Gives people wonderful ideas.”

   Later on in conversation with lab assistant “Steve” Clayton, he reinforces the view of desert as both Nurturer and Nemesis, a source of both awe and trepidation-

Steve: “No wonder you love the desert, it’s so beautiful.”

Matt:  “Everything that ever walked or crawled on the face of the Earth, swam the depths of the ocean, soared through the skies, left it’s imprint here.”

And later, when Steve inquires about the desert view from the air-

Matt: “It’s like something from another life, serenely quiet, yet strangely evil as if it were hiding it’s secrets from Man.”

Steve: “You make it sound so…so creepy.”

Matt: “The unknown always is.”

   This is a significant statement, as Matt Hastings himself is a man of science, though he self-deprecatingly calls himself “a country doctor” in comparison to the more esteemed Prof. Deemer, yet he displays a far more sensible view of the fragile links between the scientific and both its ennobling and possibly destructive effects on the community. Deemer, on the other hand, represents what is meant to be the elite of the scientific community. Whereas Hastings works within a communal building in the heart of the town, freely socializing with fellow members of the community, Deemer is isolated, living in a large house surrounded by the barren landscape in which he unknowingly unleashes the deadly spawn resulting from his experimentation. Hastings openly concedes mystification at the peculiarities within the narrative- (as in this dialogue following a mysterious rock slide)

Steve: “Something must have started it.”

Matt: “You can’t second guess the desert. Rocks that have stayed for a thousand years… they just move. There’s no figuring it.”

– while Deemer professes a complete understanding of the film’s unexplained phenomena , despite the fact that he is knowingly obscuring facts of the questioned happenings in the service of advancing his personal agendas.

   In essence, the polarities of the scientific mind are laid bare as obstinate counterpoints eventually leading to the film’s climactic collision. Deemer as the remote symbol of scientific efficiency, works for the theoretical benefit of Mankind as long as it coincides within the boundaries of his self-constructed view of intellectual (and thus, in his view, moral)  superiority. The workaday Hastings is a man of science as healing physician, directly applying his scientific knowledge in active, not theoretical, benefit to the community.

   The two main threads of the film’s story- the story of Professor Deemer and his attempts at nutrient development, and that of Hasting’s following the trail of arcane clues left in the wake of Deemer’s mutated arachnid progeny (which, significantly, the Professor assumes was destroyed in a lab fire)- are bridged by a  third narrative line following the budding romantic attraction between Hastings  and Deemer’s new lab assistant, the formulaically necessary sexy female, Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday). It is through their rather charming courtship that the disparate threads of the film’s mysteries begin to clarify themselves. The role of Steve is happily more advanced than the average SF feminine appendage, as she compliments the development of both Deemer’s humanistic and Hasting’s philosophical character facets, as well as acting as a happy medium between the two combative viewpoints toward science. On the one hand, she is an enthusiastic contributor is Deemer’s research, equally as enamored of his academic standing as is Nester Paiva’s rather thick town sheriff- who by his concession to the Professor’s status has allowed events to blindly unravel out of control- but is also graced with the candor of a more pragmatic view (unlike Deemer’s arrogant blindness) which allows her to concede a most important point about the experimental nutrient, that “when unstable, it’s been known to be deadly”; an important bit of information that oddly generates no investigative curiosity from Hastings. Steve also is the only character to make inquiries about a former assistant to Deemer, a Paul Lund, who figures importantly in the film’s development- and Demmer’s impending mortality – and is the catalyst for Deemer’s behavior to finally cross over into criminal behavior.

   For a film about the nature of science to Man, the actual science is fairly slipshod- an expected, though unwelcome characteristic of virtually all science fiction films. It is never adequately explained how a dangerous radioactive isotope can be used as a binding and triggering agent for the nutrient without being fatal to its living hosts, nor is there much adherence to genuine physical laws of science, though this is especially indicative of the entire genre of giant monster films as they are a breach of the very idea of the square-cube law. Or the fact that the immense arachnid is impervious (as are all of the 1950’s beasts of mutated proportions) to not only high explosive charges but high voltage electrical charges as well. (This is always explained away in Gojira films as the daikaiju having natural armored plating, though the last time observed, tarantulas are not so opulently equipped.)

   For a film of a meager running time of 81 minutes, its multiple story threads unfold at an unhurried yet tightly constructed pace, Arnold displaying a mastery of uncomplicated, streamlined storytelling, ably assisted by a tight scenario by  Robert M. Fresco & Martin Berkeley which, as previously mentioned, accentuates telling character developments supportive of the philosophical underpinnings of the story while intelligently paring down the specific characteristics of this specialized genre to its essential components. The cast, filled with familiar studio roster players, acquaints itself admirably with a genuinely appealing, though happily unsentimentally developed chemistry emerging between Agar and Corday. Clifford Stine’s special effects creations, an interesting mix of live action and perfectly matched miniatures are impressively realized, a superior enactment of the giant bug illusion than its counterpart in the seminal and much lauded “Them!”.

   A solid, smart little thriller approachable by anyone not prejudiced by its surface drive-in, B-picture roots.

Posted in clint eastwood, Drive-In Movies, Jack Arnold films, movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, Romance, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Revisit: The Days of Living Dangerously: “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932)

   “The Most Dangerous Game”  (1932)

(Originally posted on Dec, 24, 2011)

    When adapting a literary work, filmmakers are presented with a daunting list of problems not always easy to surmount. Being mindful of the original materials, the adapter must judiciously snip and paste together a generalization of the printed work, and in keeping with the nature of film, often substitute a visual idea for what was internally expressed in the text. Interior monologues may become voice overs, or more precariously, a visual which must carry the thematic foundation of the intentions of the scene as envisioned by the original author. It is a weighty process, and rarely accomplished with complete success. This is not necessarily a reflection of the ultimate capabilities of the adapter (or adapters, as it increasingly becomes something of a team effort) but of the nature of the source material and how it may react in, for the lack of a better phrase, “going Hollywood”. Are novels, especially lengthy tomes such as “Anna Karenina” or “The Brothers Karamazov” by the very nature of their density of substance (disregarding the artistry of the writing itself) practical subjects for the visual Cliff Notes process? What is the proper format for more practicality in the process of cinema adaptation? The novella, the play, the short story? Or is this an impractical discussion, for is the intimately personal “voice” of the author always a more formidable obstacle than the form in which it takes?  Is there legitimacy- outside of the desire to exploit a particular literary property – to altering a story to fit the technical limitations of the motion picture? (This is assuming that we agree that the reading experience provides limitless resources when engaged with the active imagination.) Or must we concede that any act of alteration is an inevitable reduction of the original material? Can  even a brief short story, containing the skeletal outline for a motion picture be effectively carried to this entirely foreign medium and be reconfigured to retain its most consequential elements? And if not, why bother in the first place if the resulting film is a destructive reduction of a worthy vehicle? Or is the cinema better off beholden to the original scenario specifically conceived with cinematic translation in mind; although is not the written script developed in such a way as to concede to a more limited visual vocabulary, and thus condemned to continue to be an act of creative compromise?

   In adapting Richard Connell’s celebrated short story “The Most Dangerous Game” there is not a question of judicious exclusion (at less than 8500 words, the story is far too brief to necessitate the use of editorial pruning shears) but of expansion sensitive to the philosophical musings at the heart of the tale. Retaining the trichotomous structure as written by Connell, the first two sections of the story are literal recitations of reasoned, yet equally arrogant, perspectives on the nature of hunting prey, but approaches an important point of philosophical antagonism when the views expressed by General Zaroff travel beyond Rainsford’s rationale and this paradoxical turn causes Zaroff to initiate the third section of the story: the hunt, in which both characters’ skills are put to the fullest test. The irony of this third section is that while Rainsford fends off the encroaching progress of Zaroff, he does so with the use of skills brought to bear from experiences on his own hunting expeditions. Is the lesson here that the killer may only be equipped to survive being the victim, if he himself experienced the kill before? The story ends with a final line that is both chilling in its immediacy (we are spared an important fatalistic climax to get to this point) and a haunting ambiguity as to its insinuated interpretation. Has Rainsford succumbed, even momentarily to a modicum of the cold homicidal serenity of his pursuer, finding an untroubled satisfaction in this particular conclusion of events?

   The antipathy of attitudes becomes clear in the second section of the story where General Zaroff explains the nature of his testing his skills in hunting against captive men, to which Rainsford argues:

   “I’m a hunter, not a murderer.” In response, Zaroff coldly reasons:

   “Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and if needs be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure.”

   This statement, rather than appearing contradictory, actually coincides with a statement by Rainsford in the opening scene of the story. In discussion with Whitney on the deck of the yacht, Rainsford displays his dismissive arrogance by responding to Whitney’s concerns as to the nature of the suffering endured by the hunter’s prey with:

   “The world is made up of two classes– the hunter and the hunted.”

   What is especially interesting about this dynamic clash is the profusion of similarities between the two characters. That each is similar in views on killing is quite clear, with the distinctive separation of degrees with which the character follows their own philosophy. Both clearly regard their view as a truism; the difference distinguishing- in Rainsford’s eyes- as Zaroff viewing the world subjectively, while Rainsford would view with a vision of objective truth. But that is a moral naivete on Rainsford’s part, as they both similarly view the word through a subjective view; though in Rainsford’s case, it is a personal code of morality which excludes certain  creatures (humans), altering his philosophy as an absolute. Zaroff is the more honest of the two, not allowing for the absurdity of reservations within the kill instinct. The fulcrum of the dissent lies in Zaroff’s characterization of the “most dangerous game”: (The very title of the story a clever play on words, luxurious with meanings.) that animal which has the ability to “reason”. Reason, as clarified in this story, is a characteristic of superiority, but it’s also an innate weakness, as it clouds the mind with moral doubt. An advantage, no doubt appreciated and capitalized on by Zaroff, whose own character is strengthened by the absence of moral doubt, which by all rights might categorize him as insane. However, it is clear the two hunters represent two poles of one mind separated by miniscule degrees. It is that separating point that is of interest and through the surface mechanics of an adventure story, the climactic chase in particular, where both the reader’s and characters views are equally tested.

   Now, consider the effect of alterations to this precarious balancing act; what distortions to the intent of the original tale might arise? Happily many of the editorial alterations brought to the story in the process of “going Hollywood” are sensible in the service of humanizing the more strident elements of Rainsford’s character. Severely damaging is the intrusive addition of a female character in what was otherwise strictly a male adventure. This is a significant change, on one hand it would appear to deepen the chasm between the two characters: as Rainsford now has an additional moral obligation to protect his female charge  from Zaroff’s perversely announced ministrations as well as grapple for his own survival, and it extends the motives of Zaroff for a bonus of a helpless woman as sexual trophy as a tribute to his now exposed carnal depravity. On the other hand, this is studio cosmetology at it’s most banal, and ruinous to the finely crafted thematic focus of Connell’s work. Hollywood’s dependence on aberrative sexual impulses as a source of violent action has been an overused device over the years, often completely fueling entire genres such as horror films and film noir, and often appears as a convenient scapegoat for writing that would require more intelligent introspection.

   Much of this detracts from the purpose of the original story; certainly from its focus.  First of all, the inclusion of a woman, into what was up to this point a gender specific tale, dilutes the direct frisson between Rainsford and Zaroff, distracting from the immediate philosophical breach which is at the heart of the story, and threatening to cheapen the situation into a woman in peril scenario. Though disguised as a tale indistinguishable by less adventurous readers from a pulp thriller, there is far more to Connell’s story. And while the essence of the story remains intact in the film, the focus is incongruously yanked askew, reducing the meaning of the final hunt segment into simply a jungle chase. (Though admittedly, this entire sequence is breathlessly rendered at the peak of craftsmanship.) So to, the finale feels peculiarly anticlimactic; odd for a film of such pronounced brevity. It begs to put a more human face on what could otherwise be seen as a cold technical exercise between two instinctive killers.

   There are additional alterations that merit attention as well. The opening sequence of the story, taking place on the deck of the yacht,  transpires between only Rainsford and his companion Whitney, while in the film we are audience to a half a dozen or more characters, many of whom are conversing over cognac. This is an important change in the story and one that actually smartly enhances the themes of the original story. The conversation among Rainford’s companions not only reveals a fair amount of important fair expository information about the young hunter, it even more importantly identifies Rainsford as a member of the  rarefied privileged class  (important as it  the initial bond between Rainsford and Zaroff- here identified not as a General as in the original story, but a Count) a societal strata that further removes the tale from the bounds of reality as perceived by the audience (remember, this was released at the height of the Depression) who might see the tale as a cruel fantasy world inhabited by the unapproachable upper classes. One flawed alteration in dialogue, appreciably changes the philosophy of Rainsford from the original text: instead of expressing: “The world is made up of two classes– the hunter and the hunted”, the line has been changed to “There are two kinds of people, the hunter and the hunted.” This is an extremely significant change as it suggests that Rainsford would entertain the notion of a man being the subject of a hunt, when, in fact, the entire film is a demonstration of his renunciation of just such a mindset.

   The opening sequence is subject to an important alteration in the original text, one which is actually a vast improvement over  Connell’s version, and that is the method of entrapment of Rainsford on the island. In the original story, Rainsford, accidentally drops his pipe over the side of the ship and falls overboard trying to retrieve it; an action that is the height of writer’s convenience and not a particularly believable action, whereas in the film version, the ship is deliberately run aground and is destroyed due to deliberately misleading buoys set up by Zaroff, thus already demonstrating the evil efficiency with which the protagonist operates in order to fulfill his quota of prey. (Otherwise, he would be at the mercy of clumsy people on boats falling overboard in his general vicinity; not a particularly productive means to an end.)

   Befitting the brevity of the original story, the running time of the film is a mere 63 minutes, a seemingly streamlined happy translation of Connell’s work, eliminating the usual Hollywood baggage of excessive extraneous exposition in favor of a tight narrative, when in fact, some apparent Tinseltown flab was unavoidable; the problematic addition to the story’s roster is the inclusion of the two extra characters on the island, Fay Wray’s Eve and her drunken brother Martin. Except to instill a sexually aberrative note into Zaroff’s obsession ( which speaks more of Hollywood’s continued confusion of the primal sexual impulse being inseparable from the instincts of violent primitivism, than Connell’s original conception) there is no compelling argument to be made for either character’s presence in the film. Certainly not the aggravatingly banal antics of the drunken Martin, whose entire character seems mistakenly impressed from a reel from a second-tier high society comedy. Offering no discernible contribution to the narrative, Robert Armstrong’s presence can only be explained, as perhaps can Wray’s as an opportunity to keep both performers engaged until the production of “King Kong” was readied for production. Wray’s performance betrays her roots in silent film which she doesn’t seem able to shake as her performance is continually punctuated by the type of stilted, swooning posturing that was embarrassing in the most primitive of heroine-tied-to-train-trestle serials.

   Joel McCrea fares well as the adventurous Bob Rainsford (inexplicably renamed from the original Sanger Rainsford), bringing a likeability to a character who, even though he is the target of a greater evil’s machinations, could have been perceived not only as a professional stalker with a core of heartlessness, but also as an elitist. Physically, he is outstanding for the role, reminiscent in many scenes as a counterpart to such period pulp fictional characters as Kenneth Robeson’s Doc Savage. His nemesis (now) Count Zaroff is handsomely played by Leslie Banks who casts malevolent shadings onto otherwise innocent occasions of formality and elegant politeness. His Zaroff is an accomplished realization of  Connell’s protagonist, until the psychosexual manifestations brought with the scenarist’s alterations begin transforming a uniquely interesting character living by a code of self-created moral absolutes, into a figure tinged with motivations reminiscent of the average Hollywood b-movie creep show villainy. The suggestion, in James Ashmore Creelman’s otherwise trenchant adaptation, that Zaroff’s hunting instincts find their ultimate reward in a rape conquest of a female guest is a ludicrous characterization, unfounded in any passage of Connell’s fine story. The shared direction of Irving Pichel, whose participation was mainly in the form of the dialogue director, and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who would subsequently show similar skills in breathlessly paced adventure with the next year’s “King Kong”, (using many of the same production resources as this film, including the famous fallen tree ravine setting) is seamless, with only one awkwardly staged sequence being a climactic bout of fisticuffs which is acrobatic almost to the point of exaggerated comedy. The deliberately truncated finale of the story is changed to show the almost casual exit of Rainsford and Eve as Zaroff rather melodramatically falls mortally wounded into the clutches of his hounds; a rather anti-climactic ending for a generally razor-sharp, spirited thriller with profound thematic implications, that could have been better served by attending to the abbreviated but powerful closing (and line) of the original text.

   Keeping in mind that a written tale will be experienced by the most powerful adaptive resource ever conceived- the human imagination- sometimes, no matter how bravely one meets the challenge of adaptation, the result can never match the impact of the original story.movie

Posted in books, fay wray, movie reviews, Movies, Pre-Code Movies, Reviews, short stories, women, writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Revisit: Poe in the Cinema: “Histoires Extraordinares” (1968)

“Histoires Extraordinaires”  (1968)

(Originally posted on July 12, 2010)

   The cinema is rife with literary adaptations and the works of Edgar Allan Poe have fared surprisingly well as a good number of films have captured, if not the essence then the spirit of the writer. Considering Poe essentially limited his fictional output to short stories and poems- many are internal character meditations, unpromising works for faithful cinematic translation- they represent daunting sources for easily expanded visual narratives. But the rare filmmaker is often remarkably resourceful, thus a work that may describe a limiting allegorical incident (“Pit and the Pendulum”) may be transposed into a formidable horror vehicle, pregnant with thematic associations from a wide field of the author’s works. Then again, hackery may be afoot.

    “Histoires Extraordinares” (U.S. title: “Spirits of the Dead”) is a tripartite anthology of adaptations taken from the lesser-known works of Poe, directed by three of the most notable European directors of the 1960’s. The first segment, “Metzengerstein”, directed by Roger Vadim, concerns a sadistic libertine named Countess Frederica , awkwardly portrayed by then-Mrs. Vadim Jane Fonda as if she were searching the sets for any hint of direction. Frederica spends her waking hours tormenting her staff and guests until she becomes infatuated with her morally chaste cousin Wilhelm. (Uncomfortably cast with Fonda’s real-life brother Peter!) As the tragedy of the tale unfolds it is clear that the story is ill-suited for the coarse sensualist Vadim who, instead of developing a satisfying cinematic equivalent to Poe’s text, turns his segment into a ludicrous anti-erotic fashion show (replete with stiffly posed orgiastic tableaux) featuring the unfortunate Mrs. Vadim flouncing about in a different Barbarella outfit in, literally, every shot. This tale of spiritual degeneration is quickly reduced by the vulgarian director into a sniggery wallow in arrested sexual excess, with Ms. Fonda evidently less concerned with her immortal soul, than, as befitting the paucity of her wardrobe, the debilitating effects of drafts.

    The second segment fares somewhat better only in that the director Louis Malle displays a modicum of respect for his source material, “William Wilson”, featuring Alain Delon in the title role, a contumacious hedonist haunted by a doppelganger. The story unfolds proficiently but distantly, (a miscalculation of tone that the segment never recovers from) perfectly mirroring Delon’s disconsolate performance, until the story tepidly arrives at it’s obvious and telegraphed conclusion. An extended gambling sequence featuring Brigitte Bardot contributes little dramatically except to prove that she swallows with great distinction.

    Which leaves the third and best segment: Frederico Fellini’s “Toby Dammit”, based on the satirical story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head”. Brilliantly photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno, in Fellini’s adaptation Toby is transformed into a famous (and famously degenerate) actor who is suffering an apocalyptic burnout. Travelling to Rome to star in a Wild West retelling of the story of Christ, Dammit arrives metaphorically (and emotionally) already dead; willingly teetering on the precipice of Hell. In the airport terminal he hallucinates a welcoming but sinister young girl (his evocation of the Devil) playing with a ball; an apparition he clearly has seen before. Outside the terminal, the sky is suffused with sulfurous swirls of orange and red (the exterior of Toby’s airline flight was similarly saturated) as if the atmosphere has been ignited with brimstone, and Toby, as played by the intensely magnetic Terence Stamp, is joyously resigned to his inevitable descent into the fiery abyss. In this unlikely context, Fellini unleashes his full smorgasbord of satirical jabs- religion, television, women, celebrity- and a magical symbiosis occurs, welding Poe’s textual themes with Fellini’s flamboyant directorial designs to create an unprecedented portrait of psychic implosion: a stunning array of psychogenic mise-en-scenes proliferate with enticing succubus and mocking phantasmagoria. This is the film where the great director forever relinquished any adherence to realistic narrative. As visualized, Toby’s very existence becomes a dream-state but it is only Fellini’s felicity of wit that prevents the viewer from experiencing that mindscape as an unrelenting nightmare. The film concludes with Toby’s prolonged journey through a labyrinthine purgatory that builds with simultaneous discomfort and comic tension until unleashing into the logical (and frankly, much improved) conclusion to Poe’s tale. Poe’s humor becomes Fellini’s comic hysteria in what is- ignoring the initial two segments as disappointing historical curiosities- one of the most innovative acts of creative filmmaking of the Sixties.movie

Posted in books, Brigitte Bardot, Edgar Allan Poe, Federico Fellini, horror, movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, Roger Vadim | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Revisit: Where Dreams Go Bad: “Westworld” (1973)

              “Westworld”  (1973)

(Originally posted on Nov. 11, 2011)

    Novelist Michael Crichton’s directorial debut “Westworld” encompasses his usual cautionary scientific doomsday scenario while satirically taking aim at America’s love affair with diversion; whether through theme park escapism or the movie-going experience itself, and how our dreams and expectations are born of a lifetime hypnotized by the increasingly manipulated, mindless pleasures of modern popular culture. How deftly he manages this simultaneously critical and humorous viewpoint is key to whether the film succeeds or not.

   Crichton envisions  a futuristic resort/amusement park for adults called Delos, which is comprised of three separate areas based on historic themes: Roman World, Medieval World and the aforementioned Westworld, the latter which commandeers the bulk of the film’s attention. The unique conceit of these parks is that they are each  entirely populated by robots of impeccable sophistication,  that are intended to be indistinguishable from the genuinely human guests. The obvious draw to the park is the ability of tourists to visit and enact their every fantasy , uninhibited by the legal or moral restraints of real-world society. The conflict of the film arises when, through an unexplained glitch in the system controlling the robots en masse, the automatons begin exacting violent retaliatory action against their tourist persecutors.

    The film’s central objective is deceptive in its seeming lack of complexity, but it the affords the film rich opportunities to touch upon fascinating thematic implications: the mollifying nature of specifically designed experience in modern theme culture, the ease of moral abandonment  with the introduction of an anarchic social structure, and the willingness to jettison reality as a course to self-gratification. Unfortunately, Crichton takes advantage of very few of these thematic opportunities; instead limiting the film to an ambling SF fantasy, which would suffice on an entertainment level were he as clever a director as scenarist, but this is not the case. Crichton’s film aspires to be a penetrating social statement (all pure science fiction has this as a central goal) in action-adventure trappings, when in fact it is a shallow escapist drama wrapped in the guise of grandiose SF concepts. Again, this would be acceptable were Crichton able to accentuate the suspense elements of the film with an expert facility, but he seems either intimidated by the stylistic finesse necessary for such an enterprise or perceives the action elements unworthy of his creative energies. Though a congenial entertainment, the film suffers immeasurably through Crichton’s unwillingness to push the edges of the  genre envelope.

    Fundamental problems in the notional structure of the film inherently prevent it from approaching its fullest realization. Given the ingeniousness of the initial idea, two critical flaws are readily evident. First, since the constitution of Delos is delineated as of a tripartite design, it would be expected that we would follow specific experiences within each individual historic theme as a natural set-up for compensatory retaliations by the robots. More attentive character exposition would intensify audience empathy, therefore heightening suspense. With the exception of a meager three characters, this never happens, severely hampering the inevitable depiction of the park’s breakdown outside of a few brief, generic shots of frantic activity. (Even in the instance of these three characters, they are so underwritten, it becomes the burden of each actor’s individual personality type to engage the audience in any meaningful way.) There is a damaging imbalance in the film’s narrative, focusing primarily on the Westworld section of Delos, with Medieval World receiving significantly less coverage and Roman World meriting virtually no attention at all. This is disappointing, especially through their very historically decadent nature both Roman and Medieval Worlds would contain more dramatic stimulus for manifestations of debauchery than the rather laconic Western village. Despite Westworld having a basis in American mythology, is there any reason the more prurient possibilities are ignored in favor of vanilla theme park blandness?  And, if the enacted aberrations of social behavior are all similarly based in either sexual excess or violent action without retribution, why the expense of three parks when any one would satisfy the sociopathic appetite? It’s interesting to consider that in designing the park, all permutations of  aberrant behavior would have had to have been considered and compensated for, a rather unsavory aspect of the conceptional stages of the park (Scientists as pimps and accessories to murder?) that screams for further illumination, but for which the film makes no time. Ultimately, Crichton’s initial concept is far too ambitious for a fledgling first-time director (no matter how scientifically astute his capabilities) to handle, nor is the film helped by the obviously corner-cutting budgetary considerations which were understandable at the time as MGM President James Aubreywas busy channeling all studio resources to fund construction of the Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. (Is there a cosmic irony there?)

awestworldcover7

In “Westworld” director/writer Crichton features several examples of the female as object of sexual desirability (as seen here with Medieval World’s Anne Randall), but where is the equal time shown for targets of lustful feminine desires?

    Secondly, there is the matter of a fair sexual balance. Whereas the entire roster of tourist protagonists are adults,  (This is one film fantasy blissfully free of the obnoxious presence of children. One can only imagine what a cringe fest this would have been under Steven Spielberg’s   infantile tutelage.) it seems haphazard to ignore critical participation by women; who after all fill many of the seats in the shuttle approach to Delos, but after being introduced are completely forgotten about. The nature of the fantasies enacted by the tourists seem to have their basis in the primal realms of sex and violence, (Pauline Kael’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” analogy finally reaching explicit realization?) or more accurately hedonism and sadism.  Would it not be imperative to see individual examples of women’s attraction to this aberrant environment? In the opening scene, a mock commercial advertising the wonders of Delos with lauditory testimonials from returning guests, features the presence of several women, yet we are never specifically privy to the specifics of what women might enjoy as well as men. For all intents, women (“human” women, that is) are completely forgotten in this narrative. On this point, Crichton’s prudishness shines forth and not to the betterment of the film. Surely it wasn’t his intention to surrender his conception as strictly a male fantasy? Are we to assume women would not have the same urges to satisfy? Or for that matter…any? Otherwise, why pay the exorbitant admission to get into the park in the first place?

    In this regard, there are also several questions that go unanswered: how, for instance, does the unleashed fantasy world collide with reality when another person encountered might be a “real” guest and not a robot? And if the only thing to do in “Westworld” is gun fighting and whoring, just how is this a cost effective enterprise, to have the entire environment and its robot population destroyed on a daily basis; especially a large section of Delos which, as depicted, has no visible draw for the female participant? (And whose unlucky job is it to maintain and sanitize the robot whores? Just asking.) Crichton would have been better served in using the three part park to his narrative advantage, portraying a male-based fantasy in the Westworld section, while courting the feminine perspective in the Medieval and/or Roman section(s), where the foundations of gallantry and sweeping romantic escapism might find a substantive  expression. (Instead we get a rather tired quota of scenes with NormanBartoldplaying a leering tourist whose amorous pursuit of any female robot in a skirt ultimately sets off the chain of fatalistic events.) A gender balance may have also given the turnabout retaliation more of an emotional charge to the audience, whereas with the majority of the revenge depicted is against the male tourists who have proven themselves as reckless bullies.  (A brief, scary incident with a terrified park technician shows the impact this film really could have had with a bit of adjustment. Only on screen a brief minute, his terror feels genuine and his loss sticks with you more than that of most of the major players in the film; his violent end seems particularly undeserved.)

    The desire for artifice is at the center of the key to the film’s themes, and the back lot cheapness of the surroundings serves to enhance the theme of the banality of modern culture and the trivial expectations that emerge from its influence. Crichtoncertainly benefits from the budgetary limitations in this instance, though it does not excuse his stinginess with the psychological ramifications of such an ideas being realized. (Again, this goes back to the initiators of the park and what they might have had in mind; motivational conceits that could have brought a richness to the film even Crichton might not have realized possible.) This is symptomatic of his entire oeuvre; spectacularly imaginative situations punctuated by dramatic set pieces, (that are often forgiven for being less impressive in execution that in the imagining) populated by sketchy ciphers. Often in practical filmmaking, being a visionary is not as important (or valuable) as being a pragmatist.

    Interestingly, and with apparent deliberation, the tourist fantasies are portrayed with the utmost banality and this is one of the strengths and weaknesses of the film; the resulting redundancy contributing wonderfully to the theme of the abridgement of the imagination through the mechanization (Leading to the pointed question: Who is more mechanized, the robotic figures or the tourists who are visiting the park?) of our cultural consciousness, but it draws a blank as far as forward narrative momentum goes.  The parks are specifically designed to mirror savage, uncivilized environments, but the natural attraction which would fuel the imagination would be how one might steel themselves against the formidable perils of such a world. What, for instance, would be the continued excitement to gunfights specifically designed so that you never have any chance of losing the contest?  (There is actually a witty acknowledgement of this as Brolin and Benjamin react with bored annoyance at the emergence of the Gunfighter after a night of barroom brawling.) Perhaps it is the limitation of the ritualistic pretense impressed into our understanding of these “fictitious” realms that is part of the satire, directing our attention to the disappointing mediocrity with which modern fantasies find their expression. Crichton presents a world in which unexplained technical marvels might be spent in the service of indulging in the possibilities of mere Saturday matinee movie sex and violence. (Disneyland as a sex toy?) Here again, Crichton is beholden to his actors for providing the amusing plaster with which to bridge the banality incubating throughout his themes.

   Crichton’s chief representatives in this dive into scientifically enhanced hedonism are played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, both well-cast as they bring an added dimension of their recognized screen personae to their roles. Benjamin at this point in his career had become successful at embodying the immature junior executive class whose neurotic hesitancy barely masked a  giggly zeal for bourgeois suburban naughtiness. Brolin, on the other hand has always projected a callowness that is actually well served on this occasion; his is the one instance of not suffering from the insufficient character development of other characters as his presence is one of such shallow polish you’d think he was formed of formica. It’s not a performance, it’s a lark; but an extremely engaging one, and the genial ease also magnifies the fatal twist that befalls him into something truly haunting and immediately changes the mood of the film from feckless light comedy to chilling gravitas in the blink of an eye.

    This sequence is particularly well staged, and shows a glimmer of filmmaking intelligence in Crichton that is most enjoyable if not always apparent, as his manipulation of the film depends as much on stylistic changes in the production to mirror thematic shifts as it does the written word. For once, (but it’s an important for once, in this context as important to the narrative as Hitchcock’s “Psycho” shower murder) a writer turned director seems immediately in tune with the symbiotic relationship of written, visual and aural components of film; the rhythm of the film completely shifts at this point, from strolling amiability to the unrelentingly predatory. The audience naturally is informed that bad things are coming; it’s the very nature of the film, its marketing and appeal. But the dramatic shift in tone is truly inspired.  (Enhanced by Fred Karlin’s sudden shift from passive elevator compositions to unnerving pulsating electronic rattlesnake scoring.) This is in no small part assisted by the casting of Yul  Brynneras the Gunslinger, putting an ironically satirical spin on his renowned portrayal as Chris, the leader of  The Magnificent Seven, even down to the cut of his outfit. By turning this moral persona into a soulless killing machine, the film cannily exposes the frail border of our mythic images and how they seamlessly shift from savior to monster by the merest shift in perspective.  (And just who were “the monsters” during the previous time in the story, the robots or the tourist who mercilessly tormented; knowing there was no retribution nor personal danger to impede their callous behavior?)

    In the end, Crichton’s slight but engaging film is ultimately disappointing if only that it falls short of the fullest exploration of the simple but inspired idea Crichton brings to the table. His execution may be unpolished but his prescience is certainly attuned to some very unsavory truths about modern culture, and his cautions are crystal clear. To paraphrase a quotation popularized by a surrogate destination to his park: Hopefully what happens in Delos, stays in Delos.movie

Posted in movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, science fiction, westerns, women, writing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Revisit: Tumble in the Jungle: “Mogambo” (1953)

                     “Mogambo”  (1953)

(Originally posted on 5/31/2012)

     What is a women’s picture? In recent years this has been a more difficult concept to distinguish, being that the increased crudity of all American (in particular) cinema  has led to a blurring of cinematic behavioral gender lines. What once were regarded as films highlighting women in the leading roles, and focusing on their characters and concerns to the minimal consideration of the male perspective were a traditional and honored area of commercial cinema; a feminine antidote to the more male targeted genres of war, horror, westerns and gangsterism. However, in recent years, there seems to be a misconception in the film world that in achieving a perceived equality with men (as championed by the unfortunately necessary Women’s Liberation movement), women don’t achieve that equality by standing side by side with men and claiming their own identity, but rather “becoming” more like men; which in itself is a regressive and subservient stance- entirely the antithesis of the intention of “Liberation”. If more recent developments in women’s roles in American films leads to a proliferation of female versions of  male “buddy” films, mindless action bloodbaths or crude frat house comedy, this is hardly an evolutionary step for either women or the cinema; neither is elevated by an imitative move toward copying cultural bottom rung conceptions or public images.

     Oddly enough, in traveling back to more restrictive big studio times, there emerges a film- from an (as initially considered) unlikely source -that could be regarded as the cultural viaduct between the distinguishing qualities between “women’s” and “men’s” films.

      Buoyed by the success of “The African Queen” and their own “King Solomon’s Mines”, both of which eschewed the conventionality of backlot filming for a richer, more immediate location shooting, MGM returned to the Dark Continent under the directorial supervision of  John Ford with 1953′s “Mogambo” a Technicolor remake of the 1932 Victor Fleming film “Red Dust” starring Clark GableJean Harlow and Mary Astor. Originally set in a rubber plantation in Indochina, the story has been transplanted to an African safari complex which also captures animals for the world’s zoos. (Elements obviously borrowed by the later Howard Hawks production of “Hatari!” are evident.)

     Clark Gable plays Victor Marswell, a veteran safari guide and hunter, the man in the center of a triangle of love/lust,  dividing his attentions between the earthy Kelly (played with a devilish sense of fun which makes her all the more sexy, by Ava Gardner) and the prim Linda (Grace Kelly, whose performance is typically two-note, either stiff propriety or quick and over-the-top hysteria, which begs the question: were these the imposed limitations demanded of her by her directors or was this truly the shallow wealth of dimensions of her performance arsenal at this time in her short screen career?) whose sense of , as Vic puts it “sheltered background”, creates a fragile shell masquerading a seething cauldron of sensual desire thinly disguised by the propriety (This was one one of Hitchcock’s most important manifestations of his blonde ideal: the whore under the ice cube.) of her class status and background.

     Despite the strangulating limitations imposed by Production Code standards to not as overtly present the material in the steamier rendition of it’s Pre-Code counterpart, John Ford’s production cannily uses the similarly constrained moral primness of Grace Kelly’s persona to elicit a dynamic tension between the good-time character Kelly and the proper but hypocritical Linda, but this tension between character types also undoes a most important component of the central love triangle (Actually a rectangle if we include Linda’s husband, the astonishingly clueless husband Donald, played with cheerful cluelessness by Donald Sinden, which actually makes him a rather sympathetic cuckold, not at all keeping with the triangle dynamic that should be central in the viewer’s attention.) which is the believability of Vic’s discarding the willing and able Kelly for the rather simpering ninny that is Linda. Several references are made to Vic’s lack of marital status (clearly unconvincingly loaded questions meant to set up motivations for a play at another man’s wife) but if we are to believe that visions of domesticity rage through this Great White Hunter, there is no real evidence of it through his behavior, or at least none that would explain this seeming paradox of his character. As a matter of fact, as an object of desired domestic bliss, Linda is an impractical choice as she seems incapable of any direct action except to be irresponsible and shrill, (Kelly’s derisive remark about Linda’s “Louisa May Alcott” personality is right on the money) more often acting in an irrationally reckless manner that not only puts herself and others in danger but a great deal of the animal kingdom as well.

     The picture, however, is entertaining on its own level once you realize that the real safari depicted isn’t concerned with gorillas (they are inappropriately geographically positioned if one is to believe the Kenyan backdrop anyway) but with the hunt for the human heart. It is clear from the beginning, from their initial meeting and skirmish, that Vic and Kelly are a perfect match (something Kelly realizes very quickly as well, enriching her character with the constant frustration of having to closely observe Vic’s inexplicable attraction to the vacant Linda) and it is the path taken by the film to increasingly put off that meeting of hearts (at least openly) until the last moments of the film. Such is the drama, the suspense and the ultimate entertainment of “Mogambo”; an adventure in which love is the ultimate trophy.

     Now, John Ford may not be the first director one would conjure when considering a purely romantic film, yet his acknowledged core of sentimentality is one of the strengths distinguishing his entire oeuvre, infusing an additional layer of signature humanity to not only his 1952 masterwork “The Quiet Man”, but the emotionally charged and romantic elements of such films as “Rio Grande”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, “The Long Gray Line”, (even) “The Searchers” and especially his wartime masterpiece “They Were Expendable” which managed an extraordinarily credible level of romantic sentiment between John Wayne and Donna Reed, making full  use of the intensified visceral resonance resulting from the experience of developing emotional intimacies during the fragile and temporary conditions imposed during warfare. In his films, Ford clearly has an attachment to those female characters who demonstrate what might be best labeled a natural “strength in softness” meaning that they are subject to the caprices of what might be recognized as characteristics of sentimental femininity, but also emboldened with an innate inner resolve to attach themselves to the elements driving Ford’s favored masculine code of honor; this is demonstrated in the continued use of one of the director’s favorite actresses Maureen O’Hara, who embodied these characteristics, as opposed to the character of Hallie Stoddard played by Vera Miles in Ford’s 1962 interesting but problematic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” who is one of the director’s least memorable heroines as she betrays every elemental sense of loyalty important in Ford’s vision,both emotionally and idealistically. Fortunately, with “Mogambo”, the director is working with material that not only allows for the development of his favored male-female dynamic, but is blessed with a pair of lead performers that are up to the task of a feature length pas de deux in which the characters play an emotional game of chess, in which Kelly openly displays her feelings which are apparent to everyone, except to Vic who is blinded by his own conception of the feminine ideal which he finds in Linda, and only awakens out of his stubborn adulterous pursuit when just at the precipice of revealing all to Linda’s husband Donald, he finds the occasion to, as Kelly puts it, go “noble”.


Clark Gable has one of his best roles as Vic Marswell, but it is Ava Gardner as Kelly who is the revelation in this film. Though her handling of the lighter aspects of the material should be no surprise to anyone who had seen “One Touch of Venus”, she suggests perhaps the most fully balanced personification of the Fordian woman, at once tender and tough, sentimental yet practical, and most generously willing to ally herself with her romantic rival Linda in an selfless effort to protect the sanctity of Linda’s relationship with Donald, which Linda is so callously willing to discard. For the film to succeed it is most important for the character of Kelly to be fully realized and understood, and certainly as presented, her’s is the only character in which we are witness to a deeper exploration of personality than the shallower archetype portraits of the rest of the cast: as depicted as Great White Hunter, Unsophisticated Sexual Innocent, Career Blinded Husband. In this matter, the film is greatly aided by the performance of Philip Staunton as Vic’s right-hand man Browny, who acts as both confidant and counselor to Kelly, and as a sympathetic observer to the fractured dynamic between Kelly and Vic, acts as a constant Greek Chorus through a catalogue of priceless reaction shots; a marvelously humane performance by a disgracefully underused actor. (Staunton would unfortunately pass away prematurely while performing onstage at the tender age of 53.)

     The sympathetic attention by Brownie toward Kelly is mirrored by the director Ford as she is the only character shown to have substantial depth; acting against what Vic initially casually dismisses as her “playgirl” attitude by being the only member of the safari to be affected by the presence of religion, and at one point seeking confessional guidance (though, significantly, we do not hear what she is unburdening herself of); a conflicted spirit which is alluded to earlier in a friendly conversation between Brownie and Kelly in which he astutely inquires about where she got her “scars”, the inference clearly made that she is far more complex and built of sterner stuff than Vic, at the time, gives credit for. On the other end of the spectrum, there are no such allusions toward Linda who is generously described as being sheltered, but in fact is portrayed as weak, disloyal and emotionally immature; shaking off both her spousal solidarity and the attempted friendship shown by Kelly; coming to a climax when a jealous Linda hysterically shoots Vic in the arm. leaving the resourceful Kelly to show her true worth by quickly inventing an alternate version of what has transpired to Donald and the rest of the safari party that absolves Linda of all adulterous culpability and preserves the harmonious adoration of the rather decent Donald toward his wife. Here, Kelly reveals her true nobility in a crisis to Vic (something she complimented him on just minutes before) and it’s this selflessness that finally makes the stubborn hunter realize that the woman he had previously expressed a fondness for ( though he doesn’t acknowledge it, his boyish declarations to her that “You’re alright, Kelly” are probably the closest he’s ever come to an expression of meaningful affection) is, in fact, every bit his equal and her own splendid person as well; a harmonious realization that leads to a rather rushed but emotionally rich conclusion to this most satisfying of “women’s/men’s” pictures.

Posted in Africa, ava gardner, clark gable, John Ford, movie remakes, movie reviews, Movies, Romance, women, writing | Tagged | 2 Comments

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them: Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, May 2018 Edition, Vol. K – 6

littlewonders25And a Little Child Shall Lead Them: Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, May 2018 Edition, Vol. K – 6

     Why does it seem that the very idea of “good”children has been abandoned? The bawling spoiled moppets who pollute every public venue, turning both suburban and urban life into a teeth grinding endurance test of strained patience and an increasingly rueful realization that perhaps we should have voted for those candidates who promoted the idea of a return of corporal punishment by the reestablishment of island penal colonies (All hail Papillon!), are hardly children in the actual sense (keenly curious, bright as a penny and cute as a button) but are, in actuality, merely homunculi versions of those loutish, sociopathic hillbillies who call themselves their parents, who themselves can be more accurately described as “thoselittlewondersgif who procreate only because they’re too stupid not to”. If this sounds unforgiving to some, just imagine if this horrid progeny were to become a nuclear power and you might understand our desire for a healthy supply of toddler-sized  shackles. (A recent unpleasantness on an Amtrak train involving a “precocious” five year old kicking the back of my seat inspired thoughts as to the viability of twenty third trimester abortions.) Fortunately, certain movies have been invaluable in providing nostalgic succor in documenting the halcyon days of a more idealized family structure in which the children were more innocent (and interesting) than their current status as the familial smartass who seems to be modelled on tiresome foul-mouthed burlesque comics. Which brings us to this month’s edition of everyone’s favorite mental teething ring, the Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, brought to you by those fine distributors of SKITTLES, America’s favorite oral suppository. In this edition, we celebrate the many faces of children as seen in the movies. Your task is correctly identify the twenty five film from which the images were sourced. The first to do so will eventually receive the  coveted and politically incorrect CSR Culture Shock Award. Good luck.

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12)littlewonders2313)littlewonders1314)littlewonders1115)littlewonders1416)littlewonders1617)littlewonders2018)littlewonders2119)littlewonders1820)littlewonders15.jpg21)littlewonders1722)littlewonders2223)littlewonders2424)littlewonders2625)littlewonders30.jpg

 

Posted in book reviews, books, British films, children, French cinema, History, humor, Italian cinema, Movies, parenting, Romance, westerns, writing | 7 Comments

Revisit: A Most Peculiar Love Story: “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971)

  “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”  (1971)

                      Robert Fuest   (September 27, 1927 – March 21, 2012)

(Originally posted April 15, 2012)

     With its roots in the serial murder giallo tradition of both Mario Bava’s“The Girl Who Knew Too Much” and “Blood and Black Lace”, Robert Fuest’s stylish “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” was produced at a time when the horror film was in critical need of rejuvenation. By 1971, the horror franchise of Poe adaptations had deteriorated from the classy and classic Roger Corman series into a meandering continuation of American International releases including productions incorrectly identified as Edgar Allan Poe inspired (confusing and frustrating the audience) including films which may have attracted wider audiences had they been handled with properly honest marketing techniques ( for example,”The Conquerer Worm”, needlessly retitled from the original, more appropriate “Witchfinder General”, a superior film, unlike the similarly themed “Cry of the Banshee” which actually was marketed with patently manufactured Poe writings in its advertising campaign to disguise its false attribution) and further misguided adaptations (“The Oblong Box”, “Murders in the Rue Morgue”) which, whether literal to not to their source materials, made it conspicuously evident that the AIP productions were moribund in a creative mire. Great Britain’s Hammer Films, by this time, had reached an equally alarming state of exhaustion with their signature Gothic material and found no foothold in expanding their horror traditions- whether through creative timidity or diminishing financing for what were perceived as out-of-date conceptions -with the introduction of such desperate gimmicks as a spate of lesbian vampire thrillers neither finding nor engaging an appreciable audience.

     Enter into this flaccid arena, the Art Deco masterwork of giddy Grand Guignol known as “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”, a period horror piece whose indeterminate time frame (though it’s insinuated to unfold in the mid 1920’s) grants the privilege of entering a world of immaculate cinema artifice, of complete suspension of disbelief, a glittery bauble of movie illusion in which the “villain” may operate with delighted impunity straddling the rules of both the corporeal and the supernatural as following the dictates of both the traditional genre horrors and the more contemporary giallo form. It’s clear from the start that Fuest does not intend any of the proceedings to be taken seriously and this complete absence of self-conscious importance (which differs from self-conscious awareness, which the film is brimming with- to the benefit of the viewer -so much so that Phibes’ lovely mute assistant Vulnavia [the striking Virginia North] breaks the “fourth wall” at one point to regard the audience with a look of mock astonishment) is what fuels the film with its dazzling sense of whimsy. Horrible things happen, but they are done so stylishly, it almost becomes a privilege to be invited as a fellow provocateur in sharing in the ingenious unveiling of each of the mad Doctor’s subsequent murderous enterprises- a significant development, though unnoticed at the time, in the horror genre.

    There is a moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s  “Psycho” when Norman Bates is disposing of Marion Crane’s car in a nearby swamp. The car slowly descends under the muck, and then stops suddenly, still exposed for any investigators to discover. Norman holds his breath in anticipation…and so does the audience, and then, just as suddenly, the car continues its watery submersion. In one miraculous stroke Hitchcock transfers the audience’s sympathy from the victim to the perpetrator (or at least,  to an abetter of the perpetrator as far as the audience knows at the time). Michael Powell attempted a similar experiment in transference of audience empathy with his notorious “Peeping Tom”, released the same year as “Psycho” though rather than an equally lucrative commercial reception, Powell’s film was met with an animosity so intense it  annihilated his film career. (Hitchcock  as a provocateur of violence would not be a great stretch given his chosen filmmaking field of interest, but the more genteel Powell was a different case entirely, and his film presented an more overtly sexually aberrant protagonist impossible to empathize with as opposed to Anthony Perkins’ All-American son only revealed to be a deranged psychotic in the final minutes of the film.) The aforementioned scene in “Psycho” was an historic and seminal moment in film; the apotheosis of Hitchcock’s raison d’etre in audience manipulation. (The entire basis of the limited arena of his craft.) The experimentation of audience manipulation would reach its most completely realized fruition- and public admission to what he was up to for anyone keen enough to be looking -in his subsequent feature “The Birds”, which manifests its intentions in two key scenes. The first, a scene in a diner in which among the trapped townsfolk is an hysterical mother (Doreen Lang) pointing to the source to whom she believes has brought the destructive birds to Bodega Bay. She then speaks directly at the camera, in a Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) P.O.V. shot, and screams:

 “Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all of this. I think you’re evil. Evil!”  

     Clearly the character is directing her comments directly to the audience, as Hitchcock is cannily acknowledging the audience’s complicity in the onscreen mayhem. It happens because, and only because, the audience wants it to happen. The reason for paying a ticket of admission. The second scene is the finale in which Mitch (Rod Taylor), his family and Melanie all escape in a car amid the thousands of birds laying siege to his house. The expectation is that they will be attacked and this is the beginning of an exciting action climax, but the attack never happens, and the final shot shows the car driving off into the distance unmolested. This ending is one of the single most controversial of Hitchcock’s career as it outraged a great many viewers and critics who felt cheated of the cathartic violence they were anticipating; even with the inclusion of several gruesome tableaux included earlier in the feature which obviously did little but whet an appetite tantamount to a bloodlust. If Hitchcock’s career long manipulation of the audience needed further embellishment, it’s quite possible that the director found he had reached the limits of explicit visualization of his most personal themes which may account for the rather tepidly conceived series of films to follow from the so-called “Master of Suspense” as there was little maneuvering room for increasingly jarring manipulation left after the more extreme calculations enacted in both “Psycho” and “The Birds”. In a way, Hitchcock may have been too clever in his audience mind games, and opened a Pandora’s Box that his more subtly skillful manipulations were no longer able to satisfy; the audience seized with a growing appetite for more gratuitous shocks and  sensations borne of the new freedoms that came with the relaxing of industry attitudes toward such instantly antiquated virtues as morality and sympathetic sentiment.   In 1967 Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” pushed the audience empathy toward the violently antisocial even further by proffering a pair of cold-blooded killers as a romantic duo, to whom the audience were expected to follow and become emotionally invested in simply because they were more attractive and better coiffed than the sweaty Oakies who were surrounding them. The scene late in the film where Clyde Barrow’s (Warren Beatty) protracted impotence is miraculously cured by Bonnie reading her newly penned “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”- a self-glorifying advertisement for the villain as misunderstood romantic idol if ever there was one -as the wind playfully gambols about the meadow as if we were in a soft-focus commercial for shampoo or feminine hygiene products, is symptomatic of the sympathetic portrayal the film offered in its landmark approach to discarding the heretofore banned depictions of heroic criminals due to the then-newly dissolved restrictions imposed for thirty five years by the Production Code. The film’s controversy remains to this day and it’ open invitation of the romanticized purveyor of violence has had extreme ramifications to the film (and television) industry which have yet to be accurately measured to this day.

     Which brings us back to “The Abominable Dr. Phibes”, a film eagerly willing to take advantage of the cultural shifts in attitudes toward the attraction of villainy in entertainment as well as satisfying Hitchcock’s unearthed audience pathology for anarchic behavior. Never for one moment in the film is Phibes regarded as anyone but the central figure of interest; even a resistance to the purveyor of the immoral acts, leading to a sympathetic eye toward any other character is  challenged with a deliberately engineered empathetic perspective as screenwriters William Goldstein  and James Whiton create a world of ciphers, in which the victims, though playing important roles in Phibes’ psyche, integral to his revenge, are formally represented as mere one-dimensional figures whose only function is to keep the storyline chugging along.  This viewpoint is essential in understanding the psychological shift that takes place in directing audience empathy in this film. By using the demonstrably effective tools of empathic alteration championed by Hitchcock-through a subtle transmutation of the viewer’s moral perspective by means of a cinematic variation  of “intelligent design” in which through the combined manipulation of narrative and image, in concert, a temporary alteration of the emotional, and if wholly successful, moral state will occur- the writers and director of “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” have successfully created the first horror film in which the audience is overtly expected to remain in an unrelieved synergy with the killer, to disavow any compassion for the victims of his murderous rampage and to desire and find satisfaction in any ultimate escape from punishment.

      The film shreds the very concept of anti-hero (becoming increasingly fashionable in 60’s American cinema with such popular successes as “Cool Hand Luke” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) and create an entirely new type of film type: the hero villain. Certainly the premise of the serial murderer was nothing new to film, finding its most consistent expression, up to that time, in what is referred to in the U.S. as the Italian giallo field, but never before was the expressed intent of the film to be following the killer as a convenient transmigration of the concept of movie “hero”. This was prevalent in the post-Code American films mentioned earlier- each administering a newer form of the anti-hero- but each of the protagonists met with a violent end, as if the rules of lawful retribution in the Code had not yet been fully expunged from memory. “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” changes all of the rules, and administer the evolving changes of post-Code reprobate criminality without the final hypocritical insistence on comeuppance. For the first time in commercial cinema, and certainly the first time in horror films, the audience was allowed to enjoy the fruits of villainy without the pernicious killjoy imposition of a Production Code-fed “Crime Does Not Pay” finale. (It always seemed a slap in the face that you were allowed to enjoy a Cagney gangster film for two hours only to have the inevitable cold shoulder of moral disapproval [by way of a Tommy gun blast or similar instrument of awkward piety] rearing its ugly head at the eleventh hour. Crime may not have paid, according to the moralists of the Hays Office, but the villains certainly looked like they were having a grand time until the end.)

     This might make a film an unrelievedly distasteful experience were it not for the ingenious tone of the film: not straight horror (and certainly not mystery) but black comedy laced with a floridly flamboyant visual style. The films frames literally pop with colors and exotically articulated Art Deco details; a visual toy box treat for the eyes that makes it impossible not to delight in the anarchic sense of  whimsy with which the entire production was conceived and executed. Fuest does wonders in controlling the absurdist tone of the story, while the film is peppered with truly surrealist touches such as the occasional musical interlude in which the murders scenes or police procedurals are likely to be interpolated with Big Band favorites, a mad organ recital on a glittery neon Wurlitzer worthy of Oz or an impromptu two-step. The entire film reeks of what is easily labelled “camp” and yet the deliberation of this style and the high end of artistic accomplishment in its realization sends the film out of the usual camp/cult Stratosphere and into a sui generis trajectory. Unlike the artfully surreptitious manipulations of HitchcockFuest’s film openly identifies the anarchic willingness of the audience to shed its moral high ground and openly plays with the receptivity to bloodlust the audience spent decades having hammered back into the dark recesses of their minds. The variation of moral empathy within the intellectual construction of the scenario combined with the floridly playful tone of the physical production creates a type of cinematic soufflé of the variety which continually rises with increasing imaginative excitement and like the best movie confections, both delights and nourishes the filmic palate to the final frame.

     For a horror film there is a surprising absence of both mystery and suspense, but this is by design; the genre satisfactions emanating not so much in the fiendish applications of tortuous adaptations of Biblical horrors, but in the saucy, wink-wink style which justifies the viewer’s embrace of the grue as a high form of amusement.  The story is constructed in the typical cat-and-mouse narrative structure, with the police in constant pursuit of a mad killer, but in this case, the game is more reasonably described as a turtle-and-mouse exercise, with the police endearingly plodding as the madman continues his Rube Goldberg-like scheme of retribution unabated. From the first minutes it is apparent to the viewer just who is behind the series of imaginatively gruesome murders as we watch in every detail Dr. Phibes and Vulnavia at work on dispensing a victim, Dr. Dunwoody (Edward Burnham) with no less than a cage full of bats in his bedroom. The savagery and mysterious circumstances of the act leaves Scotland Yard Inspector Trout (a delightfully befuddled but persevering) Peter Jeffrey) baffled, all the more so than when he is informed by his partner Sgt. Tom Schenley (an equally amusing Norman Jones) that another doctor has recently been discovered in his library, stung to death by bees. The film then follows the dual story of both Phibes in his nefarious enterprise, and Inspector Trout in his investigation to unravel the puzzling reason why so many medical professionals are dying through circumstances completely alien to their surroundings (First bees and bats, later rats, locusts and a hailstorm in the backseat of a motor vehicle!) with the first concrete clue provided by a dropped amulet at the murder scene of one Dr. Longstreet (the glorious Terry-Thomas, making mountains out of an extended cameo molehill) who is undone by the curse of “Blood”. As it turns out, as Trout discovers in an opportune meeting with a Rabbi (Hugh Griffith) the murders are following the pattern of Biblical curses: “The ten curses visited upon Pharaoh before Exodus”, as Griffith’s rabbi explains. Further investigation by Trout will lead to the name Dr. Anton Phibes, whose wife Victoria (portrayed mainly in photographs by an unbilled Caroline Munro) died years earlier under the ministrations of the same medical personnel being systematically purged. Eventually, it emerges that the trail of victimization centers about the wittily named Dr. Vesalius (Joseph Cotten) who is quite the unpleasant fellow; arrogant, rude and dismissive, though he is soon caught in the fervor of investigating the search for the killer, his appetite for unraveling the mystery doubly ignited when the chief suspect in the case in presumed to have died ten years before in a flaming car wreck!

      Cotten’s performance is central in distinguishing the tone of the film from run-of-the-mill mystery/horror to black comedy/horror as his Vesalius is a richly complex creation; quite the adversary, not so much for Phibes, who seems blessed with an almost supernatural prescience on how to accomplish the most complicated homicidal machinations without detection, but to the fragile fidelity directed toward the very concept of the”heroic villain” itself. Vesalius’ initial condescension of the police (in the form of Inspector Trout) is predictably distancing- the policeman being such an affably likeable presence -perhaps exaggerated by the fact that Vesalius is the only role in the film in whose tone of characterization is in direct opposition to the film’s more overtly absurdist humor. Cotten is placed in the unenviable position of being the only straight man in a carnival of black humor; a task which he handles with great poise, commendably aided by some sharp dialogue and the fortuitous occasion of having much of his character developed during some well matched interplay between his character and Jeffrey’s Trout. For the record, as impressive as Vincent Prices presence as Phibes is- a basically mute performance, with later dubbed dialogue, Price demonstrates a theatrically graceful physicality which is too often overlooked in his vast arsenal of thespian instruments, showing evidence that he would have made a splendidly expressive silent film actor -the performance of the film is Peter Jeffrey as the often incredulously baffled, but never less than astute Inspector Trout, a marvelous comic creation threatened to be overlooked and undervalued due to the many more flamboyant or overtly eccentric characters surrounding him. Of equal value is Virginia North as the seemingly omnipresent Vulnavia, the beauteous mute companion of Phibes, the subject of a delightful running gag of having her garbed in outlandishly fashionable couture that changes with every scene (often times several times within a sequence) for no other apparent reason except for the fact that it’s stylish to do so.

     The film is in essence one grand, albeit twisted, jest; an ode to undying affection in the guise of an Art Deco pageant of spectacular heinously homicidal Rube Goldberg-like invention. A dizzying confluence of performance, writing, direction and design most pleasingly entwined to produce a vision of originality in a genre depleted by creative exhaustion and a natural stepping stone (aside from more immediate siblings as the direct, disappointing sequel “Dr. Phibes Rises Again” [see Nites at the Drive-In for a more complete appraisal] and the Shakespearean variant of the “Phibes” formula, “Theater of Blood”) to the next generation of reinvigorated popularity of American horror films with the emergence of the rather unfortunate, and far less imaginatively conceived “slasher” subgenre.

Posted in Hammer films, Hitchcock, horror films, movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, vincent price, writing | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Habit Forming: Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, April 2018 Edition, Vol. 3:10

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WHY WE SING THEIR PRAISES: While many might not have actually experienced the love of the spiritual as imparted by the heavenly sisters who slammed the knuckles of the most rotten kids in the neighborhood with that trusty steel ruler-  fired by a dedication that could only be inspired by Torquemada impatiently staring squarely into the empty-eyed abyss of the sneering jelly stained faces of generations of towheaded runts/the Devil  -we cannot help but appreciate the prescience shown in beginning the process of cosmic comeuppance to those obnoxious brats who were fated to reach their bottom-of-the-rung evolutionary potential by being beaten daily in future reformatory institution incarcerations. (Therein lies the happy existence of a fortuitous commingling of purpose between the Church and State.)

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Posted in biography, books, History, humor, Movies, Musicals, religion, war movies, westerns, women, writing | Tagged | 10 Comments

Low Tide: “La Venere dei pirati” (1960)

lavenere1                       “La Venere dei pirati”  (1960)

    There is a great deal of bluster but very little genuine swashbuckling in Mario Costa’s “La Venere dei pirati” (aka, “Queen of the Pirates”), which seems to trade on the attractiveness of its star Gianna Maria Canale to distract from the fact that she is neither particularly proficient at swordplay, nor of the general physicality required to be the mistress of (rather than on)laveneredeipitaePOS2 a pirate ship. She does, however, in the grand tradition of the postwar Italian film actresses, fill out her costumes to great curvaceous effect, which comes in handy when the film makes the inevitable slide from adventure into the less strenuous but equally active arena of high seas necking. (Though the film does commit a fatal tactical error in that no matter how comely Miss Canale, she is outclassed in beauty by Scilla Gabel and  earthy sexuality by Moira Orfei.)

    The cardboard settings and not-quite-clever-enough-cutting, meant to deflect attention from some injurious budgetary shortcomings, assist in grounding the film in an unfortunate matinee movie purgatory, where the predictability of the material corresponds with a certain lethargy of forward action, when it becomes all too apparent that the film makers are laboriously marking time in keeping the adversarial parties separated until the inevitable climactic meeting of steel, brawn and a few carefully chosen vocal barbs. The film promises excitement but never delivers; even comprised as it is with an impressively varied quantity of genre clichés, Costa is too busy in the introduction of every possible genre trope to develop a single one of them beyond a fleeting drive by wave of recognition, so the narrative jerks along episodically, without ever treating any of the sequences as if they were truly organic to the plot.

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/cinema-italiano/

 

Posted in Italian cinema, movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, Romance, women, writing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Out of Touch: “Orlacs Hände” / “The Hands of Orlac” (1924)

0000000000hands    “Orlacs Hände” / “The Hands of Orlac”   (1924)

 A Necessary Caveat: The following article contains analysis which reveals details of the subject film’s climactic events. Such details, if one wishes to approach the film with virgin eyes, should be approached with the utmost caution.

     Peculiar are the paths of reputation. Judging from the literal merits and deficiencies of certain films deemed “classic” (another ten articles might be written arguing for the abolishing of such meaningless laudation which only serves to obscure genuine achievement among the mountainous rubble canonized by overzealous laudation), oneorlacshandeos.jpg might well consider a more exclusionary form of critical evaluation which would  momentarily discard the history and legacy of the cinema, and thus cast aside all argumentation (irrelevant in the evaluation of a single work) as to a placement of historical importance, influence or as a significant part of a particular artist’s oeuvre. Far too many examples of an inferior work ride the coattails during a  period of cultural evolution; often achieving a false or exaggerated accreditation for pioneering innovation that is all too enthusiastically acclaimed as revolutionizing an art form (“Citizen Kane” being the bellwether example of a film granted commendations for a staggering quantity of innovations, when in fact the film actually contains none of its own invention, but rather exists as an aesthetic clearinghouse for a brilliant collective usage of disparate innovative techniques previously in use in less heralded circumstances), while others, in retrospect, profit immeasurably in reputation by simply arriving at an opportune moment in history.

    Such an exalted but largely unmerited reputation precedes any useful consideration of the film work of Robert Weine, largely overshadowed by one particular production, the 1920 “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”, which upon viewing fails to reveal a justification for its mythic status; beyond its extraordinary carnival fun house art direction, it’s a ratherorlacshande1 pedestrian film, making it a film better appreciated in still frames rather than as a whole. However, if Weine’s film merits attention for its legitimately novel advances in both in the pioneering of narrative exploration of the unconscious mind and the use of the twist ending, it is still a stilted drama which overuses the novelty of its hallucinogenic settings early in the film. With his 1924 melodrama “Orlacs Hände”, Weine continues with the notion of a horrific loss  of personal control by way of a manipulated psychopathy, but in this case, the outside misdirection is suggested rather than overtly controlled, with the psychological button pushing in “Orlacs Hände” deriving more from a case of emotional instability nudged along by an external source. That the source is eventually revealed to have an almostorlacshande3 pedestrian criminal purpose does not undercut the central conflict of the drama, which is that of the eponymous Orlac with himself. For much of the film, the viewer is presented a tale of psychic implosion; the danger seeming to spring from an inner source that is situationally triggered; a suggestion that is an ultimately irrational camouflaged feint.   However, regardless of the narrative’s eventual conclusion, the film deals in (and in this way, is also innovative) a thematic thread, sinister in it’s  inescapable implications: that the body, through severe traumatic experience may be severed from the control of the individual and turn on itself. That this production would prove to be the antecedent of a tradition of films which would later come to be known as “body horror”, establishes “Orlacs Hände” as a point of cinematic evolution though-  again  -does the acknowledgement of the film’s contribution toward future thematic expansion in (especially) the horror genre, automatically elevate the movie’s material worth?

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/chandler-swain-reviews-the-silents/  

Posted in books, horror, Movies, Mystery, Reviews, Romance, silent movies, writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Amore in a Gothic Vein: “La strage dei vampiri” (1962)

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HE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A MIRROR IMAGE, IF IT WEREN’T FOR THAT VAMPIRE THING: Though they originate oceans apart, “La strage dei vampiri” bloodsucker Dieter Eppler is a virtual undead ringer, in his depiction of a vampire, for German Robles in the 1957 Mexican horror film “El vampiro”.

             “La strage dei vampiri”   (1962)

   Italy’s Golden Age of Horror may seem to have begun as an imitative movement  following the successful rejuvenation of the Gothic horror film by Hammer Films in 1957, itself modeled on the 1930’s Universal horror cycle -when, in fact, Italy’s initial foray into the field was Riccardo Freda’s “I vampiri”, whose release actually predated the initial relevant strangedeivampiri0Hammer film (Terence Fisher’s “The Curse of Frankenstein”) by a month. Rather than settling into a redundant formula which combined the recycling of the classic horror narratives and characters, disguising the regurgitation of increasingly overly familiar materials with such sensory distraction as lurid, blood-soaked color and a baser mercenary mindset which relied on the attraction of increased violence and heaving bosoms barely contained in ripped bodices, (All inclusive in the Hammer formula.) the Italian horror finds no fidelity to a singular formula. For instance, in the aforementioned “I vampiri”, places its story in a contemporary, urban setting, is photographed in atmospheric noirish black and white and has as its protagonist, not the masculine vampire model of Bram Stoker’s, but a female monster, more in line with Sheridan Le Fanu’s conception in “Carmilla”, sans the rather latent lesbian overtones. This is not to say that there weren’t several Italian horror films that slaughterofvampiresgif3didn’t take advantage of a saturated vibrancy of color (Mario Bava’s efforts in this arena are among the most memorable in film history) but there was no standard aesthetic formula adhered to as was the case with the Universal and Hammer cycles, which would have locked the films into a redundancy of visual realization. Nor were the Italian films fixed into either strictly Gothic incarnations of horror stories or new versions of familiar horror figures, as was the mainstay of the Hammer Horror cycle. Italian horror films, though certainly derivative, (as are many of the imitative industry’s genre explorations) also moved into more challenging directions which, in one creatively industrious form,  not only combined slaughterofvampiresgif4elements of krimi and horror into the iconoclastic hybrid of the Italian Giallo, but also approached the primal terrors of the traditional horror film though often emphasizing the psychological on an equal playing field with the strictly supernatural. Where classic American (and British, under the Hammer and later Amicus umbrellas) horror traditions, which are unalterably beholden to the Universal cycle- itself finding its greatest source of influence from German expressionism -are grounded in a cycle of perpetual folkloric European superstition, the Italian horror film (partially due to the fact, as if another mimicking of foreign genre- the western -the extension of expression was more attuned to fixating on the foundational visual characteristics of the vampire film itself rather than any specific contextual loyalties to narrative tropes) was able to find a wider range of expression than was possible when Hammer found disagreeable results in its own modernization of its own signatory franchise, whether adapted for contemporary settings or capitulating to the temporary Gothic popularity of the time. However, neither approach guaranteed a formula for success.

 To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/cinema-italiano/

 

    

Posted in books, Film, Hammer films, horror films, Italian cinema, movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, Romance, vampires, women, writing | 4 Comments

Ups and Downs: Classic Film Photo Quiz, March 2018 Edition, Vol. B-10

elevator7Ups and Downs: Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, March 2018 Edition, Vol. B-10

    Life has its ups and downs. One day you’re assured to ascend to the throne of power armed with a sense of entitlement second only to (perhaps) Ming the Merciless, and the next your doing everything you can to avoid the hormonal proclivities of your husband in Chappaqua. If anything is certain, it’s that a boundless sense of optimism is inevitably fated to be met with-  as they say in the gangster flickers  -“the hot kiss at the end of a wet gun.” (What?) And with this bit of philosophical inconsequence we bring to you yet another in an unnecessary series of complete wastes of time (rather like watching the O Network), theelevatorgif2 Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, brought to you, as always by those folks who smuggle to your neighborhood grocery pusher,  SKITTLES, America’s favorite brain booster. In this installment we celebrate that which travels up and down (no not my 40 shares of Amalgamated Dog Toupees Inc.) in life and in the pictures, which is, of course, the humble elevator. The following twenty stills celebrate the useful appearance and sometimes impractical usage of this modern vertical conveyance in the cinema. Your job, your task, your challenge (all three), is to correctly identify all twenty one pictures. The first to do so will receive the recently arrived (and marked to trace counterfeiters) CSR Culture Award, the only internet honorarium that is a simultaneous source of excitement and disappointment. (Life do have its ups and downs, after all.) Good luck.

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Posted in books, Boston, comedy, crime, grindhouse, humor, Movies, Musicals, Puzzles, Romance, silent movies, women | 11 Comments

Dead End: “The Last Run” (1971)

  lastrun1        “The Last Run”  (1971)

    Richard Fleischer’s “The Last Run” is composed, by Alan Sharp, in that spare style of writing that is meant to invest a greater chimerical meaning to every utterance, and by extension of its obvious pretensions (as reflected in the marketing campaign), to conjurelastrunOS2 the mythic brand of faded machismo popularized in the writings of Hemingway. That it succeeds at all in this somewhat foolhardy aspiration is entirely due to the presence (if not entirely the performance) of George C. Scott.

    Harry Garmes (Scott), an American expatriate living in Portugal, has been retired as an underworld getaway driver for nine years, and is suffering through the kind of psychic malaise that seems prevalent among movie criminals who brace themselves for “one last score”. When he is contacted to drive an escaped convict into France, he accepts the job, but it proves to be an unexpectedly dangerous assignment fraught with double crosses which are never adequately explained, but are probably meant to be more representative of the inescapable but enigmatic forces of fate which dog the popular existential gangster figures emerging from the Nouvelle Vague. Sharp’s script clearly wishes to celebrate the world weary manliness of 1940’s noir infused American cinema mixed with Melville inspired minimalism, but the film never gets its bearings, as the narrative is paralyzed; continually muddled with a surfeit of stylistic mutism.

 

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/nights-at-the-roth-theaters/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in 1970's movies, crime, film noir, George C. Scott, movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, writing | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

She Who Obeys: “Frankenstein Created Woman” (1967)

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WHEN WILL WOMEN EVER GET AHEAD IN THE MOVIES?: Despite proving herself a prolific mankiller in Terence Fisher’s “Frankenstein Created Woman”, Susan Denberg is still subject to the whims of a male master’s voice, as is traditional in Hammer’s Gothic horrors.

     “Frankenstein Created Woman”  (1967)

    Considering the usual limitations placed upon the status of women in the Gothic horror movies produced by Hammer Films-  generally subsumed to decorative but insubstantialfrankensteincreatedwomanOS roles calling for little more than subservient heaving women in peril or subservient bodacious honeys present only for a titillating display of cleavage and curves  -it should come as no surprise that when that meager pedigree receives a bump in antagonistic prominence, such an elevation would continue to be sublimated by the will of all of the men in the room.

    Terence Fisher’s “Frankenstein Created Woman” continues the apparently ceaseless experimentation of everyone’s favorite mad scientist who never seems to acknowledge the irony that his attempts to revive the dead usually end up with a greater quantity of deceased. Seeming to recognize the repetition of their Frankenstein films, screenwriter John Elder (the nom de plume for Hammer producer Anthony Hinds) alters Baron Frankenstein’s modus operandi by abandoning the familiar mix and match cadaver quilting and moving into the realm of metaphysical outrages by enabling resurrection by way of soul transference. Perfecting a method of capturing the fleeing soul from the dead (there appears to be a one hour expiration on a successful capture, discovered through means too truncated and inconclusive to satisfy even this frankensteincreatedwoman50film’s  conspicuously lowered standard of shameless concession to incredulity), the Baron only needs to await the arrival of a conveniently fresh corpse (here in the form of a wrongly accused killer Hans[Robert Morris]) and a second (the disfigured Christina [Susan Denberg] with whom Hans was engaged in a secret dalliance during the time of the murder) in which to complete his immaterial exchange program. But to what end? Forever absent of an expressed scientific goal, the distinguishing characteristic of Hammer’s Frankenstein films seems to be the good doctor’s only real motive for continually bringing violent chaos to his surroundings is the compulsive scratchable itch of hubris. He can bring about disorder, so he will.

  To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/nights-at-the-state-theater/

Posted in British films, Drive-In Movies, fRANKENSTEIN, Hammer films, horror, movie reviews, movie sequels, Movies, Terence Fisher, women, writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Descent of Dissent: “Punishment Park” (1971)

 

punishmentpark1              “Punishment Park”  (1971)

    Acts of provocation are certainly the prerogative of the artist- it is one of the essential nutrients fueling that elusive but ever evolving abstractive absolute known as Art  -and most certainly are convenient tools for the socially conscious filmmaker. Even run-of-the-mill commercial directors make use of the provocative manipulation of hearts (emotion) and minds (psychology); it’s their stock in trade. However, punishmentparkOSin the instance of deliberate political provocation, the filmmaker might be expected to responsibly employ a reasonable level of  informed clarity if their film is intended to result in a stimulative experience beyond that of base propaganda.

    Such is a great part of the controversy clouding an objective assessment of Peter Watkins’ “Punishment Park”, a film that takes great pains to present a particularly negative view of America as a government controlled state succumbed to fascism. The fact that Watkins is a British filmmaker, has also been the source of intense consternation in what has been labelled an unwelcome (and, by that same measure, unknowing) criticism from across the pond. Skeptics of his method and message cry “foul”, which might be a sympathetic (if not arguable) stance were films made by foreigners speaking in glowing terms of the Fifty States met with an equal sense of an illegitimate violation of sovereign tranquility, and with an equally vehement energy. This, of course, is not the case.

    In the matter of “Punishment Park”, an incendiary work to be sure, to preserve the integrity of the critical eye one must muster the capacity for a rational discussion as to its form, technique and substance in separate but equal measure from the more rash, emotionally volatile implications of the film’s theme (which, in themselves can be dissected, but not in a vacuum of nationalist self-pity) just like any other film. It is, after all, just a movie. 

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/chandler-swain-reviews-art-house-cinema-2/

Posted in art house cinema, Documentaries, movie reviews, Movies, politics, Reviews, writing | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Visitors: “It Came From Outer Space” (1953)

itcame2            “It Came From Outer Space”  (1953)

    A meteor that could easily be mistaken for a Christmas ornament crashes into the Arizona desert  and mysterious galactic visitors descend upon an altogether peaceful Southwestern hamlet to wreak havoc and spread paranoiac suspicion. (Is there, perhaps, a dangerous shortage of yucca plants in the faritcamefromouterspaceposter reaches that accounts for the attraction of this desolate area by the cinematic menaces of this film and countless others to follow?) Welcome to the continuing saga of attributing allegorical Cold War connections to almost half of the films of the decade, especially in science fiction,  in what is certainly the most pedestrian of what are generally considered Jack Arnold’s 1950’s B-movie SF classics, “It Came From Outer Space”.

    The sleepy town of  Sand Rock, Arizona is the site for a giant fiery meteor to come crashing to earth, completely unnoticed  by all (this is a sleepy town) except for casual astronomer  John Putnam (Richard Carlson), who just happens to be is gazing at the sky with his girl Ellen (Barbara Rush) when the giant object strikes terra firma. Putnam, being an alarmist, alerts the town, including the archetypal doubting sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake), reporting that the object is, in fact, a spaceship, but that it has been subsequently buried by a rockslide. Assuming the role of Chicken Little, Putnam is dismissed until certain members of the town disappear and then reappear acting strangely. (Though it’s fairly easy to spot the imposters ahead of time when the wailing theremin is cued.)

 

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/matinees-at-the-bijoux/

Posted in 1950's movies, 3-D MOVIES, movie reviews, Movies, Reviews, science fiction, writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Inconvenient Truth: “Elle s’appelle Sabine” (2007)

 

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THE LOOK: Just what is going on behind the eyes of Sabine Bonnaire, the autistic younger sister of acclaimed French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, is never overtly explored, though her haunted stare leaves a discomforting impact which speaks volumes, in “Elle s’appelle Sabine”.

       “Elle s’appelle Sabine”  (2007)  

       Ideally the documentary form should present an objective point of view. How then to judge a film which by the very nature of the film maker’s intimate relationship with theellesappellesabineOS subject guarantees the intrusion of emotional subjectivity that might very well alter the foundation of, not only the conclusions of the film, but the very techniques employed by which such predetermined ends are reached? In such a case, are facts sufficiently colored by such a prejudicial perspective on the part of the film maker, that it might render the film’s deductions capable of question? 

   French actress Sandrine Bonnaire has chosen as the subject of her directorial debut a portrait of her younger autistic sister Sabine, who despite demonstrating remarkable proficiency in music and an enthusiasm for literature, athletic activity and travel (she loves America), is spirited away to a hospital at the age of 28, where in the five year period comprising her institutionalization, she undergoes a monstrous transformation rendering her barely able to function and in a semiconscious state. The tragedy blatantly illustrated in the film is in the stark counterpoint between the pre and post institutionalized Sabine in manner, behavior and appearance. To say that the contrasts are shocking does not do the crimes of negligence against this young woman justice; a point that is made repeatedly over and again with an unerring sense of shock value by the clearly rankled film maker.

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/documentaries/

      

Posted in biography, Documentaries, French cinema, medicine, movie reviews, Movies, psychiatry, Reviews | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Panic Rooms: “Tread Softly Stranger” (1958)

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Diana Dors as the temptress Calico, an entirely different breed of hot cat on a roof in the British crime drama “Tread Softly Stranger”.

          “Tread Softly Stranger”  (1958)

    When gambler Johnny  Mansell (George Baker) overextends his bookie debts, he flees London, returning to his working class hometown of  Rawborough to visit with his steel mill accountant brother Dave (Terence Morgan), who has embezzled from the company treadsoftlystrangerHSto buy expensive baubles for his  ersatz girlfriend, the oversexed bar hostess Calico (Diana Dors), who conveniently lives in an adjoining rooftop flat which will make the constant frantic exits and entrances demanded of the film’s increasingly fevered inclinations toward excited strategic arguments between the three (after Dave’s  attempt to rob the mill’s payroll to disguise his earlier theft goes sour, resulting in the shooting death of the night watchman, the father of a childhood friend) that make the film, at times, seem as if it intends to be a melancholy film noir version of a door slamming bedroom farce (this may also hint at the film’s stage origins). Complicating the growing stress between the threesome over the homicide (Johnny was spotted at the scene attempting to halt the robbery, while Calico supplied Dave with the murder weapon) is a sexual tension between Johnny (who feigns resistance) and the faithless Calico that adds further grist to Dave’s rapidly deteriorating grip on reality.

    Gordon Parry’s film impressively takes fairly routine material and cranks up the tension by manipulating subtle variations in editing tempo and through the use of ingeniously effective camerawork by Douglas Slocombe in which Dave’s consuming paranoiac panic is reflected in the film’s visual design. Interestingly, the movie is shot intreadsoftlystranger3 a relatively dispassionate workmanlike style until the robbery scene, in which the mise-en-scene shifts into a dark descent into chiaroscuro fueled images symbolic of a fall into an abyss of moral damnation. (The exceptions to the earlier unaffected visual design, are anything but subtle punctuations which make no mystery in identifying  Calico as an amoral succubus, who preys on the weakness of Dave’s clueless affections; she is often shot in provocatively come hither poses, with the film cutting to the steamy expulsions of the steel mill as if the entire town were in the throes of an orgasmic discharge generated by her overheated sexuality.) 

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/for-queen-and-country-the-british-cinema/

Posted in British films, crime, film noir, movie reviews, Movies, Mystery, Reviews, Romance, theater, women, writing | Tagged | 2 Comments

What’s Love Got To Do With It?: “Hell is Sold Out” (1951)

 

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Hell Shocked: A confused and glum Dominic Danges (Herbert Lom) can’t understand how a bestselling book which he never wrote has his name on the cover in Michael Anderson’s romantic comedy (or is it a drama) “Hell is Sold Out”.

       “Hell is Sold Out”  (1951)

    One need not be Ernst Lubitsch to direct a stylish romance, but on the evidence of “Hell is Sold Out”, it pays not to be Michael Anderson.  It doesn’t matter that the plot , takenhellissoldoutLC from a novel by Maurice Dekobra, is no more preposterous than most concocted for many  celebrated Hollywood fabrications (certainly not those firmly footed in the dizzy realm of screwball comedy), but if the resultant movie cannot commit to whether it wishes to be amusing or dramatic, the rusty mechanics of forced contrivance are bound to assert themselves in pronounced ways that emphasize the deficiencies in writing, direction and the resultant disjointed performances.

    Popular novelist and French Resistance fighter Dominic Danges (Herbert Lom), a POW mistakenly reported killed, returns to find his latest book has become a tremendous bestseller. The only problem is, he didn’t write it. Nor the one before that. Nor does he hellissoldout2recognize Valerie Martin (Mai Zetterling), a Swedish woman who is masquerading as his widow, and who is the actual author of Danges’ two fraudulent works. Predictable complications arise concerning Dominic’s continued literary reputation and the usual love/hate signals shot back and forth between Dominic and Valerie, temporarily complicated by Danges’ POW buddy Pierre (Richard Attenborough) whose feelings toward Valerie creates a romantic triangle that is sensed by all but never explicitly articulated.

To read the complete review, click the following link to:  https://chandlerswainreviews.wordpress.com/matinees-at-the-bijoux/

Posted in books, British films, comedy, Mai Zetterling., movie reviews, Movies, Romance, women, writing | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Only Way to Fly: Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, Feb. 2018 Edition, Vol. 747

flying15The Only Way to Fly: Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, Feb. 2018 Edition, Vol. 747

     How often does this happen to you? You are waiting in endless airport security lines. The attending TSA agents are more suspiciously handsy than Bill Clinton redeeming a 50% off coupon at the Bunny Ranch. You are briskly detained  for three hours to fill out forms explaining the purpose of the highly suspicious cache of Orange Tic Tacs in your sweater pocket, while the first line of domestic defense in our national security are waving through a fidgety travel group from Yemen who are wearing matching IMPERIALIST DEVILS MUST DIE WORLD TOUR 2018 t-shirts  and who might be easily identified by the number of electrical wires poking through their tube socks. Sadly, any practitioners of preventative observational skills,  would have to be unafraid of derisiveflyinggif3 cries of “foul” ranging from accusations of ethnic profiling (no Virginia, I’m suspicious of anyone with a fuse dangling from their sleeve regardless of ancestry.com origin) to the hellfire and brimstone branding of racism. In the interest of saving countless thousands, the prospective politically unafraid hero might manage to generate a contempt only slightly more vitriolic than that aimed at the Manson Family. During all of this, it just may occur to you that air travel ain’t what it used to be. Still, the romance of flying through the clouds has not been entirely extinguished by fistfights in the aisles , and for that we have to direct a great deal of thanks to those brave and noble folks who fly the friendly skies, while patiently maintaining the good will and fortitude not to order the cabin crew to distribute the chloroform pillows to the disturbingly high percentage of potential asylum dwellers they are hauling around at 30.000 feet. Which brings us to this month’s edition of America’s most revered source of vertigo while in the sitting in the upright position, the Classic Film Images Photo Quiz, brought to you by those interstate smugglers of SKITTLES, America’s favorite cure for nasal incontinence. In this episode we applaud and celebrate the airplane pilot, those daring men or women who travel through the skies , not at all disturbed by the fact that the passengers are held hostage with the seventh screening of “Norbit”. Suckers. The following twenty images feature actors and actresses portraying pilots of vehicles that go zip through the air. Your job, as always, is to identify all twenty and be the first to do so. The lucky winner will receive (eventually) that beloved citation of good taste and preferred seating at the rest room of your choice at the NY Port Authority bus station, the CSR Culture Shock Award. Good luck.

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