Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice, adapted from the James M. Cain novel of the same name, is film noir boiled down to its rawest essence. Its plot is frankly preposterous, twisty and packed with one absurd contrivance after another, and yet there's something strangely irresistible about this odd, emotionally draining roller coaster ride. This is a noir where everything is increasingly centered around the passionate, complex, love/hate relationship between the femme fatale and the tough-luck guy who's stuck on her, a relationship whose seismic, molten intensity eventually burns away all the distractions at the film's margins, leaving only the smoldering exchange of glances, the continuous tension between a kiss and a slap, the desperate violence and desire of two people whose destinies are inextricably intertwined.

The femme in this variation on an age-old tale is Cora (Lana Turner), the wife of lunch counter owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway), a much older man. The hapless guy who falls for this beauty is the wandering drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield), a shiftless guy who hitchhikes from town to town and job to job. One afternoon, he winds up at Nick's place, where he gets a gig pumping gas and tending to odd jobs around the diner. He takes the opportunity because he just so happens to be there, as is his way, but he sticks around because of Cora, blonde and beautiful and statuesque, so glamorous that she looks more than a little out of place playing the role of the owner's wife, working in the kitchen and puttering around the place as a homemaker. It's never quite clear why Cora ever married Nick in the first place, and her explanation that he just came along at the right time and offered her stability doesn't hold water. Cora's an unabashed social climber, it's true, seeking a good life for herself and not above using her sexual appeal to get it — but that would hardly explain why she'd settle for the schlubby, unambitious old Nick, a tightwad whose greatest happiness seems to be getting his laundry done for free. The problem is that Turner is never believable in this role, she's too much of a movie star to be able to get across the more practical, down-to-earth ambitions that Cora expresses, like turning the diner into a fashionable bar.

Turner might inhabit this role awkwardly, but she's nevertheless an electric embodiment of the femme fatale, and her chemistry with the equally potent Garfield is undeniable. Together, they're the archetypal noir couple, her the ambitious social climber who'll toss her moral scruples aside to get what she wants, him the ordinary joe blinded by beauty, willing to do anything to get the girl. They're locked together almost from the very moment they lay eyes on each other. Cora's introduction in particular is stunning, with Garnett's camera and Frank's eyes catching a glimpse of her bare legs first as her dropped lipstick tube rolls across the floor; the camera then slowly traces upwards to take in the glorious rest of her. Frank bends down to pick up her lipstick, then initiates the first of the power games between them. While Cora waits for him to walk over with the lipstick to return it to her, he simply lounges against the lunch counter, holding it out in his palm, forcing her to come to him instead. It's an encapsulation of their entire relationship-to-come in a simple set of stylized gestures and motions, the webs of power and control already starting to form between them.

If the complicated relationship between Frank and Cora is continually enthralling, the actual plot with its multiple murder intrigues, courtroom double-crosses and conflicting schemes, is not quite as satisfying. There are too many coincidences and obvious contrivances, too many ridiculous situations — like the absurd sequence of events that confounds Cora and Frank's first failed attempt at murdering Nick. The script is sometimes smart enough to play the most outrageous bits for humor, particularly in the recurring scenes featuring a dim-witted motorcycle cop who fixates obsessively on a dead cat at the scene of the crime. But there's too much unexplained or poorly motivated business going on all the time. Why is the local district attorney (Leon Ames) so immediately suspicious of Frank and Cora, when it would seem that Nick was only involved in a bizarre accident? Who took out the insurance policy on Nick right before the couple finally manages to kill him? And all the courtroom shenanigans are unnecessarily convoluted and silly, not to mention distractingly unrealistic. The best noirs are always hyper-real and stylized rather than realistic, but this film makes such a hash of its narrative that it has no grounding in reality whatsoever. Still, even at its worst moments, the film boasts lively supporting turns from Hume Cronyn as a sleazy defense lawyer and Alan Reed as his beefy, wise-guy private eye, keeping the film fun through its sometimes uneven middle stretches.

For the most part, though, the film's best aspect is its central dysfunctional relationship. In the final half hour of the film, especially, this relationship becomes very complex, as Frank and Cora develop an intense hatred and distrust for one another, while at the same time clinging desperately together. They share the guilt for Nick's death, and for betraying one another, and yet the initial sparks of their love still glow, reminders of what brought them together in the first place. The performances of Turner and Garfield are perfect, even when they don't quite fit the characters they're supposed to be playing — they're perfect if only because of the friction and energy they generate whenever they're together. Garnett's sense of mise en scène also envelops the doomed lovers in their joined destinies, using moody lighting schemes to turn Nick's diner into a shadowy and tightly confined noir locale, its rooms seemingly never big enough and its door opening at awkward angles. Even when the plot threatens to go off the rails, the film's theme of desire shading into scorn is communicated in every nuance of Turner and Garfield's volcanic performances, and in the increasingly claustrophobic, constricting interiors with which Garnett surrounds them. The Postman Always Rings Twice may be implausible and overdone and occasionally silly, but it's also one of the best and purest explorations of the complicated sexual dynamics of the film noir, the relationships between sex and power, sex and greed, sex and guilt that drive noir's anti-heroes and femme fatales.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Queen Is Dead

One usually doesn't think of a stridently avant-garde filmmaker like Derek Jarman making rock music videos, but during the late 70s and 80s the British director frequently contributed to the music video form, crafting videos for the Sex Pistols and Marianne Faithful. Jarman had a particularly fruitful collaboration with the Smiths, for whom he made the charming, funny video for their single "Ask" and the multi-song miniature masterpiece The Queen Is Dead. This gorgeous 13-minute film was accompanied by three of the Smiths' songs: "The Queen Is Dead," "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," and "Panic." The film is of a piece with the evocative collage features Jarman made during the same period, proving that this so-called "music video" is as much a part of his oeuvre as The Angelic Conversation or The Last of England.

The film is structured around its trio of songs, with each part somewhat distinct from the others. The songs flow into one another, and the first and third section mirror each other in style and techniques, but the film is unmistakeably a triptych rather than a seamless whole. The film opens with Jarman's frantic, jittery interpretation of "The Queen Is Dead," with the imagery conjuring a nightmare vision of disintegrating England to match its title sentiment. In strobing, sped-up motion, hoods spray paint slogans across crumbling stone walls, a flaming record shoots across the screen like a comet, a young man with angel wings appears to be suffering, doubled over in pain, and jeweled crowns float in the midst of layered video superimpositions. This segment is unrelentingly fast-paced, matching the steady pulse of the accompanying song.

Jarman's images are simple and iconic, and he repeats them as though spelling out a mysterious coded message in rebus form: flower petals, a girl's face, a revolving guitar, abandoned buildings. Only towards the end does the repetitive structure begin to break down, opening up for several longer shots of a girl with close-cropped hair frolicking in a courtyard surrounded by desolate buildings, throwing a British flag into the wind to flutter above her. The pace slows only slightly for these shots, and there are still interjections of layered video abstractions, but the effect of this slight slackening is exaggerated by the film's overall density and speed. These few moments of relative relaxation are stunning in context.

This also sets up the film's much more deliberately paced second segment, based around one of the Smiths' finest songs, the morbidly romantic ballad "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." The song apparently brings out the best in Jarman as well, for the images he pairs with this music must surely rank among the most beautiful, haunting few minutes in his entire oeuvre. His illustration of the song's maudlin lyrics — wishing for a romantic mutual death — is simple and direct, accomplished by layering several images on top of one another and fading between them, allowing the intersections of different film stocks and colors to create tactile, textural compositions. An androgynous young woman, bathed in deep blue light and lying on her stomach, sleeps in the midst of this collage, Jarman's camera moving sensuously across her body, letting the light play along her skin. She is deliberately positioned so that her gender is actually unclear — she might just as well be a feminine young man. This image is blended into black and white footage of two lovers kissing together in a field, a twinkling overlay of golden light, and footage of fiery wrecks and car crashes, sometimes in grainy black and white and sometimes emitting purplish flames.

The images are basic, and obviously constitute Jarman's illustrative response to the song's lyrics: "and if a ten ton truck/ kills the both of us/ to die by your side/ well, the pleasure and the privilege is mine." The film's beauty, however, lies in the way Jarman transforms this simple premise into something deeply emotional and moving, a sumptuous depiction of a love so powerful that it endures even through death. Jarman's use of superimposition, besides being visually striking, has always been a way of creating dense layers of emotion that could not possibly be contained within a single image otherwise. His layering of images rarely serves a narrative purpose, though in this particular instance the juxtaposition of the sleeping woman with the other images could easily be construed as a representation of dreams or memory or imagination. In fact, though, Jarman doesn't seem to be suggesting a story so much as creating an atmosphere, exploring the melodramatically romantic mood of the Smiths song. The young woman is sexualized by Jarman, but in a way independent of any gendered sex characteristics: the camera admiringly crawls across the naked upper torso and legs, fading in and out of the sea of images, capturing the way light and shadow play across the skin. Considered in the context of Jarman's gay sexual identity, this film might by read as an acknowledgment of the impossible array of social and political forces sabotaging the possibility of gay love, leaving death as the only viable option — and yet at the same time opening up other, more hopeful possibilities by layering in the pastoral image of the kissing lovers.

This second segment is a pivot point, a moment of sad but beautiful tranquility in the center of the film's rushing torrent of imagery. The final segment, Jarman's video for the Smiths' "Panic," returns to the jittery pacing and jumpy camerawork of the first section. He even reuses some of the same imagery — the flaming record, rope-jumping schoolgirls in negative, the crowns, a static shot of a British pound note — while the video for "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" utilized an entirely distinct visual palette. This brief final section essentially recycles and revisits the opening, this time centering on a young man walking around a grimy black and white London but quickly cutting away to and layering in all sorts of other images. The sensory overload is no doubt intentional on Jarman's part, suggesting an apocalyptic world about to fall apart at any moment. A hand, perpetually outstretched as though begging, shakes and blurs, propelled by the insistent beat of the music.

Though short and created as a commission — Jarman himself reportedly dismissed his collaborations with the Smiths as only a paycheck — to treat The Queen Is Dead as minor Jarman would be to ignore one of the director's most concise and beautifully realized summations of his avant-garde collage work. These evocative, poetic, multi-layered images create webs of resonance with the Smiths songs they're accompanying. The result is not only the rare music video that actually enhances and emotionally intensifies the music, but one of Jarman's great films.

The Ghost Ship

None of the films producer Val Lewton made for RKO in the 40s could be described as conventional horror films, despite their pulp novel titles and horror premises, but The Ghost Ship, Lewton's fifth film and second with director Mark Robson, is possibly the furthest from its horror roots. Before its late detour into escalating madness, the film is a quiet, slowly paced seafaring tale. The idealistic young officer Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is assigned to his first long voyage aboard the ship of the accomplished captain Will Stone (Richard Dix), a well-liked skipper with a stern, iron-hard regard for authority — particularly his own. Throughout the bulk of the film, Lewton and Robson seem less concerned with developing any sense of horror or suspense than with exploring the moral dichotomy between the captain and his young officer.

These issues play out mostly in conversations between the two men, with Captain Stone attempting to impart his sense of the officer's role into his protégé. These moral inquiries are broadly written, dealing in generalities and clichés, and the performances (particularly Wade's groan-inducing kiddish naivete) are stiff and stagey. But the issues the film is interested in exploring are undoubtedly worthwhile: the thirst for control and power, the necessity of speaking out and fighting back against corrupt authority figures (surely a pointed commentary in 1943, with the lessons of Hitler still looming large), the value of human life and the tremendous moral stakes involved in preserving and protecting it. The appropriately named Captain Stone is a man obsessed with power, to the exclusion of all else. He has a woman who loves him (Edith Barrett) in one of the port towns along his route, but he ignores and neglects her, preferring the satisfactions of leadership to those of love. He believes that his stewardship over the men on his ship gives him rights over their lives, and their deaths, an idea the film illustrates with the lovely image of a glowing white moth fluttering around a light bulb. When Stone and Merriam first meet, Merriam makes a gesture to kill the moth, but his superior pulls him up short, telling the younger man that he is not responsible for the moth's safety, and therefore has no right to take its life. It's an elegant, circumspect way of communicating the profound sense of control and entitlement that Stone holds over his crewmen.

Merriam initially finds himself persuaded by Stone's cheerful, casually delivered philosophy and seeming respect for the younger man. But he soon comes to see something darker in the captain, something mad and evil at the core of his philosophy, and this darkness in Stone comes to the fore with increasing frequency throughout the film. At its best, this duel of moral opposites — one believing in the essential goodness and equality of men, the other a totalitarian who calls human beings "cattle" — plays out within the cramped, dimly lit corridors of the ship, its gentle rocking creating pulsating shadows on the walls. The atmosphere is moody and minimalist, and the shipboard setting is sparse. Lewton was using an existing ship set on the RKO lot, and the expressive lighting narrows the focus to the claustrophobic confines of the boat itself, with hardly a glimpse of water or sky beyond its borders.

The film is thus less successful during its middle section, which ventures off the ship into a bright, airy port town where Barrett abruptly appears to humanize the captain, to provide some context for his increasing dementia and isolation from humanity. The film's philosophical and moral beats are pounded home so forcefully that it quickly becomes tiresome, particularly during Barrett's speech to Merriam about meeting girls and creating a life outside of his sailor's work. The dialogue is often clunky and pat. The writing in Lewton's films is never exactly subtle, with the themes inscribed right on the surface, but his earlier productions were generally more poetic and evocative; this one has too much psychoanalytical patter and contrived philosophy. Its poetry is confined to its images, which though not as consistently stunning as earlier Lewton productions, are still often eerie and effective. Lewton and Robson make particularly good use of character actor Skelton Knaggs, whose pockmarked, skeletal visage makes for inherently haunting images. As the mute sailor Finn, Knaggs' role is basically to stand around looking vaguely creepy, staring off to sea, his face half-obscured by shadows.

There also are several moments where Finn's internal monologue provides a poignant counterpoint to the film's theme that human connections are what maintains sanity and the sense of morality. As a mute, Finn has no friends, can foster no relationships with others, and this isolation and alienation torments him, whereas Stone suffers in a self-created isolation, a victim of his own monomania. In the final twenty minutes of the film, as Stone begins to spiral further and further out of control, Dix's increasingly unhinged performance becomes more and more appealing in its wildness. The intensity of his portrayal of Stone as a madman is convincing enough to make one forget the earlier clumsiness and stiffness of his conversations with Merriam. The scenes of the unraveling Stone stalking the ship's narrow hallways carrying a large, glinting knife are among the film's most memorable images. The Ghost Ship might be one of Val Lewton's weaker productions, but it's still an interesting if flawed attempt to create horror from a study of moral opposites.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Point Blank

With his snub-nosed mug, intense squint and purposeful stride, Lee Marvin is an archetypal screen tough guy, an image of brutality and stoicism carved in unflinching stone. In John Boorman's pulpy neo-noir Point Blank Marvin plays Walker, a mystery man whose first name is never revealed — always a sign of a true movie badass, for some reason. Walker is betrayed by his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker) and his best friend Mal (John Vernon) when the three hold up a money drop from a big crime syndicate. Mal and Lynne take the money, including Walker's share, leaving him for dead, but apparently not dead enough. Walker, of course, spends the rest of the movie single-mindedly pursuing Mal and the crime bosses above him. It's not about revenge, exactly, since Walker doesn't stop after he's offed Mal, and it's not even about the money, even though every time Walker's asked what he's after he simply repeats "my ninety-three thousand" as though he's a robot with a voice loop. It seems more like Walker, having lost his wife and best friend and any semblance of a life, just has nothing better to do than stomp through the defenses of mobsters and crooked businessmen, pounding on their bodyguards and gruffly demanding payment.

This is, then, the story of a man completely divorced from the world and from ordinary morality, a man consumed by a purposeless quest whose only real goal is to give him an endless supply of targets, of people to hurt. Boorman brings to this bleak, violent tale a cool, distant style deeply influenced by the hip gangster fetishism of the French New Wave, and especially the early 60s films of Jean-Luc Godard. In a perfect demonstration of the circularity of influence, Boorman imports back into the US the kind of stripped-down, alienated gangster thug who Godard had adopted from his own influences in American genre films of the 40s and 50s. Marvin's Walker is the noir hero twice removed, which perhaps explains his generic qualities, his ironic distance. He's certainly not Bogart, but nor is he Belmondo, aping the affectations of Bogart: he's something much simpler, a copy of a copy who retains only the crudest, most essential features of the original, with none of the nuance or sensitivity. He's a tough guy, but not a man of honor, a scrappy fighter not above kicking an opponent in the balls or slapping around a woman. Walker's hardly a hero, stoically and expressionlessly killing his way through the line of men separating him from a payoff that wasn't even his to begin with; he feels he deserves it by virtue of the fact that he stole it.

The only indication that Walker feels anything besides this blinkered obsession with the money that's owed him is, not in Marvin's stony mug, but in the poetic editing and sound design that allow past and present to flow into one another. Boorman switches fluidly between perspectives, cutting together scenes from Walker's initial betrayal, his later encounter with his wife, and various other incidents. This editing is often gestural: a stylized movement, the sweep of an arm or the act of peering through a curtain, will activate an associative cut to a similar movement in some other time and place. Thus Boorman's editing allows, especially, for a continuity between the dead Lynne and her sister, Chris (Angie Dickinson), who helps Walker with his mission by offering herself up to Mal, distracting him at a crucial moment. At one point, during a love scene, Boorman cuts between virtually every possible variation on the couples involved: it's Chris and Walker in bed together, but as they roll over they become Chris and Mal, Lynne and Mal, Lynne and Walker, suggesting that for Walker he and his traitorous friend are interchangeable, and all women are the same.

This would be a blunt, ugly film — and it often is anyway — if not for the cool, detached humor that Boorman brings to it. Sneaking up into Mal's apartment, Walker takes an elevator while the bodyguards are distracted by a ruckus across the street; the elevator door opens behind the guards, revealing a patient, stoic Walker, calmly waiting for the door to close again. Walker's break-in is also assisted by a pair of gay guys in an apartment across the street, who are all too eager to tie themselves up and please their captor. There's a sly, deadpan humor in all of this, a sense that Boorman is subtly undermining his merciless and seemingly unstoppable hitman. This is never more obvious than in the over-the-top scene where an overwrought Chris beats frantically on the unmoving Walker, then proceeds to run around the house turning on all the appliances and the stereo, her mocking voice coming to him over an intercom. She calls him pathetic, sad and misguided, a relic who should just lay down and die, and hearing her detached voice floating through the house, it's hard not to see her words as the director's own perspective, his condemnation of his creation.

Still, Point Blank is basically all about its gangster chic cool, the icy nihilism of Marvin's single-named killer with his silver hair and quiet determination. This killer is the essence of the film, so much so that at the end he doesn't burn out in the expected hail of bullets, nor does he get what he has been ostensibly fighting for all along; instead, he simply melts away into the shadows, as though diffusing, spreading his spirit everywhere. He's thus as present in the final silent shots of Alcatraz island as he is in the many widescreen closeups where his harsh features float in a field of blank nothingness.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Rainer Werner Fassbinder's final film was the bizarre, abrasive and often unbearably silly Querelle, an unsettling final note in a brief but prolific career defined by the director's near-total disregard for conventions. An adaptation of a novel by Jean Genet, this is Fassbinder's most off-putting film, his most purposefully Brechtian in the distance it creates between the audience and the narrative. In fact, Fassbinder erects a nearly unbridgeable gap between the viewer and the material, a bottomless gulf into which all attempts at understanding or approaching this essentially unlikeable film must fall. The film's staging is exaggeratedly theatrical and campy, its action taking place on stagey sets with bright orange backgrounds and homoerotic architecture, in a port city whose walls are buttressed with phallic statuary. It is a gay dreamworld, a brightly colored fantasy in which women are almost entirely absent and muscular sailors, policemen and laborers stalk each other, seeking violence and sex in this city's streets and brothels. Fassbinder does everything he can to keep his audience at arm's length: the grotesque high camp of the mise en scène; the uninflected performances of the multilingual cast, excacerbated by rough, echoey dubbing; the awkwardness of the dialogue, with characters delivering stilted monologues on their inner states in weighty, tortured language. It's all contrived to create a thoroughly unpleasant, disturbing experience: despite the bright colors and ridiculous imagery, the tendency to dress up men in uniform like ersatz Village People, the movie is just no fun at all.

In keeping with this emphasis on Brechtian surfaces, the film's narrative is presented with a flat, affectless quality that levels off the various strands of the story, eliminating the drama and emotion otherwise inherent in it. Querelle (Brad Davis) is one of several sailors who arrives in a raucous port city when his ship put into the harbor. The real story of the film, beneath all its various threads and diversions and impenetrable scenes, is the initiation of Querelle into homosexual desire, first with the hulking brothel owner Nono (Günther Kaufmann), then with the macho, leather-clad cop Mario (Burkhard Driest), and finally with the first man who he feels genuine love and affection for, the workman Gil (Hanno Pöschl). Throughout it all, however, the subtext of Querelle's developing sexuality is his relationship with his brother Robert (also played, tellingly, by Pöschl), with whom he shares a fierce, violent rivalry and affection. When the two men greet each other at the beginning of the film, they embrace and begin simultaneously punching each other in the stomach, a gesture of love and hatred intertwined. Querelle's attraction to Gil thus stems from two sources. The first is the men's shared criminality, since both have committed murders: Gil killed a friend who would not stop taunting and ridiculing him for his homosexuality, while Querelle killed, for unexplained reasons, a fellow sailor. Querelle allows Gil to take on the responsibility for the latter crime as well, but he feels bound to the man because they have both shed blood. More obviously, however, they are bound together by brotherly affection: Querelle transforms Gil into Robert by pasting a mustache across his upper lip, a disguise that erases the only distinction between his brother and the man he loves.

This is, to say the least, some heavyhanded symbolism; Fassbinder is painting with very broad strokes here. This is undoubtedly his most naked and unfettered portrayal of gay desire, but it seems to be a vision borne more out of despair than love or satisfaction. It's a film, basically, about the impossibility of love, a film whose message could be summed up by the dirge-like pop tune sung by brothel mistress Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau, the film's sole female presence): "each man kills the thing he loves." This is a phrase that could easily provide a summation for much of Fassbinder's oeuvre, so often centering around the destructiveness and violence of love, the painfully unfulfilled needs that we all feel. There is usually in Fassbinder's films, even in those that deal explicitly with gay desire (Fox and His Friends, In a Year With 13 Moons, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant), a sense that the issues he's dealing with are universal, that gay desire and straight desire are united in the painful feelings and complicated betrayals they involve. Fassbinder's characters suffer and yearn and struggle not because they are gay or straight, but because they're human, dealing with the emotional torment that Fassbinder saw as fundamental to existence.

Querelle, to some extent, is the only Fassbinder film that is entirely gay, where straight desire and straight experience can find no foothold, no ground for comparison. Even a great actress like Jeanne Moreau seems wasted, her role as a woman to be ignored and cast aside, a pawn for the men. And yet the gay imagery that Fassbinder chooses to employ here is caricatured, almost stereotyped, all leather and homoerotic sailor boys going around everywhere barechested, bathed in the glistening, pastel lights that Fassbinder strobes across them. The campy stylization results in some stunning and potent images — the choreographed, balletic knife fights that look like something out of a surrealistic West Side Story; the intensity of the sex scene between Nono and Querelle, filmed in sweaty closeups — but the overall effect is incoherent. It's all unavoidably silly and campy in the worst way, continually distracting from whatever Fassbinder's trying to say with this film.

It's obvious that this is a deeply personal film for the director, coping with great loss at the end of his life, but it is impenetrable to the viewer: Querelle presents an inward-looking dreamworld whose meaning and mystery are hidden behind an opaque, glittering surface. The film is never less than beautiful to look at. Fassbinder's mastery of color was intact, and the film is awash in candy-colored lights that create complex areas of interlocking color within each frame. Visually, the film is most reminiscent of the director's sublime Lola, made just a year earlier, or to the nightmarish two-hour epilogue of his epic TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz.

But whereas in Fassbinder's earlier films his mannered stylistic touches often concretized the emotional subtexts of his characters and stories, expressing in light and color the inner essence of his tragic heroes, the style in Querelle seems to be expressing only itself. Of the actors, only Davis expresses anything beyond a deadpan blankness, letting brief flashes of personality escape in the hint of a mischievous grin. Everyone else seems deadened, barely even awake, and their zombified stares and sleepwalking mannerisms make the film's glossy surface seem like so much superficial flash, signifying nothing deeper. Fassbinder is continually subverting any possibility of emotional engagement, peppering the film with intertitles quoting from various sources, commenting obliquely on the story. Moreover, the voiceover, which recites from Genet's source novel, is — at least in the English version — so disinterested and stilted that the narrator hardly seems to realize what he's even saying.

As Fassbinder's final work before his death, Querelle is an interesting dilemma for admirers of the great director: a seemingly impenetrable film that Fassbinder apparently intended to be his final statement to the world. It is, of course, appropriate that Fassbinder last communique should be such a confounding, destabilizing work, one that challenges even the modes of expression established by his most difficult previous films. Fassbinder's final film is one of his least characteristic, and possibly his least successful as well. It's a flawed, messy, but nevertheless sporadically intriguing work, a glossy gay fantasia that Fassbinder offered up as the final image torn from the depths of his tortured mind.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Return of Dracula

Paul Landres' overlooked 50s horror great The Return of Dracula could be subtitled, with some justification, "Dracula Goes to the Suburbs." And yet the film does not, as that premise might suggest, play up the campy silliness or incongruity of the blood-sucking count setting up operations in a sunny California town. Rather, the film is dark and grainy and straightforwardly terrifying, its horror arising from the way the undead's nighttime evil seems to silently infiltrate this ordinary American suburb, an Old World nightmare seeping into New World homes, creeping among the picket fences and shiny chrome-laden 50s cars. Dracula (Francis Lederer) arrives in the guise of a suave European visitor, posing as the émigré Balkan cousin of suburban widow Cora Mayberry (Greta Granstedt). Cora and her family — perky, sweet-natured daughter Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) and tousled-haired little son Mickey (Jimmy Baird) — are as all-American as possible, making the arrival of "cousin Bellac" an exciting event for them, a chance to experience something foreign, something far outside of the norm of their cozy, isolated little community. What they get is far more than they expected.

In this sense, the horror of The Return of Dracula emerges from the fear of difference, the fear of immigrants and their ethnic distinctions, their varying customs and eccentric behavior, so unlike the fair-haired, fresh-faced American kids of this small town. This is a Dracula who scorns American suburban conformity, who represents the ultimate outsider, refusing to assimilate and adapt himself to the way of life of those around him — who refuses, in fact, to adapt to life itself, preferring to tempt those he encounters into death instead. Lederer is an incredibly creepy vampire, but also a decidedly non-traditional one. Landres' take on this tale incorporates some aspects of vampire lore (the fear of crosses, the aversion to sunlight, the stake through the heart, the lack of reflection) but sheds others. This version of Dracula leaves no teeth marks on his victims, but it's not clear what exactly he does to them: he visits them in the night, appearing from a cloud of smoke, whispering seductively to hypnotize them, sneakily insinuating into them the desire to embrace death, to reject life. He is not so much a vampire as a lothario who creeps in the night, luring innocents to their doom. He looks the part, too: this Dracula dresses like a gangster in a nappy suit and fedora, and with his craggy face and hawk-like nose, Lederer looks as much like an intimidating hitman as an undead count. But his beady eyes, ringed with black, and his sinister, leering smile confirm his supernatural pedigree.

The creeping malice of Lederer's Dracula is only enhanced by his surroundings, by the quiet and tranquility of the neighborhood through which he stalks. Rachel is, of course, the focus of the vampire's fascination, and she's a pure, good-hearted girl who dedicates a great deal of time at the local church, where she cares for the ill and reads to the blind. She has dual ambitions to be a nurse or a dress designer, and when she's not at school or doing charity work, she's making out with and playfully teasing the earnest boy next door, her boyfriend Tim (Ray Stricklyn). The two are typical 50s teenagers, happy and carefree and good-humored; one expects them to say things like "golly" and "aw shucks" without any trace of irony. Their sexuality is disarmingly open and yet somehow chaste, peaking at heavy kissing, and Dracula's seduction into death represents a darker, stranger sexuality as yet unexplored. There is almost always a sexual component to vampire stories, and this mostly bloodless vampire is even more explicitly than usual a seducer, leaving his mark in his victims' minds rather than on their necks. In this way, the film might be a prototype for David Lynch's Blue Velvet, a dark fantasy of unspeakable evil coexisting with equally unnatural goodness, of dark sexuality tempting small town teens towards violent oblivion.

The film is dark aesthetically as well as thematically. Even in the daytime, this town is gray and overcast, as though perpetually clouded, and at night the shadows threaten to swallow up everything. Dracula melts out of the darkness, haunting the night, appearing and disappearing as though he could be any place he wanted at any time. His voice floats everywhere through the town, his insistent whispered entreaties calling his victims to him. In one of the film's eeriest sequences, he creeps into the room of the blind young woman Jennie (Virginia Vincent), who opens her unseeing eyes as Dracula tells her to see him in her mind. The girl is stiff and transfixed, her eyes watery and wide, as the vampire approaches her bed, bending down towards her neck and blotting out the camera's view as he does. With misdirection like this, Landres suggests horror rather than showing it directly. In one early scene, Mickey returns from exploring the nearby caves distraught and weeping uncontrollably, having just found his kitten ripped apart and killed; his reaction to this unseen horror is more harrowing than modern horror films where the gore is piled on thick but the emotional reactions are sparse. Landres doesn't care as much about the blood and violence as about the effect of it all on his characters, the slowly increasing mood of dread as Rachel's opinion of her stylish "cousin" shifts from admiration to suspicion to wide-eyed terror.

The overall restraint of the film, its deliberate pacing, also enhances the shock of the swift brutal violence when it finally does come, like the scene where a vampire hunter, closing in on Dracula's trail, is assaulted and torn to shreds by a ferocious white dog, one of the vampire's many incarnations. Even more startling is the way that Landres, at a key point, inserts a sudden few seconds of color footage, with blood red oozing up out of a wound — an effectively sensational way of representing the shock of violence in this monochrome world.

Landres also has an intuitive eye for striking compositions, like the way he shoots the purposeful gathering of a group of vampire hunters led by police inspector Meiermann (John Wengraf), converging in a triangle as they walk towards the camera carrying stakes and crosses. Later, when Rachel finally discovers the truth about her "cousin," Landres playfully places a mirror in the extreme righthand corner of the frame throughout the scene leading up to this moment. The director is banking on his audience's knowledge of vampire lore, and he knows that by subtly pointing to the mirror's prominence in the scene, he's ratcheting up the tension, suggesting the inevitable moment when the vampire will appear, invisible in this mirror but no less real. Moments like this suggest the style and flair that Landres brings to this unpretentious B movie, elevating it into a minor classic of its genre. The Return of Dracula is a surprisingly potent, original take on the Dracula legend, revitalizing the old vampire tale with its blunt low-budget aesthetics and small town setting.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Dr. Cyclops

In its opening minutes, Dr. Cyclops promises something incredibly rare in the annals of trashy B movies: a lurid, creepy tale of sci-fi horror shot in gorgeous, eye-popping Technicolor, its sickly green hues and expressionist lighting schemes enhancing the schlocky horror of the premise. The film opens in a dark laboratory where strobing lights send ever-changing shadows flitting across the walls, while the mad scientist Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) bends down over strange glowing tubes. The whole thing is bathed in green light, and the atmosphere is eerie and unsettling even before Thorkel's confrontation with his morally outraged colleague Dr. Mendoza (slumming character actor Paul Fix), who demands that Thorkel halt his mysterious experiments with radiation. Mendoza quickly meets a gruesome and horrifying end, with Thorkel using radioactive materials to mutate the other doctor's face into a skeletal death mask. It's a creepy, beautifully handled special effect, and this opening scene is just about the best horror movie introduction possible. Already it's apparent that the acting is stiff and the script ridiculous, but this scene seems to promise at least a film that takes full advantage of its Technicolor format and the possibilities of bringing color to an ordinarily low-budget shocker.

I think you know where this is going by now, though. The opening scene of Dr. Cyclops unfortunately seems to be where all of the ingenuity and imagination of the cinematographer and lighting crew were focused. The rest of the film provides plenty of for-the-time dazzling special effects and trick shots, but nothing with the aesthetic jolt of that unforgettable opening, nothing that provides the same frisson of sloppy, almost accidental beauty that characterizes the best B pictures. The remainder of the tale takes place in bright sunlight in a backlot jungle, eventually becoming a "shrinking" adventure story of the kind that would become so popular in 50s sci-fi cinema. The first scene turns out to be merely a prologue, with the bulk of the action taking place two years later, when Thorkel suddenly summons together a group of three scientists to assist with his research at an isolated South American lab: the proud Dr. Rupert Bullfinch (Charles Halton), pretty young Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan), and the lazy mineralogist Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley). Before arriving at the mad doctor's lab, the trio meets up with the mule driver Steve Baker (Victor Killian) and Thorkel's Spanish assistant Pedro (Frank Yaconelli).

Upon arrival, the group is insulted to find that Thorkel wants them not so much for their scientific expertise, but only because his failing eyesight has prevented him from doing much of his routine lab work himself. He has them peer into microscopes for him, confirming some test results without explaining what he's doing, and then tries to send them off. Of course, the curious scientists stay on, and as such fall victim to Thorkel's crazed experiments: using radioactive materials, he is shrinking living beings, getting off on the God-like control he exercises over nature. He shrinks the whole group of scientists, including Pedro and Baker, and then tries to experiment on these new subjects. But despite the horrific opening, the premise plays out more like a light, even farcical adventure, never generating any genuine horror or thrills out of its shrunken heroes and towering villain.

The film has an odd, cheery tone that's reinforced in its incongruously bouncy score, and in the silly ethnic humor provided by Pedro's caricatured character. Once the group is shrunk down, they look ridiculous dressed in toga-type garments that Thorkel apparently made for them out of handkerchiefs; Pedro, on the other hand, seems to be wearing a diaper beneath his paunchy belly, accentuating his status as comic relief. Even more absurd is the sequence where, when the group gets some time away from Thorkel to plot and think, the men get to work customizing weapons and tools from whatever they can find, while Mary begins sewing and is apparently able to make whole new, more colorful outfits for the group while Thorkel is sleeping. This film is nothing if not intent on confirming stereotypes, often in the most ludicrous ways.

Thorkel himself hardly proves to be a particularly intimidating villain, either. His jovial manner with his victims is faintly absurd and funny, but he certainly never again seems like the creepy force of evil that he was in his first appearance. The film's appeal lies largely in its Oscar-nominated special effects, which were surely revolutionary for the time, combining rear projection and various double printing techniques with judicious use of miniatures and over-sized sets. These effects often convincingly portray the miniaturization of the doctor's victims, though the rear projection shots simulating attacks by chickens, alligators and cats are laughable today. Even the best effect shots — like the one where the mad doctor grabs the squirming Bullfinch in his giant fist — can't distract from the essential dullness of the film, its meandering plot basically just providing an excuse to get from one flashy effects sequence to the next.

Director Ernest B. Schoedsack, most famous as one of the masterminds behind King Kong, can't manage to bring any depth to this inherently thin material, despite some clumsy attempts to reference the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops. Too much of the film is spent following around a group of miniaturized over-actors through one trick shot after another, all at a plodding, deadened pace. This would be par for the course for a lousy B-movie if it weren't for that opening scene, which for a few brief minutes promised something much greater.

Films I Love #20: In a Year With 13 Moons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978)

Nearly all of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's many films revolve around the human need for love, affection, respect, and acceptance, but perhaps none of his films treat this subject with the intense focus of In a Year With 13 Moons. It is arguably one of Fassbinder's most personal films, a direct response to the suicide of his lover Armin Meier, and Fassbinder not only wrote and directed it but handled the cinematography on one of his own films for the first time (the only other film he shot himself was The Third Generation). The result is one of the director's most visually sumptuous films, as well as his most harrowing melodrama, rigidly structured as a series of set pieces in which the transsexual Erwin/Elvira (Volker Spengler) tries to make sense of his/her shattered life. Erwin is the archetypal Fassbinder hero(ine), so desperate for love and attention that when his straight friend Anton (Gottfried John) offhandedly jokes that they could get together if only Erwin was a woman, the naïve Erwin takes him at his word. He goes to Casablanca for an illicit operation and comes back as Elvira, but Anton doesn't know what to make of his friend's literal-mindedness, and rejects him. The film is set many years later, as Elvira attempts to recover from yet another horrible break-up. She is floundering, often uncertain about her sexual identity; Erwin didn't want to be a woman so much as he just wanted to be with Anton, but now he's trapped between genders.

The film is structured as a spiritual journey or epic quest, with Elvira engaging in emotionally and psychologically fraught encounters with both strangers and figures from her own life: her prostitute friend Zora (Ingrid Caven), her wife (Elisabeth Trissenaar) and daughter (Eva Mattes), the nun who raised her as a foster child (Fassbinder's own mother Lilo Pempeit), and of course Anton himself. In one of the film's most bizarre scenes, the mysterious Anton is revealed as a reclusive real estate developer who enacts strange musical numbers with his troop of bodyguards: it's an unsettling mixture of fascist goose-stepping with gay pageantry, with Anton portrayed as martinet whose economic power has gone to his head. If Elvira is Fassbinder's archetypal victim, Anton is the corresponding oppressor and user, an upper-class economic leech who screws over his employees and those who get in his way just as casually and thoughtlessly as he emotionally screwed over Elvira.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hurlevent (Wuthering Heights)

[All through the month of February, Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter has declared a tribute to films that are "M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD." This post is a contribution to this series.]

Hurlevent is Jacques Rivette's stark, emotionally naked adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. The story is of course familiar, and Rivette treats it, as a result, with an air of inevitability: these things are fated to happen, they are destiny, because they have been written. The film is split neatly in two, with an ellipsis of three years in between. In the first half of the film, brother and sister Guillaume (Olivier Cruveiller) and Catherine (Fabienne Babe) are living together on a crumbling estate after their father's death, along with the "foundling" Roch (Lucas Belvaux) who their father adopted. With the old man gone, Guillaume treats Roch like a hired hand or worse, a dog, beating and berating him at every chance he gets, locking him in his room or even in the kennels. Guillaume is a jealous, nasty brute, resentful of the love Roch earned from their father, and even more resentful of the strong bond of affection and love that exists between Roch and Catherine, who are so close, so intimate, that their love for each other seems to be a weird blend of sexual desire and sibling friendship. This bond, however, cannot survive Guillaume's insistent attempts to shatter it. Hemmed in on every side, constricted by the spiteful master of the house, unable to break free, Catherine finally flings herself at their wealthy neighbor Olivier (Olivier Torres), seeing him as her only way out. Roch, deeply wounded, disappears.

At this point, the film picks up three years later, with Catherine and Olivier married, living in Olivier's home along with his sister Isabelle (Alice de Poncheville). The trio have formed a new détente similar to the quasi-incestuous bond between Catherine, Guillaume and Roch. Isabelle and Olivier are as close, as intimately connected and harmonious, as Catherine and Roch, and their feelings for each other sometimes seem to be as far from chaste sibling bonds as Guillaume's jealous desire for his sister. Into the midst of this complicated tangle of feelings, Roch finally returns from his long absence, having shed his savage ways and dirty appearance, made his fortune somewhere and cleaned himself up. He proceeds to manipulate everyone around him, exacting his revenge for the way he was abused and rejected when he was younger. Rivette lets it all play out in his characteristic slow, patient long takes, his camera crawling and stalking through each scene as the characters stalk and circle one another. There is no escape for these characters, constrained by the written word to their preordained ugly ends, and yet Rivette is continually hinting at the ways out: the beauty of the countryside with its rolling hills, the way the contact between various characters keeps shifting fluidly from sensuous embraces to violent constriction, and most importantly the escape offered by dreams and fantasies.

Indeed, dreams recur at three key points in this otherwise solidly realist film, with little indication that they even are dreams until they're over. The dreams don't so much break with the reality of the film as offer alternate visions of its final outcome, as envisioned by each of the three central characters. The film opens with Guillaume's horrified dream in which he witnesses Catherine and Roch kissing passionately in the rocky hills surrounding their estate. He makes a move to attack them, but is suddenly pulled up short by a vision of his father, a reminder of what the dead head of the household would have wanted to happen. This dream, which offers a hopeful resolution to Catherine and Roch's love story, is answered by Catherine's much more regretful dream, positioned in the center of the film right at the pivot point of the story: Roch comes to her bedroom, leads her away, then collapses dead with his arms slit up the middle, his bloody handprints left behind on her white nightgown. In the film's final dream, and its final image, Roch is summoned by his lost Catherine from the window of his room, where her arm beckons to him from outside; he reaches for her but she disappears, leaving his hand clutching at air out the window. These dreams flow from out of the fabric of the film's reality, reflecting the acts of imagination in which life is subtly altered and reconfigured into more romantic, sensuous possibilities, even if it's just the longing for a ghost that Roch experiences in the finale.

Rivette also hints at other possibilities, at least in the first half of the film, in the gorgeous images of the rural countryside surrounding Guillaume and Olivier's estates. Catherine and Roch find escape, even if only briefly, in a free-spirited run through the rolling hills, with a marbled sky of dark clouds above them, shot through with patches of sunshine. The hills, curving upwards, seem to suggest the transcendence of the two would-be lovers over their mundane melodramatic story, the possibility that they might keep running up and up, joyfully escaping together into the beautiful open fields. Rivette accompanies these scenes of potentiality with the film's only non-diegetic sound, a selection of stunning pieces by the Bulgarian women's choir compilation Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, music of such unearthly beauty that it is nearly alien, music that seems to emanate from (and yearn for) a world far beyond the corporeal plane. It is thus perfectly appropriate music for this story of perennially unfulfilled desires, and its startling ethereal quality is enhanced by the film's generally sparse soundtrack. Other than a scene in which Catherine plays records of classical music for a party, the only other sounds in the film are utterly mundane and diegetic: the distant howl of the wind, the clatter of farm equipment, the haunting calls of animals in the night. There's an eerie simplicity to the soundtrack, an emptiness, and the intrusion of these Bulgarian melodies, with their dense frameworks of interlocking voices and dissonant overtones, is thus doubly jarring and disorienting.

Despite this potent music, however, Catherine and Roch's dreams of escape must remain only dreams, and so much of the film is concerned with their dreary hopelessness that it begins to seem rather dreary itself. The second half of the film plays out like the inset melodramatic play-within-the-film sequences of Celine and Julie Go Boating, with the stiff, dissatisfied Catherine, Olivier, Isabelle and Roch wandering around Olivier's mansion. That's fitting: they're as hopelessly condemned to their fates as the characters in the earlier film, reliving a circular tragedy over and over again. And yet, without Rivette's characteristic wit and vivacity, Hurlevent begins to seem lifeless, its characters fenced in without the escape offered by Celine and Julie's playful interventions. This film is more of a kin to Rivette's flawed Merry-Go-Round, in which the alternate realities of fantasy and dream also provide the only escape for the characters from their damaging, manipulative relationships with one another. Hurlevent strips that film down even further, replacing its freewheeling improvisation and humor with a rigid, methodical structure to which the characters are pinned. This is, despite moments of beauty and grace, one of Rivette's bleakest films, an interesting, often enthralling, but ultimately dour formalist experiment.


Stagecoach was the first film to unite director John Ford with both his iconic genre, the Western, and the actor who would come to be his most iconic star, John Wayne. Ford and Wayne both made Westerns before this, of course, but their collaboration on this film sparked something bold and unusual that would breathe new life into the genre and help shape it for the next two decades, the Golden Age of the Hollywood Western. It feels like something new and special is afoot from the moment Ford introduces Wayne as the wrongly jailed outlaw nicknamed the Ringo Kid. The harsh crack of a gunshot stops a speeding stagecoach, and Ford zooms in frantically from a long shot of Wayne to a tight closeup of his face, the ghost of a smile dancing around his lips, his hat brim curved above that chiseled, square-jawed visage. It feels like Ford knew, from the moment he introduced his star, just how strongly this image would resonate: Wayne's entrance into the film is electrifying, the arrival of both the infamous outlaw and the new upcoming star.

Despite this emphasis, the Ringo Kid is only one of the nine passengers who winds up aboard the eponymous stagecoach, all heading in the same direction, braving dangerous territory plagued by warring Apaches, for very different reasons. The lawman Curly (George Bancroft) aims to stop Ringo from triggering a bloodbath at the end of the line, where he knows the three men who killed Ringo's father and brother are waiting. The prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) and drunken doctor Boone (Thomas Mitchell) are being chased from town by the more "respectable" citizens, some of whom actually aren't as respectable as they'd like others to think. The suave gambler Hatfield (John Carradine) projects a gentlemanly image, but he might just be a cowardly killer, while the pompous Gatewood (Berton Churchill) is fleeing town with stolen payroll money. There's also the ill Lucy (Louise Platt), trying to reach her cavalry husband, the nervous whiskey salesman Peacock (Donald Meek), whose wares provide a temptation to Doc Boone, and the cracked-voice coach driver Buck (Andy Devine), who can't stop complaining about his Mexican wife and her seemingly endless supply of poor relations.

This motley crew is comprised of stock types, and the subtexts about social class and respectability are as broadly played as the humor: the other coach passengers are huffy and scornful of Dallas and Doc Boone, until they realize that both of these downtrodden people have much to offer in their generosity and compassion. Only Ringo, an outcast himself as an ex-con and a wanted outlaw, cares little about caste, and insists on referring to both Lucy and Dallas as "ladies," which of course earns Dallas' gratitude. The film's settings and characters are standards, familiar representations of the Old West, etched into the hard stone of the landscape: the wide expanses of dusty hardpan, the flat-top mesas and rocky abutments jutting up out of the ground. Ford draws with broad strokes, crafting iconic images of the stagecoach winding through the open country, kicking up a wake of dust behind it, the big dome of the sky overhead dotted with cotton fluffs of cloud. The film is painterly in its treatment of these Western vistas, which serve as a contrast to the more claustrophobic interior of the stagecoach, where Ford's compositions are necessarily simple in the cramped space.

Throughout the film, the threat of Indian attacks — and the inevitable showdown awaiting Ringo at the end of the line — looms over the stagecoach's journey, but it's mostly a slow-building tension until the climax. Things are relatively quiet for most of the ride, at least outside of the coach. The arguments among the passengers, largely motivated by class divides and various perceived slights, aren't nearly as interesting as the pictorial beauty of the surroundings. There's energy and poetry in Ford's exterior shots — a shadowy image of a silhouetted Ringo stepping up behind Dallas in the darkness, the countless shots of the coach speeding across the plains — even when nothing much is actually happening within the stagecoach. And of course the film's finale is exhilarating, with the Apache attack providing a perfect excuse for some fancy stuntwork, with jumps from one horse to another and daredevil leaps amidst the fray. The whole film was working towards this explosive action showcase, and one can't miss Ford's enthusiasm when, at the last minute, the cavalry rides in to save the day: a storied movie cliché that Ford invests with such vitality that it's hard to resist. The whole sequence is fun and fast-paced, and sets up Ringo's final shootout with the three brothers who killed his family and sent him to jail.

As one of the defining landmarks of the Western genre, the influence and importance of Stagecoach is hard to avoid. But it's far from a staid, outdated relic of its time, despite the extent to which its language and narrative devices have filtered down through the history of its genre ever since. The film's big cast of stock players is sometimes unwieldy, and its themes overly pat, but Ford's images project such grandeur, such a romantically beautiful image of the Western country and its heroes, that it's always obvious just why this film has remained so influential and well-loved.

After the Thin Man

The second film in the series of Nick and Nora Charles mysteries, After the Thin Man, closely follows the template established by the original film that started it all, The Thin Man. And why not? The formula was obviously a success: the couple's easygoing charm and humor, their comedic banter and good-natured sparring, provide a solid bedrock for the twisty murder mysteries they inevitably stumble across. Nick (William Powell) is a famous private detective, now retired after marrying the wealthy socialite Nora (Myrna Loy). But somehow cases continue to find the former gumshoe, who somewhat unwillingly embarks on the trail of some new mystery, all the while insisting that he just wants some sleep, a good tall drink and some time alone with his lovely wife. As in the first film, this sophomore effort takes its time setting up the mystery, leaving space for all the characters to get into place before the first murder happens, triggering the investigation (and leading eventually to several more corpses before it's all through). The pacing is even and patient, introducing the huge cast one by one and establishing the various motives, opportunities and potential alibis for all these players for what is obviously coming: the murder of the no-good Robert Landis (Alan Marshal), who has so many sharks circling the water around him that he can't help but turn up dead before too long.

Once he does, Nick and Nora are on the case, primarily because Robert was married to Nora's cousin Selma (Elissa Landi). Robert was planning to run off with nightclub singer Polly (Penny Singleton), even though Polly's "brother" Phil (Paul Fix) is lingering sinisterly in the shadows, along with nightclub owner Dancer (Joseph Calleia), his shifty-eyed Chinese partner Lum Kee (William Law, playing a possible inspiration for James Bond enemy Odd Job, complete with deadly hat-tossing skills), and even the society figure David Graham (an early role for James Stewart), who loved Selma and was paying Robert to finally get lost. There's no shortage of suspects, obviously, including even Selma herself, and it's up to Nick and Nora to sift through this increasingly complex mess.

They do so, of course, with characteristic style and finesse. The film isn't quite as funny or sparkling as The Thin Man, possibly because Nick and Nora don't consume nearly the brain-melting quantities of liquor they did the first time around: slowing down already? But the unmatchable chemistry of Powell and Loy goes a long way, and there's plenty of great one-liners and witty exchanges, including Nick's attempt to figure out how many places he's been kicked out of (Nora's response: "Well, how many places were you in, Mr. Charles?"). The two of them have an enviable repartee, a back-and-forth battle of wits that only seems to deepen their love and respect for each other. Whenever the two of them are onscreen together, exchanging barbed lines and raised-eyebrow glances, it's hard for anything else in the film to compete. Best of all is a scene where Nick, trying to get some sleep, is gently taunted awake by Nora, who has a sudden craving for scrambled eggs. It's a quietly funny scene, subtly written, particularly Nora's coup de grace: after asking Nick if he can reach the water on the dresser, when he tries to give her some she shoots back, "Oh no, I didn't want any, I just wanted to make sure you could reach it."

The mystery in this film is less convoluted than the one in The Thin Man, and much easier to figure out, following as it does conventional murder mystery rules: it must be the person who the narrative conspicuously pays the least attention to and who everyone seems to dismiss instantly as a suspect. Thus, long before Nick's final parlor scene — gathering together all the suspects and letting the plot unravel as he alternates between narrating events and questioning people — it's obvious whodunnit. The fun is in watching Nick pull the pieces together and bounce off of the film's troupe of great character actors. There's plenty of funny business going on with the supporting players, particularly Jessie Ralph as Nora's snooty Aunt Katherine, who has a habit of beating newspaper photographers with her cane. In fact, Nora's whole family provides some memorable comic relief during an early scene where Nick gets dragged along to a family gathering. He ends the night sitting at a table with Nora's ancient uncles, attempting to moderate a "conversation" between the snoring old gentlemen. Even the couple's dog, Asta, has as much charm and personality as any of the human bit players. Asta has his own troubles in this installment, returning home from a long trip to find that Mrs. Asta has been running around with a black dog and has a little black puppy to prove it. It's a hilariously naughty subplot narrated entirely through the dogs' expressive pantomime performances.

If After the Thin Man doesn't quite recapture the magic of the first Powell/Loy pairing as Nick and Nora, it's still a worthy sequel with plenty of the same wit and vibrancy as the first installment in the series. Indeed, just putting Powell and Loy onscreen together is more than enough. This is another fun, funny entertainment from the duo and director W.S. Van Dyke, who returned for this second film and brings to it the same brisk, no-nonsense style that made the first a success.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)

The Tell-Tale Heart is a solid, enjoyable horror short adapted from Edgar Allen Poe's famous short story. It is one of many such short-form literary adaptations used to fill up pre-feature time on Hollywood screens in the 30s and 40s, but this happens to be a particularly strong, interesting example of the genre. For one thing, it was the first film for director Jules Dassin, who would go on to become one of the great directors of noirs and crime pictures throughout the 40s and 50s. The story here is very familiar, but Dassin treats it with his characteristic sweaty intensity and slow-burning suspense, making the Poe classic feel new again. A young man (Joseph Schildkraut) has been dependent for his entire life upon a nasty, brutish older man (Roman Bohnen) who he cares for. Finally, the young man has had enough of being verbally abused and taunted, and he decides to kill the old man, to finally be free of him. But after burying the body beneath the floor boards, the pounding of the old man's heart continues to torture the murderer with his guilty conscience.

It's a simple tale, perfectly suited to this twenty minute adaptation, and Dassin lingers on each of the story's emotional beats, drawing out the slow-building horror and tortured feelings at its core. Schildkraut delivers a fine performance, seemingly always sweating, his dark eyes communicating his terror and rage, and Bohnen is sufficiently nasty, speaking to the younger man in a sing-song cadence as though mocking him with schoolyard taunts. But it's in Dassin's shadowy aesthetic, the glossy beauty of his images, that the film's horror really resides. The murder scene is particularly gorgeous, as the young man sneaks into his tormentor's room with a lamp that he's modified to emit a single narrow beam of light. Dassin shoots the set-up to the murder from a distance, with the beam of light glowing in the darkness, illuminating motes of dust in its path, an iridescent string connecting murderer and victim across the room. As the young man draws closer, the viewpoint switches briefly to that of the old man, who sees a nova of light nearly blinding him, and behind it, barely visible, the intent face of the man who has come to kill him. The murder itself takes place offscreen, with Dassin briskly editing together peripheral details like the old man's hands desperately grabbing at a tapestry on the wall as he is strangled.

In the aftermath of the murder, Dassin gets across the mostly abstract horror of the situation — the killer hearing his victim's heartbeat beneath the floor boards — through frequent closeups of the increasingly unraveling Schildkraut and some brilliant sound design. The room is filled with possible sources of the insistent heartbeat: a clock on the wall, a dripping faucet, a metal pan outside the window with rain water falling into it. As the young man methodically checks into each of these to eliminate the sound, the pounding on the soundtrack only continues unchecked. Finally, when two detectives (Oscar O'Shea and Will Wright) arrive to question the young man, the murmuring beat on the soundtrack is carried over even into the music, which pounds with the rhythms of the heartbeat in the drums. This is a potent, interesting take on a familiar tale, elevated above the average literary adaptation because Dassin pays as much attention to Poe's psychological effects and the uncomfortable sensations of the protagonist as he does to the actual details of the story.

Ride Lonesome

The penultimate film in Budd Boetticher's Ranown cycle of Westerns starring Randolph Scott is the masterful Ride Lonesome, one of the director's finest films. As the title suggests, Scott's Ben Brigade is certainly a loner, a bounty hunter on the track of cowardly killer Billy John (James Best), but throughout most of this film Brigade does not, in fact, ride alone. After catching up with Billy, who's wanted for shooting a man in the back — his jittery insistence that it was "a fair fight" seems pretty hilarious in light of the facts — Brigade soon enough finds himself tangled up in all sorts of problems beyond just getting Billy back to Santa Cruz to stand trial and, most likely, be hanged. Not only is Billy's vicious brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) hot on Brigade's trail, but the bounty hunter runs into the stirrings of an Indian war that threatens to erupt at any minute. He finds the lovely Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) holed up at a waystation where she's waiting for her husband to return from gathering some lost horses. In her husband's absence, she's unwillingly acquired the company of Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn), two thugs and bandits whose bad reputation Brigade knows well. When it turns out that Carrie's husband has been killed by the Indians, who are now preparing to attack, the whole group throws in together, heading towards Santa Cruz with Frank and the Indians in pursuit.

This plot is basically a compendium of all sorts of Western standards shuffled together: the Indian attacks, the outlaws chasing the good guys towards a final showdown, the frontier woman who needs to be protected (though Carrie is, as usual for Boetticher, pretty tough in her own right). The film also borrows some of the basic scenario from Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur: like James Stewart in that film, Brigade is a somewhat unwilling bounty hunter, not the kind of man you would normally expect to be tracking other men for money. It's always obvious that not everything is as it seems here, that Brigade has some ulterior motive for what he's doing. This film also shares with Mann's film the tension of three men all vying for the same bounty, with their prisoner trying to play them against one another. Boone and Whit want to bring Billy in because there's an offer that anyone who delivers the outlaw will get their own crimes erased by amnesty — this is particularly appealing to Boone, who desperately wants to go straight, to be able to sleep without fear and set up a ranch of his own, that most common of Western goals. To achieve this, he's willing to endure this one last run, and even a possible face-off with Brigade, with whom he shares a good-natured, friendly rivalry.

As usual, Boetticher is remarkably even-handed in dealing with these characters, investing all three of the rival bounty hunters with well-developed personalities, never allowing Boone and Whit to become the villains of the piece despite their designs against Brigade. To some extent, this is because Van Cleef's Frank, who's barely present in the film, is established as such a horrifying villain entirely through exposition. Brigade describes a long-ago act of outrageous nastiness that only seems worse when Frank casually admits that he barely remembers doing it; he's such a thoroughly evil guy that even the worst crimes imaginable don't seem to make much of an impression on him. In comparison, Boone is simply a guy who's made some mistakes and wants his chance at redemption, while Whit is the folksy comic relief — who even gets a wonderful scene where he's genuinely surprised by his partner's generosity and friendship, shocked that he's viewed as more than just the goofy sidekick. This generosity is as much Boetticher's as Boone's: the director seldom views bit players and stock types as extraneous.

The recycled nature of Ride Lonesome's plot ensures that Brigade and his companions progress through a relatively predictable sequence of scenes familiar from countless other Westerns. The Indian attack sequence, in particular, feels like it could fit neatly in virtually any Technicolor Western of the period, with the heroes crouching down behind a low stone wall, the Indians charging around in circles along the perimeter like targets in a shooting gallery, waiting to be picked off. Boetticher dutifully hits notes like this, but he seems far more interested in the overall journey these characters are taking — and the final destination where all expectations are brilliantly upturned — rather than the stops along the way. Boetticher's Westerns are almost always formalist takes on the genre, whether in the taut suspense of The Tall T or the claustrophobic chamber set pieces of Decision at Sundown. Here, Boetticher is working in the wide open spaces of the West, resulting in some of his most stunning images. Much of the film takes place in long shots of flat vistas, where groups of horse riders are just black dots in the white sand, kicking up clouds of dust in their wake. Unlike, say, John Ford, who often used geography loosely and expressively, for its visual qualities rather than to convey a specific location, Boetticher's sense of space is precise. He uses landmarks and recurring scenery to indicate the progress of Frank's pursuing party, who pass through the same ground, framed from the same angles, as Brigade and his group. This gives the latter half of the film a rhythmic quality in its pacing, as scenes are repeated with different characters in the shot.

It all leads inexorably towards a stunning denouement, staged beneath the foreboding "hanging tree," a misshapen and sinister-looking cross that is a focal point for the bad blood between Frank and Brigade. Boetticher expertly builds tension leading up to the final scenes, with striking overhead shots where the characters are framed between the crooked limbs of the hanging tree. But Boetticher then defuses the tension twice over: the showdown with the dreaded Frank, who has been mostly built up while offscreen, is fast and economical, while the expected confrontation between Boone and Brigade never even comes. Instead, the film slows down for a finale centered more on the emotional conclusions of the character arcs (Brigade's thirst for revenge, Boone's desire for redemption, Carrie's quiet grief) rather than on action and violence. This unexpectedly moving ending is the payoff to Boetticher's attentive handling of character and location. Rather than delivering the fast and furious gunplay he seemed to be building towards, Boetticher makes the finale definitively about the characters, about their pain and desires and ambiguous plans for the future. Conflicting, complex emotions waft through the final scenes like the black smoke of the burning hanging tree, signaling the close of a circle of violence and the possibility of new, more hopeful paths branching off.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Derek Jarman's Caravaggio presents itself as a loose, poeticized biography of the famed Baroque painter Michelangelo de Caravaggio, but in fact Jarman appears to be using his subject as a gateway into ruminations on art, love, violence and religion. The film reflects far more of Jarman than it does of Caravaggio, even with the painter at its center and his paintings restaged in elegant, shakily static tableaux vivants. There is little trace of a conventional biopic here: the broad outlines of Caravaggio's life are visible, but the elliptical, time-jumping narrative structure Jarman has chosen, all of it filtered through his subject's deathbed memories, ensures that this is anything but a staid, objective account of a life. This is something much messier, much more chaotic, but also in its way truer — if not to the facts, then to the spirit of the rebellious painter whose wild, passionate art so shook up the conventions of his time.

Dexter Fletcher plays the young Caravaggio, cocky and swaggering and sexually frank, somewhere in between a painter and a hustler, offering himself as an "art object" (this postmodern phrase the first of Jarman's purposeful anachronisms) as much as his paintings. Perhaps for this reason, he soon earns the attention of the prominent Church official Cardinal Del Monte (Michael Gough), who seems to appreciate him as much for his cocksure eroticism as for his equally sensual paintings. Jarman cuts fluidly between the scenes with Fletcher and the later scenes with Nigel Terry as the mature painter. With his hard, flashing eyes and chiseled face, Terry is an electrifying presence, delivering a performance that consistently hints at and develops the depths of Caravaggio's turbulent character. The film is about art as looking, art codified in the gaze, and Terry's gaze has an impossible intensity and ferocity.

The scenes of Caravaggio at work are crisply edited, built around exchanges of glances: Caravaggio works in this film by arranging tableaux of living models who perfectly hold the poses of his paintings while he stares at them. The painter spends more time looking, observing, than he does actually putting brush to canvas — so much so that in one scene, after Caravaggio has spent seemingly endless minutes looking at the scene he's arranged, Del Monte bursts out laughing when the painter finally, tentatively, touches his brush to the painting to adjust a minor detail. Jarman, one of the most visual of filmmakers, clearly possesses this same painterly sensibility: the instinct to look, to stare intently, to soak up every detail of a scene before finally attempting to capture its essence. In the scenes of Caravaggio painting, Jarman cuts methodically between the painter and the models, who sometimes meet his gaze, sometimes look away as dictated by their pose. Implicit in this exchange of looks is also the painter's eroticizing of his subjects, a homoerotic desire that shows through even in paintings where Caravaggio has transformed a worldly young man into a pouty, cherubic angel or warrior saint. Jarman aligns himself with the painter in this by populating his film with pretty young men who are as much subjects of the filmmaker's appreciative gaze as they are of the painter's brush: it is one more way in which Jarman seems to be telling his own story as much as Caravaggio's.

Among Caravaggio's models, none are more special to him than the rough-and-tumble boxer and hoodlum Ranuccio (Sean Bean), who Caravaggio makes a frequent subject in his work. Soon enough, painter and model are involved in a complicated love triangle along with Ranuccio's lover Lena (Tilda Swinton), whom both men love and desire as much as they do each other. In some of the film's most extraordinary and erotically charged scenes, Lena first watches as Caravaggio, painting Ranuccio, seduces the model with his unyielding gaze. The scene is soon enough reversed when Lena tenderly kisses the painter while Ranuccio watches from the background, his expression controlled only with apparent effort; it's hard to tell who he's more jealous of. This was Swinton's first film, and her first of many for Jarman, and she delivers a typically nuanced and effective performance, with her dirty ruffian's face and bold manner. Lena is a ragged, filthy but sensual street woman, with a tremendous shock of golden hair hidden beneath her rags as though waiting for someone to acknowledge her hidden nobility and beauty.

This is a lush, sumptuous film, preoccupied with the sensuous qualities of naked flesh, the thick folds of expensive fabric, and vibrant color. Each of Jarman's frames is as carefully composed as one of Caravaggio's paintings, still life images in which the barely perceptible quivering of the model-actors' bodies betrays the life within these tableaux. Jarman approaches Caravaggio's life not as an historian or biographer, but as a poet, extracting the essence of the painter's art and times: the homoeroticism of his paintings of young men; the violence and criminality of his life; his clean, clear treatment of color, so closely aligned with Jarman's own aesthetic.

Individual scenes are conceived, for the most part, not to advance the story but to suggest the themes and ideas at its heart. Thus Jarman's camera lingers on a long silent scene in which one of Caravaggio's models, growing bored with posing, performs limber gymnastics, stretching and doing splits and nimbly pirouetting. In the corner of the frame, looking on with a mysterious smile, is a painting of a nude cherub that this model had just finished posing for: the wings mounted on the wall provide a background to these calisthenics. A costume ball where Caravaggio unveils several of his paintings is equally evocative, providing an excuse for Jarman to fill the screen with grotesqueries and lavish details. Even when Caravaggio meets the Pope (Jack Birkett) for a private audience, His Holiness winds up being a fey, sneering monster whose eyes roll in different directions as he casually drawls about manipulation and control. The film is playful and often surprisingly funny, but also hypnotic and dreamlike, a fantasy about the relationships between art, desire and power rather than an accurate document of Caravaggio's reality — a fact that Jarman not-so-subtly suggests with his bold anachronisms, peppering the film with modern calculators, electric lights and typewriters as though scrawling his signature messily across a period masterpiece. These discontinuities confirm that the film is not simply a story about a long ago painter, but explicitly an attempt to look back and evaluate Caravaggio from a modern perspective.