Monday, February 28, 2011

Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour

Alain Resnais' Muriel ou Le temps du'un retour is a curiously unsettled, and unsettling, film, a continuation of the disjunctive, ambiguous dream logic of Resnais' previous feature, Last Year At Marienbad. Like the infamously unresolved Marienbad, Muriel revolves around missed connections, complicated pasts, lies and disguises, shifting identities, love affairs and betrayals. Also like its predecessor, it mocks conventional storytelling by shattering narrative into a patchwork series of disconnected events, using editing to thrust seemingly unconnected moments together. In the opening minutes of the film, Resnais' editing confounds a prosaic conversation by chopping up the scene into miniature details: bowls of fruit, a doorknob, a piece of furniture, a door, anything but the people actually speaking. This opening suggests the destabilization to come, but only partially. A few minutes later, a nighttime scene is interrupted by a series of shots of urban streets, shifting unpredictably back and forth from night to day. Resnais is mocking the convention of the establishing shot, mocking the whole idea of setting the scene through images of scenery: the only thing these shots establish is that time slips unpredictably, that location is unstable, that this is a film where the sense of reality can be disrupted at will, images thrown together without logic, randomly, so that an ordinary story becomes surreal and abstract.

And beneath it all, this is an ordinary story. As Hélène (Delphine Seyrig) says at one point, speaking of her own long-ago love affair with Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kérien), "It's a banal story. I find that reassuring." That's not quite right, though. For one thing, Resnais isn't telling a banal story: he's telling several, all of them blended together, their facts and details mixed up and prone to change at a moment's notice. For another thing, the way in which Resnais tells this story is anything but reassuring. It's the story of a woman trying to reconnect with the lover who left her many years before, when they split apart towards the end of World War II. Alphonse comes to see his old lover Hélène, at her invitation, bringing along a woman who he calls his niece, François (Nita Klein), but who is really (maybe?) another girlfriend, perhaps one of many for this deceitful man. Alphonse stays with Hélène, perhaps for many months, perhaps for just a few days — it's hard to tell, as Resnais chops up the story into disconnected moments that seem to mean nothing in isolation, the sense of time utterly obliterated by these fragmentary montages of snatches of dialogue, silent temps mort interludes, puzzling diversions.

In any event, the story seems to be locked into a never-ending stasis, trapped in cycles of repetition like the frustrated maybe-lovers of Marienbad. Alphonse is always threatening to leave, and so is François, but neither ever does despite many conversations that seem to end with the matter resolved, with one or the other ready to depart immediately. Hélène's stepson Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), newly returned from the war in Algeria and obviously mentally scarred by the experience, is similarly always in the process moving out, but never seems to finish. He periodically packs up his stuff and gets into arguments with Hélène, but then in the next scene he might be back, magically reappearing from one shot to the next as though nothing had happened. At one point, Hélène says that Bernard has been gone for eight months, but could that really be true? The film's manic disregard for time and space makes it impossible to tell.

It's as though these characters are trapped by this story, as trapped as the partying bourgeois of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, made the year before. Buñuel trapped his characters in a physical space, but Resnais encircles these people only with the boundaries of narrative and cliché. They're hemmed in by the story, by the editing, by the illogic of a film where everything seems to be perpetually on the verge of happening without ever quite getting there. The characters keep expressing their emotions, telling and retelling their stories, exploring a past that seems to be evasive and contradictory, but they never progress beyond their state of stasis, repeating the same actions and the same arguments over and over again.

The key to all this confusion lies in the film's subtext, its hints of wartime trauma and atrocity. Bernard says he has a fiancée named Muriel, who no one has ever met, and he's always saying that he's going off to meet her. In fact, no such girl exists, even though Bernard does have a girlfriend (Martine Vatel), whose name turns out to be Marie-Dominique, not Muriel. The secret of Muriel is revealed during a sequence in which Bernard, an amateur filmmaker, provides voiceover narration over a reel of grainy, scratchy clips of soldiers. His story initially seems like a romance, like the story of how he met his girlfriend Muriel: he saw her from across an office, he went over to see her, there were typewriters, and then instead of an office it's a courtyard, and then it's a warehouse. Without warning the story has become a war story, a story of soldiers torturing and raping a prisoner named Muriel, stripping her naked, burning her with cigarettes, kicking her as she lays on the ground dying. It becomes clear that Bernard saw this during the war, that he even participated in the abuse, although perhaps not as enthusiastically as some of the others. This is the girl he's obsessed with, the girl who occupies his thoughts now, not a lover but a symbol for the horrors of the war, a symbol of the brutality inflicted by soldiers on those they oppress, a symbol for the French occupation of Algeria and the terrible effect of this war on both those fought it and those who suffered innocently under its toll. When Bernard says he's going to see Muriel, where does he goes? What does he mean? Is it that he sees her everywhere now?

The Algerian situation haunts the film, and so does World War II, the occupation of France, the Liberation. Boulogne, the town where all these memories and stories coexist, was bombed badly during the war, and was largely rebuilt. The characters speak of places that no longer exist, places that have been reconfigured: Hélène's apartment, she says, occupies the same physical place that once housed the attic of her friend Roland's (Claude Sainval) childhood home. This is why the characters, weighted down by the past and by geography, can't escape their cycles of disconnection and dishonesty, can't help but repeat the stories of the past.

For Resnais, this cyclical trap is rooted as much in things as in people. Hélène is an antique dealer, working out of her apartment, and as a result she lives, quite literally, amidst the clutter of the past — as Bernard says near the beginning of the film, one never knows what era one is in in a place like this, where the styles of the past clash against one another, multiple times coexisting in the same place. In much the same way, history — World War II, Algeria, bombings and atrocities — coexists with the present, never quite fading away. The records of photographs and audio recordings, like those that Bernard preserves, can be reminders, evidence, but they can also lie: Alphonse, who has never been to Algeria, pretends he has and presents photographs as proof. He's a tourist, like the soldiers of Godard's Les Carabiniers, insisting that snapshots can stand in for reality, that a photogenic image can paper over the real oppression of the Algerian people. Alphonse is also a bigot, a man who says he respects all races, "even the Arabs," a phrase in which the "even" tellingly reveals his real feelings, barely covered by his false civility.

Muriel is a remarkable film, a surreal subversion of bourgeois narrative, in which the unstably shifting tectonic plates of place and time create a very uneasy footing for these characters. Even the music — a spiky, dramatic score by Hans Werner Henze, with operatic vocals by Rita Streich — contributes to the instability, as the music appears sporadically and unpredictably as an accent, except that it doesn't seem to be accenting anything in particular. The music suggests suspense and action while the characters never do or say anything beyond banalities, beyond the rote repetition of their familiar cycles. The very form of Resnais' film mocks these bourgeois fakers, mocks their petty aspirations and desires, mocks the way they focus on the trivialities of their personal histories while ignoring the bigger picture. For Hélène and Alphonse, self-involved, wrapped up in their own dramas, World War II was a backdrop for their aborted love affair, but Resnais doesn't allow them to leave it at that, as complicated political contexts keep encroaching on their hermetic little melodramas.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce opens with a very noirish murder, a few bullets fired, a cracked mirror, and a man lying dead in a swanky beach house by the shore, an isolated cabin in the middle of an expanse of sand, the kind of unreal, romantic Hollywood location that's prefabricated for murder. But the film isn't a noir, and it isn't a murder mystery, not exactly. Instead, it's a kind of dark, proto-feminist nightmare, the story of a woman who struggles violently against all the constraints placed on her as a woman, all the straitjackets and exploiters. Mildred (Joan Crawford) claws her way up through the world, always doing more, pushing further, than anyone expects from her, and still it isn't enough: she can't satisfy the demands of her snotty, nasty monster of a daughter, Veda (Ann Blythe), and she can't break free of all the weak people who would lean on her strength, weighing her down with their own inconsistency. Over the course of the film, Mildred pushes aside her lazy, philandering first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett), she goes to work as a waitress and eventually starts a chain of restaurants, she dodges the advances of the slimy opportunist Wally (Jack Carson), and she's alternately ensnared by and evades the decadent but now broke society heir Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the man who dies in the film's opening scenes.

Throughout it all, Mildred suffers and struggles, never quite getting beaten down by anything that's handed to her. The film, directed by Michael Curtiz, is a parable for the life of the strong, independent woman: sometimes it seems that every time Mildred clears one hurdle, a new and more forbidding obstacle is erected in her path. She's besieged on every side, and still she fights. The film is a class A melodrama, casting an admiring glance equally on Mildred's determination and strength and on the sheer scope of what she's forced to overcome. It's a pretty scathing portrait of men, too, as virtually none of the film's men emerge with their dignities intact. Mildred's first husband not only loses his job and fails to look for another one, while Mildred scurries around the kitchen baking pies to sell, but he runs off with another woman. Wally, supposedly Bert's friend, takes this split as an opportunity to begin instantly smothering Mildred with his attention, coming on to her like one of the girl-hounding foxes of a Tex Avery cartoon, the context for Mildred's chilly remark that he makes her feel like Little Red Riding Hood. Even Beragon, who initially seems like a more conventional movie romantic — enough so that Mildred even falls in love with him, at least for a little while — winds up being a useless, wasting loser, clinging pathetically to the last of his society prestige while accepting handouts from the more successful Mildred.

Within its melodramatic story, the film examines the struggles of a truly independent woman within a world that isn't ready for her. Mildred has a friend, Ida (a wisecracking Eve Arden), who's as independent as she is, a woman who's made her own way in business, but Ida, though she alludes to some disappointments with men, seems to have had an easier time of it than Mildred. Ida had never married, never had children, and now she simply works hard and makes a success of herself. She's a great character, with a quick wit (she gets some of the crackling script's funniest lines) and a self-assured manner that shows that she doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of her. She's what Mildred could be, or could have been, if not for so many entanglements pulling her down; Mildred's surrounded with people, mostly Veda and Beragon, who rely on her success, who use her and take her money, but who simultaneously despise and pity her for it. There's a class component to the film as well as the gender component: it's about the idle rich's snobby distaste for those who are willing to get their hands dirty, those who work for a living. Mildred isn't afraid of work, she isn't afraid of baking or waiting tables or working long hours, whatever it takes to provide for the people she cares about. Veda, the film's villain, a little demon with a scrubbed-clean face and a chilling ability to turn her emotions on and off as though flicking a switch, leeches off of the fruits of Mildred's labor, but hates her mother for her work ethic, hates the whole idea of having to work. She sees herself as belonging to the upper class, despite her middle class birth, and she's determined to live as though she's a society heiress.

Veda is an infuriating character, and a despicable one, and the film handles her very cleverly: she initially just seems like a mildly bratty kid, a bit distant and pouty, a bit ungrateful, a bit spoiled, like a lot of teenagers. Over the course of the film, she reveals herself as something else entirely, a real outsized movie villain, hiding an almost sociopathic indifference to her mother's feelings behind her cheery, charmingly girlish face. She becomes almost terrifying in the way she exploits and manipulates her mother, draining the strength from this strong, intelligent woman. Blyth's performance, this sweet but emotionally empty aura she projects, is fascinating when juxtaposed against Crawford's tough, expressive tour de force. As Crawford runs a gamut of feelings from steely determination to near despair, delivering a powerhouse performance, Blyth maintains her slightly creepy composure except when, with obvious forethought, she turns on a particular emotional reaction to get a desired effect. The girl's disconcerting control over her emotions is captured most tellingly in a sequence where she announces her engagement to a rich young boy; when her fiance is looking at her, she's all smiles and affectionate glances, but the moment he turns away from her she betrays a flash of a cold, cruel expression, her lips curled into an expression of distaste, her eyes dead and empty.

Coldness and warmth, the traditional dichotomy of womanly behavior, are embodied in these two characters, mother and daughter, but not in the usual ways. Mildred, for all her independence, for all her strength and ability to survive without a husband, isn't a caricature of the cold, loveless career woman. She feels a great deal, maybe even too much — her compassion, her love and tolerance for people who don't deserve it, is her ultimate weakness. It's Veda who's the cold one, Veda who isn't strong at all, who only knows how to use and exploit people, how to take advantage. Veda is contrasted, in the early scenes of the film, against Mildred's younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), another independent woman in the making, a girl who likes to play, who likes to join in on the boys' games, not caring if she gets dirty, like her mother who digs in at work, and very unlike the prim Veda. Mildred takes Kay for granted, knowing that the girl isn't demanding, that like her mother she can take care of herself — it's Veda, who can't, who gets all the attention. This situation symbolically comes to a head in a staggering tragedy, as Mildred loses Kay, loses the girl who might have otherwise grown up to be like her strong, spirited mother. Later in the film, when Veda returns to Mildred after a time apart, a photograph of Kay is tellingly placed in the foreground as Mildred runs to the window to see her inconstant daughter. The photo is a reminder of the very different daughter who'd suffered the fate of so many other cinematic independent women.

Mildred Pierce is fascinating for the way it both upturns and upholds these kinds of stereotypes about independent women: the film is conflicted at its core, torn between rival visions of womanhood. Its ending, sadly, suggests a compromise, a return to the dependency of marriage, as though Mildred hadn't learned any lessons from her ordeals. This is a pretty insubstantial reassertion of the romantic norm, however, a weak gesture towards convention that does little to reverse the subversion of marriage and motherhood represented by the rest of the film.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Before the Revolution

In his second film, Before the Revolution, Bernardo Bertolucci, infected with the enthusiastic cinephilia of the French New Wave, and obviously impressed by the films being made by his peers in France, leapt headfirst into the new cinema, adopting its style and concerns for his own, translating the style to a post-war Italy in a mood of uncertainty and instability. The film's characters are haunted by "fevers" of one kind or another, and the film itself is heady with the fever of moviemaking, the passion for images that capture, in their immediacy and vibrancy, the mood of an entire generation of cinema-hopping would-be revolutionaries. Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a young man on the cusp of adulthood, unsure about where his life is headed, swept up in the idealism of Marxism. He joins the Communist Party, under the guidance of his teacher Cesare (Morando Morandini), but he remains aimless despite his newfound convictions, and when his friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) dies in a drowning accident that might be a suicide, he really comes unmoored. Over the course of a summer following his friend's funeral, he engages in a passionate but ultimately unhappy love affair with his visiting aunt, Gina (Adriana Asti), and in the process replaces his youthful idealism with a more "adult" attitude that might be called pragmatism or, less euphemistically, fatalism.

Bertolucci's film is very much of its time, in every way. It captures a precise and very important moment, not only in this young man's life, but in the history of Italy and Europe at large. Just as Fabrizio, poised on the verge of adulthood, could continue to engage with the world and with his strongly held ideals or retreat into bourgeois security and emptiness, the forked road ahead for Europe must have looked very similar at the time, in the years leading up to the peak of the student rebellions in May 1968. In retrospect, Bertolucci's film is "before the revolution" that would briefly sweep across the western world in the late 60s, and his pessimistic ending — a declaration that, for aimless young people like Fabrizio, it's always "before" a revolution that never comes — is a bleak but accurate prediction of the disappointments to come.

The film is of its time stylistically as well, in that it's drowning in style. Bertolucci was invigorated as a filmmaker by the French New Wave, and it shows in his jittery appropriations of their restless aesthetics. In one scene, early on, as Gina talks about death, Bertolucci uses zooms and pans the way Breathless deployed jump cuts, with seeming carelessness, a casual disregard for the rough edges, for what's left out. Gina theatrically plays with the camera, turning away from it and then abruptly thrusting back, widening her eyes at it like a melodramatic primadonna, and the camera's zig-zagging motion further discombobulates the composition. The camera is constantly zooming in, focusing momentarily on her eyes or mouth, then losing track of her as she moves away, briefly lingering off to the side, in the texture of her hair, before she bobs back into the frame. The effect is distracting more than invigorating, as Godard's early, jazzy innovations were, but maybe that's the point: it's style for its own sake, style divorced from content. The hyperactive gesticulations of the camera mirror the restlessness of the protagonist: in a later scene, as Fabrizio shifts nervously from one seat to another while trying to explain his discontent to Cesare, the camera pans drolly back and forth, as though amused by the young man's indecision, amused by his very bourgeois, entitled troubles.

At another point, Fabrizio goes to see Godard's A Woman Is A Woman, but he barely pays attention, and afterward is deaf to his friend's rhapsodic words on the film's style — ah, the friend says, realizing that his friend is in love, it's not a matter of style but of content. But is it? This friend parrots back many of the favored sayings of the Cahiers du cinema critics — morality is a matter of tracking shots, and tracking shots are a matter of morality — and rattles off lists of movies and directors ("you can't live without Rossellini," he shouts to Fabrizio as a parting shot) but he doesn't seem to have much to say about anything that he can't see in a theater. For him, Anna Karina will someday define his generation in the same way that Louise Brooks and Bogey/Bacall had defined earlier ones — a prescient prediction, that, but not one that does anything to help Fabrizio figure out just where his own life is heading.

Bertolucci at times seems to care more about his camera's meanderings than about the self-absorbed whining of his protagonists, or about the actors, who deliver fine, emotionally naked performances (especially Asti) into a vacuum of motivation and emotional grounding. Again, that's part of the point: these bourgeois dreamers, trying to break free, trying to live their own lives, hardly know why they're suffering or why they're feeling what they're feeling, and the film's jumpy, elliptical style breaks down their pointless love story until it feels as empty and silly as it is. It's all about style in search of some content.

Which doesn't mean that Bertolucci doesn't locate some genuinely affecting images within all this stylistic grandstanding. The scene where Fabrizio confronts Gina after she's been unfaithful to him is a case in point: Fabrizio walks away, disgusted, and Gina starts to follow him, walking away from the man she'd been with. She reaches a corner, stops, and in closeup looks toward Fabrizio, who's only an indistinct blur in the back of the frame, and then she looks back towards the other man, Bertolucci's camera panning to follow her gaze, finding another indistinct blur, another gray nothingness moving away from her. Quite literally, wherever she looks, she sees disconnection and emptiness, sees other people moving away from her until they seem to be swallowed up whole by the landscape. In another great sequence, early on, Agostino plays on his bike, drunk, and the camera gets drunk with him, wavering as the young man wheels by, standing on the bike's seat or putting his legs up over the handlebars, falling over again and again. The framing is lazy, drunken, often capturing an out-of-focus image of the young man wobbling by on the bike before he crashes to the ground, falling off camera, the image getting blotted out by some obstacle or another. It's a wonderfully offhand and playful encapsulation of this kind of aimless goofing around, capturing among other things the hint of homoerotic fascination that the watching Fabrizio nurses for his friend.

This is all Bertolucci's loving ode to his French contemporaries, to the cinema. Whatever the themes of Fabrizio's struggles with his political consciousness and his doomed love affair, the film is at least as much about the cinema as it is about anything that happens outside the frame, in the real world. Casual references to French filmmakers like Godard and Resnais abound, as do namedrops of the Hollywood auteurs, like Hawks and Hitchcock, so adored by Cahiers du cinema. There's a color sequence when Gina views Fabrizio through a camera obscura, and the resulting scene somehow simultaneously pays tribute to Hollywood technicolor and silent comedy. When Gina and Fabrizio make love for the first time, they self-consciously fall into the same pose, the same shadowy lighting scheme, as the similarly ill-fated couple at the beginning of Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour — another couple doomed by misunderstandings and miscommunications, by unbridgeable gaps dividing them from one another. By the end of the film, when Fabrizio vainly tries to find Gina within the shining white maze of an opera house, only to finally find her so they can talk past one another, the lovers seem to be reliving another Resnais film, trapped within the alienating façades of Last Night At Marienbad.

At times, this endless referentiality makes Before the Revolution seem like a cineaste's dream, a young man's film (Bertolucci was only 22 when he made it) about youthful fascinations with cinema and politics, youthful ambitions and desires, youthful introductions to love and disappointment. For all the verve of its style, the film is a dark vision; it's a film about idealism made by a young man obviously already tinged with his own streak of cynicism. The film's arc is relentlessly downward, as embodied in the treatment of Fabrizio's fiancée Clelia (Cristina Pariset) at the beginning and end of the film. In an early scene, Fabrizio goes to see Clelia for what he says is the last time: he just wants to look at her one last time before making a break with his bourgeois existence, and indeed she won't appear in the film again for most of its length. Fabrizio finds her in a church, with her mother, and Bertolucci films it like a holy moment: the actress is stunning, radiant in closeup, and she's chatting with her mother, smiling, while the soundtrack remains silent, the substance of her words unimportant in comparison to the stark beauty of that image, a beautiful woman who represents everything Fabrizio is leaving behind. Or everything he'd like to leave behind, because in the end he finds that he can't, and his fiancée returns, still with nothing to say, still just a smiling, flawlessly pretty symbol of a certain kind of life. Earlier in the film, that brief glimpse of her seemed vaguely spiritual and affecting, but upon her return she comes to represent staid bourgeois marriage and the abandonment of youth's ideals. This is a bleak ending, though not as bleak — or as darkly hysterical, or as emotionally shattering — as the film's very last shot, a freeze frame that implies that the whole cycle of youthful idealism and disillusionment is about to begin again.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Duel was the first film of Steven Spielberg, made for TV and adapted from a short story by pulp author and screenwriter Richard Matheson. It's a remarkably simple, stripped-down film, a teeth-gritting suspense thriller that unrelentingly increases the pressure on the traveling businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) as he faces off with a vicious truck driver who seems intent on killing Mann. Spielberg slowly builds up the suspense, seemingly from thin air: the first time the truck appears, Spielberg's low angles and uncomfortable closeups of the truck's rusty grille and thick, rotted fenders already suggest something sinister. The film begins with innocuous jockeying for position on the road, as the impatient Mann, late for a meeting, passes the truck, only to have it pass him in return, promptly slowing down again as soon as it's in front of him. It wouldn't play as anything other than ordinary highway machismo if it wasn't for Spielberg's menacing camera angles, which make the truck loom over the much smaller car, its grille like a hungry maw, its whole surface grimy and rusted, its driver obscured so that the truck seems like an inhuman, mysterious threat. When Mann pauses at a gas station, the truck pulls up next to him, and Spielberg shoots from above, looking down over the truck's cab at Mann and his little red sedan, emphasizing how he's dwarfed by his adversary.

The subtext of this highway duel is masculinity, as suggested by Mann's phone conversation with his wife when he calls her from the gas station, before the action begins in earnest. They'd had an argument the night before because they'd been at a party where a friend or business associate had obviously been all over Mann's wife — "he practically raped me," she says, as the couple's two kids play innocently nearby — and Mann had done nothing to stop the harassment. With the incident behind them, she's willing to let it drop now, but it's obvious that it was a failure of masculinity for Mann, a failure to protect his wife and defend her honor, a failure to assert his strength and dominance as a man. (His name is even Mann: get it?) A sexual failure, too, the failure to maintain his exclusive sexual possession of his woman. This brief conversation colors the entire film, as does the radio program that Mann listens to during the introductory scenes, a conversation in which a man worries that he's not the "head of his household," that his wife really runs things. Mann, when a gas station attendant tells him, "you're the boss," makes a similar joke, wearily tossing off, "not at home," suggesting that he, too, feels like his masculinity is not entirely secure, that he's also not the head of his household.

These concerns are echoed in a later scene where Mann, during a respite from the truck's assaults, comes across a school bus that's stranded by the side of the road. The bus driver wants Mann to push the bus out of the dusty shoulder, but Mann simply gets their bumpers locked together and gets stuck himself, as the kids in the bus make faces at him and mock him, their laughing faces captured in uncomfortable closeups that emphasize Mann's humiliation. When the truck suddenly appears and easily pushes the school bus back onto the road, the symbolism couldn't be more obvious: it's a visualization of impotence, as Mann's car fails to have the power or vitality to do the job, while the big, powerful truck just charges in and pushes.

Maybe it's this psychological subtext, but there's something very Hitchcockian about Spielberg's debut. The film is populated with colorful Hitchcockian bit players — especially a vibrant old lady who runs a roadside gas station slash rattlesnake farm — and has moments of suspense and dark humor worthy of the master. At one point, at a café, Mann's reveries are interrupted by the loud clatter of silverware as a waitress tosses down a place setting and asks for his order, the woman seeming to loom over Mann as she's shot from a low angle: everything begins to unnerve the poor guy, who looks around the café trying to figure out which one of the men here with him might be the truck's hateful driver. More generally, all these wide open spaces, coupled with the general situation of a man pursued by a vehicle seemingly intent on his death, evoke the crop duster showdown of North By Northwest. But the film Duel resembles the most, in some surprising ways, is actually The Birds. Much as in the Hitchcock film, Duel is about senseless, incomprehensible violence, about something innocent turning on the protagonist and seeking his destruction without any apparent reason. Just as the birds have no purpose, no cause for their sudden violence, the truck driver in Duel remains inscrutable, his face always obscured — the most Mann ever sees of the driver is his boot and his forearm. This sudden violence makes no sense, it's a nightmare of helplessness, as inexplicable as it is terrifying.

Spielberg, even at this early stage, has a real feel for these scenes of suspense and action. The editing is crisp but not choppy, alternating between wide angles and long shots that show the car and the pursuing truck winding around twisty mountain roads, and closeups that capture the contrast between the implacable, monstrous facade of the truck and the sweaty human desperation of Mann in his car. Throughout it all, the sun beats down on the cars, bright and huge, spreading its white glow diffusely across the whole sky, refracting in the chrome and dirty glass of the dueling vehicles. The film feels hot and dusty, with Mann trapped between the steaming heat of the sun and the clouds of dust kicked up beneath the tires of his car.

That atmosphere, coupled with the mysterious, almost apocalyptic aura of the unyielding, unstoppable truck, makes Duel a consistently powerful debut film from the soon-to-be blockbuster director. The film does bog down during its middle section in the café, where Mann tries to grapple with what's happening to him. His internal monologue, delivered in voiceover, is awkwardly handled and doesn't add much to the film that isn't conveyed much more potently without words. This is a concept that requires few words and few adornments, and once Mann returns to the road, pursued by the unrelenting truck that haunts him, the film picks up speed again and never slows down until its fiery conclusion.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Mirror (1997)

[This is a contribution to the Iranian Film Blogathon hosted by The Sheila Variations. The blogathon is inspired by imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi, and focuses on both his own films and those of other important Iranian directors. The blogathon will run from February 21-27, so check out all the related posts at Sheila's blog during this week.]

The Mirror uses a clever conceptual device as a way to observe, in pseudo-documentary fashion, the day-to-day rhythms of life in the city of Tehran. For the first half of the film, a young girl (Mina Mohammad Khani) tries to find her way home after her mother fails to pick her up after school. The girl gets a ride from a friendly stranger who calls himself the General, until his motorcycle gets smashed in an accident. Then she gets rides in various buses, seemingly picking them at random, hoping that they'll get her home. As she rides, she listens in on various conversations going on around her, and the film provides a glimpse into the lives of the ordinary people of the city, capturing attitudes in flux and the small complaints and pleasures of everyday life. Then, halfway through the film, the girl suddenly turns to the camera and says, "I'm not acting anymore," rips off her fake cast and the coat she'd been wearing, and storms off the bus, refusing to take part in the film anymore. After a hesitant interlude in which the film crew, including director Jafar Panahi, try to decide how to deal with their young star's sudden bout of anger, Panahi decides to continue following Mina anyway. As a result, the second half of the film mirrors the first, as the film crew follows Mina as she continues to try to find her way home — supposedly to the actress' real home now.

The film's structure calls attention to the continuity between fiction and reality, as the staged scenes of the early part of the film are mirrored by the supposedly "real" scenes of the latter half (even though it's doubtful that anything in the film is actually unscripted). Both halves of the film concern a girl trying to get home, lost in the city, and Mina's character — stubborn, independent, wise in her childish way — hardly changes when she says she's going to stop acting. At one point, in the second half of the film, Mina meets an old woman who had been on a bus with her earlier, talking about her uncaring children and her feeling that her life is miserable. Mina sits with the woman and finds out that she hadn't been acting earlier, that though she'd been paid to be in the film, everything she'd said had been a description of her actual life and her actual feelings. Later in the film, someone who'd been watching the filming compliments Mina on her acting but especially singles out for a praise a scene where, supposedly, she hadn't been acting, a scene after she broke character and quit the film. The line between fiction and reality is blurry here, and it seems to be Panahi's assertion that, in both fiction and documentary, artists are attempting to capture the essence of reality, and in that sense it hardly matters if something is factual as long as it's true to the emotional and social reality that the camera captures. And in spite of the metafictional gimmick at the heart of the film, it's obvious that The Mirror is true to reality, that Panahi is trying to present a portrait of life in the city with all its complexity.

One interesting aspect of this portrait is the emphasis on the role of women. During a cab ride towards the end of the film, the driver and some passengers debate the roles of men and women in a society where tradition remains ingrained even as a few changes are beginning to shake things up. A woman in the cab passionately argues that women shouldn't be slaves to their husbands, that it's not the woman's duty to be a maid or a housekeeper, and that men should help out their wives. The driver and another man argue against her, trying to maintain that men earn the money while women should stay at home and keep the house in order. But as the woman points out, this strict division of labor is no longer always true, as women begin to work outside of the home, too — a situation that calls into question the codification of the man as the worker and the woman as the child-rearer and housekeeper. This exchange suggests a society in flux, a society where new situations and new values are threatening the traditional understanding of men and women. This open, honest exchange is juxtaposed against the buses, where men and women are segregated from one another in separate sections, with one of the film's most charming moments being Mina's observation of the shy, sweet smiles exchanged between a young man and a young woman, separated from one another across the bus but connecting anyway with their glances.

The subtext of the film is rebellion against what's expected. Mina rebels against the film crew, against the instructions of her male director — and Panahi continually inserts little jokes at his own expense, to undermine his authority as director. Mina is a fiercely independent young girl, in both incarnations of her character. She is occasionally helped along in her long odyssey home, but more often she resists the condescending help of the adults around her. She wants to find her own way, even though she's hopelessly lost and doesn't know the names of any streets, only being able to navigate by her memory of certain landmarks. Though dwarfed by her surroundings — she has to clamber up the wall of a phone booth to put her coin into the phone's slot before making a call — and obviously overwhelmed by the rushing traffic and chaotic crowds that surround her everywhere in the city, she tries to contain her fear. She asks many people for help, but she wants only limited assistance. She doesn't want to be delivered anywhere, she just wants directions and then she can go running off, her head down, her little feet pumping rapidly as she runs with a sense of purpose even when she has no real idea where she's going. The patter of her feet on pavement, captured by the microphone that the film crew leaves on her when they follow the rebelling young actress, is a recurring sound on the soundtrack, even when Mina herself dodges out of view behind traffic or gets lost in the crowds on the sidewalk.

More than anything else, the film is about the frenetic energy of Tehran, packed with cars and bikes and pedestrians, a dangerous and active city where frequent accidents — at one point a smashed car is lifted out of the center of a traffic jam with a crane — only add to the confusion. The people Mina meets on her journey home are often interesting in their own right, with their own stories and their own concerns, from the General's anxiety about his relatives' fashion choices at his son's wedding (he seems to think that their old-fashioned style will embarrass him) to the musician who used to earn his living by dubbing the voice of John Wayne in imported American films. Although overt commentary is impossible, Panahi seems to be implicitly examining the state of modern Iran, suggesting submerged clashes between modernity and tradition, between homegrown and outside influences.

Panahi, who was recently arrested by the Iranian government and effectively banned from making films, uses his unassuming pseudo-documentary style to consider the changing roles of women in this traditionalist country. The film is utterly apolitical on its surface, and yet at the same time it is unquestionably a film with a real social consciousness, an alertness to the ways in which ordinary people live their lives, the pressures they face from the intersections of religion, tradition and more modern influences. Mina, though she wears the head-scarf and clothes of a traditional woman or girl, seems like a thoroughly modern woman in terms of attitude: self-sufficient, bold, reluctant to bow to the demands of her elders. Panahi, from behind the camera, displays the same traits, the same determination, and if he is truly prevented from making any more films by the Iranian government, it will be a great loss, not only to the Iranian people — who need an artist this sensitive, this perceptive, this creative — but to the entire world.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Sound of Fury

[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause. The film I'm writing about today is the actual film that is going to be preserved and restored due in part to the efforts of this blogathon; every dollar contributed through the blogathon donation link will go to restoring this film.]

Cy Endfield's The Sound of Fury is based on the same true story as the Fritz Lang-directed Fury from fourteen years earlier, and both films are concerned with the mob mentality of lynchings and revenge. The films approach this story from very different angles, though, and they wind up being completely different films with somewhat overlapping themes. In Endfield's film, Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) is a struggling family man with a pregnant wife (Kathleen Ryan) and a young son. Tyler is determined to find a job, but in a depressed economy he's not having much luck, and all his prospects come to nothing. When he returns to his home after a failed job-hunting trip, it's heartbreaking to see the hope and joy in his wife's face when she momentarily thinks that he's found something, as though she's been restraining her worries for so long that they finally burst out in a brief burst of hope. As in Lang's film, economic pressure is at the forefront here, straining what would otherwise doubtless be a good relationship, but unlike in Fury, Tyler is not an innocent man. Tyler cannot resist the temptations of crime, not when he can't find any other job, not when his wife breaks down crying at their kitchen table because they don't even have the money to buy groceries and they're quickly running out of credit. So when Tyler meets the smooth-talking Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), initially thinking that he's being an offered a straight job at last, he decides to become Slocum's accomplice on a series of gas station holdups.

This is an archetypal noir scenario, the basically decent man who's corrupted by his circumstances. What's interesting about The Sound of Fury is the sympathy that's developed for Tyler, even as he willfully abandons his decent suburban life in favor of an escalating crime spree. He increasingly exists only at night, leaving behind his home and the daytime, spending his nights behind the wheel of a getaway car, watching Slocum rob gas stations and return to the car with fistfuls of bills. Endfield captures this ordinary guy's moral degradation with a direct, emotional style, contrasting Tyler's guilty conscience and hesitation against the smirking, sinister Slocum. Bridges seethes with intensity here, initially coming across as simply a cheery huckster — and something of a dandy, admiring his muscles in a mirror as he smears on cologne and puts on his silk shirts — who eventually reveals much darker undercurrents. The first scenes between Slocum and Tyler are staged like a seduction, as Slocum takes Tyler back to his apartment, where he shows off his wealth and his muscular torso. It almost seems like a gay come-on, but really what Slocum wants is to lure his prey into being his accomplise.

The darkness lurking beneath this dandy persona comes to the fore when Slocum hatches a plot to bring the duo's criminal partnership to the next level by kidnapping a rich man's son and holding him for ransom. The kidnapping is one of the film's best sequences, a tense and shadowy nighttime set piece as Slocum and Tyler kidnap the rich young man and try to stow him at an abandoned military base while awaiting the ransom's delivery. Of course, the plan goes wrong almost instantly, and Slocum reacts with a horrifying act of violence, fully revealing the raving evil that had been lurking just beneath the surface of his slick gangster image. Tyler tries to stop his partner, but when he fails Endfield frames Tyler in the foreground, his head in his hands, sobbing in despair and weakness, as in the background Slocum pounds a rock, brutally and repeatedly, onto the head of their victim.

The film also deals, like Lang's, with mob violence and the threat of lynchings. Throughout the film, Endfield occasionally intersperses Tyler's story with scenes involving the reporter Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson), a yellow journalist who believes that he's performing a valuable public service by stirring up public sentiment and appealing to the public's most virulent emotions. Stanton's editor convinces him to drum up circulation by exaggerating Slocum's scattered gas station robberies into a massive crime wave perpetrated by a vicious criminal gang. This is only the start of the newspaper's complicity in creating a public atmosphere conducive to punishing the criminals in the most violent possible way. As in Fury, these scenes are extremely didactic, hammering home the point that the justice system shouldn't be subverted, that innocence is presumed until a fair trial proves guilt, that journalistic sensationalism inflames ugly emotions by appealing to the worst in people. Stanton's friend (Renzo Cesana) provides the moralistic voice delivering these sentiments, lecturing his friend — and the audience — about the importance of fair trials and the dangers of the media's influence. Such concerns seem almost quaint now, in an era of widespread media saturation and sensationalistic coverage of everything and anything, but this film presents exaggerated newspaper headlines as though they're capable of tearing apart the fabric of the world.

As a result, the film's climax takes on a hysterical tone as the jail where Tyler and Slocum are being held is surrounded by a massive angry mob, eager to pull the two criminals outside and enact mob justice without waiting for the courts. The soundtrack becomes shrill and deafening, dominated by the crowd's screams and the frazzled rants of Slocum as he rattles around in his small jail cell. The contrast between the resignation of Tyler — who knows that he's done wrong and feels crippling guilt as a result — and the caged-animal rage of Slocum creates a compelling tension in the scene, even beyond the slow-building tension of the mob gathered outside. The roar of the crowd, the constant noise clattering on the soundtrack, abruptly cuts off for the quiet finale as, nearby, the sheriff and the newspaper reporters wait helplessly as the crowd drags Slocum and Tyler away to be killed. The eerie silence of the scene is shattered twice, with a distant cheer like at a sporting event, one cheer for each man who's dying. It's a chilling scene, with the seeming joy of the crowd contrasting awfully against the horror of what they're celebrating.

Also very compelling are the earlier scenes in which Tyler and Slocum, before they're caught, go out with two girls, Hazel and Velma (Katherine Locke and Adele Jergens), as cover for their mission to mail the ransom note in a neighboring town. The justification for this outing is narratively flimsy, but what's fascinating about it is how Endfield briefly pulls the focus off of the main story to focus on these two girls, who know nothing about the kidnapping plot and simply think they're going out on a fun date. Velma is Slocum's long-time girl, a statuesque good-time girl whose relationship with this unpredictable sociopath is as volatile as expected, alternating between steamy passion and bouts of anger and mutual violence. Hazel is very different, a shy and lonely woman who says she's saving herself for marriage, and who immediately clings to Tyler despite his brooding manner. The scene where the two women prep for their date, chatting and exchanging their hopes and dreams about the happiness and glamour they'd like to experience, is an interesting moment precisely because it's so peripheral to everything else that happens, an acknowledgment that these characters, who would be mere plot devices in any other movie, have lives and dreams of their own. (Interestingly, the two girls are much more thoroughly developed than Tyler's weepy, melodramatic wife, an utterly boring personality vacuum.)

In the end, The Sound of Fury is a fine noir that chronicles the descent of a normal guy into crime, driven there by economic desperation, and though the film is unflinching in examining the consequences of Tyler's weakness, it's also a bold plea on behalf of justice and order, a rejection of the bloodthirsty drive for revenge. Endfield's film is very much deserving of the restoration effort being conducted by this blogathon and by the Film Noir Foundation. As one can no doubt see from the screen captures included with this post, the film, with its heavy blacks and dark atmosphere, is definitely in need of a restoration so that one could descend, with Tyler, more completely into the inky blackness of his sad fate.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Films I Love #51: Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]

Edgar G. Ulmer excelled at making tough, gritty pictures on miniscule budgets: films that transcend their Poverty Row production values with a strangely haunting grace and beauty, a powerful aesthetic guiding every rough shot of Ulmer's work. The ratty B noir Detour is perhaps Ulmer's strongest film, a pithy hour-long ode to fallen men and dangerous women — or is it the other way around? Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is just an ordinary guy, a bit down on his luck maybe, a pianist whose beloved singer girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) has moved to California, hoping to make it in show biz. Roberts hitchhikes after her, but his journey to be reunited with his love goes awry when, through an improbable series of circumstances, he accidentally kills a man who has picked him up on the road. Knowing that the police would never believe his outrageous story, Roberts decides to hide the body and assume the other man's identity. But even this plan is foiled when he himself picks up a female hitchhiker, the fiery Vera (Ann Savage), who recognizes the car and knows that Roberts wasn't the one who was driving it not long ago. Roberts' sad story is told through a series of flashbacks, narrated in a shattered monotone by the antihero, who relates each new twist as though he still can't believe these things happened to him. Roberts is an everyman, with no money in his pockets and no luck, and he's easily manipulated by the sinister Vera. Savage's performance is truly eviscerating; she looks at Roberts like he's prey, with her eyes wide, gritting her teeth, her eyebrows gesticulating wildly, her voice a cold hard rasp.

Ulmer's a true poet of the noir: his images have an unsettling potency and startling emotional depths. Even Vera, the wanton woman, has her moment of warmth, when she places a hand seductively on Roberts' shoulder and tells him, her words freighted with meaning, "I'm going to bed." She looks at him expectantly, and when he shakes off her implicit offer, her face hardens into her usual eagle-like mask, putting up a front of rage to disguise her disappointment and hurt. Ulmer's ragged poetry can also be found in the half-awake dream Roberts has while driving, a vision of Sue singing against a backdrop of shadowy jazz musicians — a surreal interlude that juxtaposes Sue's cheery, all-American sweetness against the dark, tawdry circumstances into which the dazed Roberts stumbles. Ulmer's images have a hazy, raw quality that is both hyper-real and disturbingly unreal, a nightmare imagining of a world determined to punish the innocent, to corrupt them, to make them guilty. But his vision is also sufficiently open-ended that it allows for another interpretation, in which the entire film is the delirious self-justification of a guilty man, spinning wild stories to assuage his conscience. Either way, Detour is a harrowing and unforgettable noir, a distillation of the genre's essential themes and images into their most untempered form.

Friday, February 18, 2011


[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]

Crossfire is a fascinating noir with a message that was, in the post-WW2 era, remarkably topical, slowly creeping up from beneath its mystery surface. At first, the film appears to be just another strikingly shot suspense picture about murder and violence, opening with a brutal sequence staged in half-darkness, as several men struggle, their shadows cast on the walls until one of the men is thrown to the ground, knocking over a lamp, leaving the screen momentarily completely dark. After a beat, one of the men switches the light back on, checks on the body on the floor, and leaves with another man, all of this in half-darkness with only the lower halves of the men's bodies visible, the rest obscured by shadows. It's an intense introduction, swift and brutal, the stark lighting adding to the sense of menace and brutality in this anonymous killing. The rest of the film follows the investigation into this murder, as what initially seems like the unfortunate result of a common drunken argument turns out to stem from much darker, uglier impulses.

The investigation, conducted with calm precision by the police captain Finlay (Robert Young), centers around a group of soldiers who were with the murdered man, Samuels (Sam Levene), before his death. The three soldiers — Mitchell (George Cooper), Montgomery (Robert Ryan), and Floyd (Steve Brodie) — met up with Samuels at a bar and went back to his room with him, but at that point the various stories diverge, leaving it unclear who killed the man. Mitchell seems like the most likely fall guy at first, but his friend Keeley (Robert Mitchum) thinks otherwise and begins looking into things himself. The film employs a Citizen Kane-like structure with different people filling in the blanks in the night of the murder, but the device is vestigial, as it becomes clear relatively early what's really going on here.

At first, some broad clues are dropped in the dialogue, hints at something beyond a typical drunken brawl, and eventually the film dispenses with the flashback structure entirely and just reveals who the killer was, well before the climax. The reason for this abandonment of the film's central mystery is that director Edward Dmytryk, working with a script adapted by John Paxton from a Richard Brooks novel, is thrusting at something much deeper than a whodunnit mystery. The film morphs halfway through from noir mystery into an impassioned treatise against prejudice and bigotry, against the kind of hatred that, as Finlay says, is "like a loaded gun," ready to go off at any moment. The film's source novel was about anti-homosexual bias, but the message is translated to be about anti-Semitism for Hollywood, both because any overt mention of homosexuality was still impossible in the cinema of the time, and because a film about anti-Jewish bigotry would arguably be even more relevant in the years after the war, as the horrors of the death camps became public knowledge.

In any event, despite the specifics of this murder's prejudiced motive, the film mounts an argument against prejudice and hatred in any form. At the film's climax, Finlay delivers what would in any other film be a distractingly on-the-nose and lengthy speech about prejudice and bigotry; so many films are interrupted by such obvious message moments, but it almost never works as well as it does here. Part of it is Young's performance as the police captain who remains calm and generic until his big moment, when he unleashes an intensity of feeling that's surprising in this previously unshowy man. He delivers this speech with such depths of sincerity and emotion in his voice that he overcomes, through sheer force of will, any sense that this might be just a pro-forma message interruption of a thriller narrative. More than that, though, it's such a profoundly admirable speech, simple and direct in its language, not written especially cleverly, but written nonetheless with real feeling for its ideas. And its ideas, as specific as they are to the post-war era, are sadly still relevant in any number of contexts: the idea that prejudice is eternal and simply shifts from one target group to another over time; the idea that the violent form of hatred that results in murder is simply an outgrowth of milder, more prosaic forms of bias and dislike. This latter idea, with the memory of Hitler's extermination program still bracingly fresh, hits especially hard, as a reminder that murder and violence are only the most extreme forms of sentiments that are often widespread in society.

Young gets these messages across brilliantly in this extended sequence, which culminates in his linkage of anti-Semitic sentiments to earlier forms of prejudice against Irish immigrants, suggesting that such virulent hatred can afflict any group. Robert Ryan, as the bigoted Montgomery, with his Irish surname, doesn't get this: he sees only his own closeminded preconceptions about people, and he's so hateful he can barely contain his nasty remarks. He's nearly incapable of hiding his poisoned mind, which reveals itself first in insinuating remarks about "those people." Ryan's sneering, glowering performance is a fine counterpoint to Young's tranquil demeanor and steady progress towards the truth. Ryan plays a man who can seem ordinary or even charming for a few minutes at a time before something much uglier begins leaking out. That he's a soldier, someone who had just returned from fighting a war against one of the vilest, most hateful regimes in history, only deepens the bitter irony — and Ryan, the prototypical square-jawed American, allows the darkness of this character to slowly consume him. As he's gradually revealed as the villain of this story, he inhabits the role more and more fully, until he's captured in a closeup, looming over a fellow soldier, glaring down at him with threatening, angry eyes, his former innocuous manner entirely submerged.

Crossfire is the rare topical film that reaches across time to retain its power in the modern era. The situations it depicts don't feel remote, not by any means, and its direct, unflinching examination of irrational hatred — whether racial, ethnic or sexual — makes it both an important film and an affecting one. For once, the shadows of the noir don't just hide another story of bad dames and greedy men. Instead, what's lurking in the shadows is both more familiar and more frightening: hatred of a man just because of how he was born, violence incubated in feelings of prejudice and bias, the seeds of genocide planted in the minds of seemingly ordinary people who carry around their hatred like loaded guns.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Born To Kill

[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]

There have been countless films where a woman is torn between a life that would bring her mild but unfulfilling happiness and an alternative that she knows is bad for her but wants anyway: facing a choice between the good, stable but maybe a little boring man who loves her, and the bad but irresistibly exciting man she can't help but love. Few films, though, make the choice so explicit as it is in Robert Wise's Born To Kill. Helen (Claire Trevor) says she's not interested in men who are "turnips," that she wants someone strong and forceful, someone who knows what he wants and takes it. That seems to fit Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney) perfectly: he's a violent, impulsive man, jealous and angry, unwilling to let anyone walk all over him. He's carrying a heavy burden on his shoulders, the burden of class: he's got none, and feels like he's been cheated out of the good life he deserves. He's had so many people try to step over him and he won't tolerate it. Helen is in many ways just like him. She exists on the outskirts of polite society: her foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long) is the heiress to a newspaper fortune, while Helen has all the appearances of a wealthy society woman without the actual wealth. It's obvious that she, like Sam, feels aggrieved by her poverty, constantly reminded that she depends on her sister for charity, forced to rely on others. For an independent woman like her, that especially hurts.

At the beginning of the film, she's just gotten divorced — to a man who's never actually mentioned by name, so complete is his erasure from her life — but she's already got a new marriage lined up, to the rich Fred (Phillip Terry), who can provide her all the stability and security she's always wanted. Nevertheless, when she meets Sam on a train back from Reno after her divorce, she's obviously drawn to him, impressed by his strength and his self-assured manner. Laying out the film's themes in an especially naked way, she says that Fred represents security and comfort for her, but not Sam. She tells him, "You're strength and excitement and depravity. There's a kind of corruption in you, Sam." That's what turns her on, what drives her into his arms again and again, even as Sam, a social climber like her, latches onto her sister instead, courting and marrying Georgia once he learns about her fortune.

The class subtext flows through the film, often in rather uncomfortable ways. Those who have money, like Georgia and Fred, are seen as icons of innocence and goodness. They are noble and free of bad thoughts, never knowing the desperation or pettiness or conflict of people like Sam and Helen, people who have to worry about money, who aren't secure in their place. Arnett (Walter Slezak), the private detective hired to look into Sam, is like Sam and Helen as well. He's a down-on-his-luck immigrant who doesn't even have an office for his business. He stumbles into a juicy case only because he happens to be listed first in the phone book, and once he does, he's determined to milk it for every cent he can get out of it. If cheating justice pays better than fulfilling it, he's willing to do that, too. The film seems to imply that the lack of money makes one willing to do anything to get it, that class is synonymous with morality. Sam's compunction-free evil, Helen's weakness, Arnett's easy corruption: all are signs of low character, a lack of morality, a rotten core that's tied to their lack of wealth.

Still, it's possible that the bad do have more fun, at least in the short term. The film's opening scenes are largely set in a boarding house where Helen is staying during her divorce proceedings. The place is run by a cross-eyed matron, Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), a boisterous old drunk who had obviously once been a prostitute or simply a raucous party girl, and who in her old age lives vicariously through the bawdy tales of her young friend Laury (Isabel Jewell). This duo's banter is light-hearted and fun, reflecting their total delight in their lifestyle of decadence and pleasure. Mrs. Kraft might be lonely in her old age — no security or stability for her — but at least she has her booze and a good story. The film delights in these lively characters, even as it acknowledges how fleeting their happiness is — and how dangerous it is for them to get involved with the deadly-serious Sam, who can't coexist with this free-and-easy lifestyle.

Tierney delivers a powerful, glowering performance as the violent Sam, who will kill at the slightest provocation, who won't tolerate any real or imagined affront to his fragile ego. He's constantly called strong, but in fact he's delicate, always on the verge of losing his cool, never truly in control of his emotions. His violent temper is carefully monitored and soothed by his longtime friend Mart (Elisha Cook Jr.), whose connection to Sam is ambiguous but obviously intense. Cook is a perpetual Hollywood sidekick and bit player who often seemed to have a small guy's chip on his shoulder, a side-of-the-mouth tough guy attitude out of proportion to his weaselly looks. He is also almost always fun to watch whenever he shows up, and this film is no exception. At one point, he manages to make "I'm a baaaad boy" sound simultaneously infantile and playful and threatening and creepy, and it instantly becomes clear why he's such good friends with the sinister Sam.

Tierney's seething performance, set against the hard edges of Trevor's tough gal Helen, makes Born To Kill a compelling noir melodrama, in spite of (or even because of) its unsettling undercurrents of class warfare. The film juxtaposes bleak settings — particularly a haunted-looking abandoned street adjacent to windswept sand dunes, a prime site for late night murder — with the bright, lavish interiors of the palatial home shared by Georgia and Helen. Wise emphasizes closeups that capture the determined glares of Helen and Sam, and lend a discomfiting intimacy to their sudden, violent clenches and kisses. The film's most effective moment, though, is a surprising scene of attempted murder that blends menace with desperate slapstick pratfalls. The scene's tone shifts from sinister to morbidly comical, making murder seem anything but clean or easy: what starts as an assassination becomes a sloppy tussle in the sand. That abrupt and disturbing tonal destabilization is indicative of the film's boldness and assurance. It's a hard, edgy, tough-minded film — adjectives that describe both the film as a whole and its central characters.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause. The 1936 film I'm writing about today is based on the same story that later provided the impetus for Cy Endfield's 1950 The Sound of Fury, which is the film that is targeted for preservation by this particular blogathon.]

Fritz Lang's Fury is a harrowing film with a preachy but important message at its core. It was Lang's first Hollywood film, and it is obvious that he wanted his American debut to be a film that meant something, a film that, in a way, sent a message about what Lang saw as distinctively American values and vices. It's thus a film about justice and injustice, about goodness and corruption, about the loss of faith in the ideals upon which American democracy is built. Early on, in a scene in a barber shop, the customers discuss the American Constitution, with one right-wing man advocating for laws restricting the freedom of speech, suppressing those who say things that he disagrees with. The barber, an immigrant, speaks up, saying that the other man should read the Constitution, that such ideas run counter to the foundation of the country — he's read the Constitution, he says, because he had to in order to become a citizen, while those who are born here seldom bother. This seems like Lang's assertion of his own foreign perspective, his statement that, as an outsider, he's pointing out both what's best in this country and what threatens to destroy those great ideals, those noble concepts.

The film's central character, the ordinary working class guy Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), suffers the loss of faith in these ideals over the course of this film. When the film opens, he's planning to marry his sweetheart Katherine (Sylvia Sidney), although the happy couple are first forced to spend a year apart in order to save up enough money to get married. Joe's an honest, upright man, a man who tries to pass his values and ideals on to his two brothers, Charlie (Frank Albertson) and Tom (George Walcott). Charlie's caught up in some dishonest activities, running around with a mob outfit, and in many other noirs this would provide the central conflict: one can see Joe getting pulled into Charlie's criminal world, drawn by greed, forced to sacrifice his goodness and his honesty in the pursuit of enough money to reunite him with his woman. Instead, Joe pulls Charlie up into the light, convincing his brother that this flirtation with lawlessness is misguided. Lang intentionally inserts the gangster movie references as a red herring, a hint at a different kind of movie, and Joe's casual rejection of those clichés establishes him as seemingly incorruptible, unshakable in his faith and righteousness. So many noir antiheroes spiralled to their doom through this kind of temptation, but Joe is not swayed — and he spirals to his doom anyway.

Joe's sense of faith in goodness — the idea that a good life is its own reward — is eventually shattered, in the most dramatic way. The film's centerpiece is a jaw-dropping, heart-squeezing sequence of wrongful imprisonment and tragedy, as anxiety-inducing as any of Hitchcock's nightmarish "wrong man" scenarios. Joe gets mistakenly identified as being involved in a prominent kidnapping case, gets put into a small town jail, and while he's waiting for his innocence to be proven, he finds that the townspeople don't want to wait, that they want swift, brutal punishment for the man they believe to be a kidnapper. Lang's exaggerated vision of small town gossips and petty rabble-rousers transforming into a bloodthirsty lynch mob is patently artificial and stylized, but it's no less affecting for its contrivances. What matters is the impression that the institutions of civilization and democracy are horribly fragile, that at any moment the veneer of decency and justice can be peeled away, replaced by a mob mentality that overruns all of the values usually upheld in this country — or in any other country; after all, Lang had just left Germany in the early years of the Nazi government. What's striking about these sequences is that even in this nightmare vision of society run amok, Lang doesn't present the onset of hysteria and violence as inevitable: a few voices of reason do speak up and sway the crowd back from the brink, only to be overpowered again by other, less reasonable voices. And it's telling that the voice that finally does push the crowd fully over the edge is the voice of a strikebreaker, a man who'd just come from violently suppressing workers in a nearby town, and who now advocated similarly violent and horrible action in this town.

In the scene where the lynch mob starts gathering, pouring out into the streets towards the jail, a black man is nearly pushed aside by the swinging doors of a bar as the angry crowd races out. The man leaps up onto a table, hiding in the corner, out of the path of the enraged townspeople, and he remains in the back of the frame as the crowd rushes by. It's obvious that Lang is giving a little nod to this story's real subtext, to the real injustice that his film is, at root, really about. "Lynching" is a loaded word, a word with a real racial subtext to it in American history, and there's no escaping the obvious fact that all of this film's bold courtroom speeches about the prominence of lynchings in America are directed primarily at the lynchings of black men by white mobs. The film is, like many Hollywood films of the era, in code — it's quite possible that a film about a black man being lynched would have been impossible to make, and the enactment of a lynching story with a white innocent standing in for a black one allows Lang to make his observations about justice, revenge and the hatred and evil that can be so easily stirred up from petty motivations in otherwise normal people.

The lynching itself — the burning of the jail, with Joe inside, looking on in horror as law and order fall apart outside — is one of the most absolutely horrifying and sad sequences in cinema. Its impact is like slamming into a brick wall, as the fearsome, raw emotions of this sequence are unlike anything else in the film to that point. When Katherine arrives just in time to see the building engulfed in flames, with Joe at a barred window screaming, Lang holds a closeup on her stunned, horrified face, her eyes wide and glossy with tears, her mouth trembling open to murmur denials, as though she could wish away what she's seeing. These closeups are devastating, as is the hushed silence of the crowd as they watch the jail burn, stoically admiring the results of their actions, with Katherine's grief lost amidst the crowd, singled out only by Lang, who alternates closeups of Katherine with Joe at his barred window, even though the latter doesn't see his would-be bride and her horror.

The film's second half, after this pivotal event, chronicles the disruption of the American dream by this kind of hatred and violence. It is, inevitably, somewhat preachy and didactic, with plenty of courtroom speeches and showboating by the unnamed district attorney (Walter Abel), who often comes across as smug even though he's technically on the side of good. Compared to the bracing, darkly beautiful quality of Lang's images of the imprisonment and fire, it's of course a letdown when the film shifts almost entirely to courtroom theatrics, but the film's hammering sloganeering clearly comes from a place of real feeling. As a result, the film remains passionate and engrossing even when the courtroom scenes kill the momentum of the story. This is a fascinating film, a rumination on the justice system and the concept of revenge, but even when it threatens to become a wordy tract on these subjects, the film's strong emotional foundation prevents the speeches from overwhelming the characters.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Nightmare Alley

[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]

Edmund Goulding's Nightmare Alley is a bleak, fatalistic noir, a rich and unusual examination of ambition, hypocrisy and ruin. The film is set in the world of the carnival and show business glitz, as the young carnival barker Stan (Tyrone Power) dreams of developing an act that will get him out of the low-rent carnival; he wants money and fame as a high-class night club attraction, wowing audiences with displays of psychic power and mind-reading. He sees his chance in the washed-up psychic Zeena (Joan Blondell), who had once been a famed night club performer with a flawless code system that had allowed her to stun audiences, until her partner and husband Pete (Ian Keith) was driven by her infidelities to become a drunk, no longer able to maintain the precision necessary for their act. The pair continue performing, in hobbled form, at a low-budget carnival, as Pete is kept barely stable by Zeena, even as she continues to stray. Stan — who openly admits that he thinks only of himself — worms his way in and sees Zeena on the side. Once he learns about the secret code she's guarding, of course he tries to get her to give it up to him, even as he lusts after the much younger Molly (Coleen Gray).

The film is built on a subtle structure of parallels and mirrors, as the film's first half carefully sets up the path of Stan's fated rise and fall. Stan's conversations with the drunken, no good Pete are so pointed that one senses it's only a matter of time before he winds up in the same situation. "How does a man sink so low?" someone asks early on, and the question — which will be repeated as some of the last words in the film — is the hidden driving force behind much of the action. How does a man sink so low? Through greed and cold ambition, through pushing away friends and using people for what he thinks he can get out of them. In the opening scenes of the film, Stan observes a performance by "the Geek," a carnival attraction of the basest sort, a man who degrades himself by pretending to be a subhuman brute, a monster with no thoughts who eats live chickens for the amusement and horror of the audience. Goulding stages this sequence brilliantly: the Geek is positioned at the front of the stage, hidden from view by the crowds gathered around him, and as Stan walks away, disgusted by the spectacle, a man on stage throws a pair of chickens to the brute. As the chickens squawk and squeal, the camera pans away with Stan, towards a fire-eater who blows turrets of flame into the air from his mouth. The audience begins to turn away from the Geek as well, to watch the fire-eater instead, and the moment underscores the insignificance of the degraded, unseen man. He lowers himself to the level of an animal for the momentary entertainment of a fickle crowd, and when they're satisfied with his degradation, they turn to the next spectacle, seeking the next stimulus.

That's why it's so heartbreaking when Pete and Stan discuss the Geek later, watching the man go crazy, pursued by carnival workers. Pete admits that if not for Zeena, that would be him: the Geek is just an ordinary man, a drunk who's sunk so low that he's willing to do anything for a bottle of booze, even if it means utterly debasing himself in the most humiliating and public ways. The Geek pretends to be without thoughts, without a human brain, but Pete's awareness of his own degradation, his own uselessness as a sloppy drunk, suggests that beneath his brutish surface the Geek is very much aware of what he's doing, very much aware of how low he's fallen. That only makes it all the more horrible, and Stan in particular is horrified by the Geek, as though he were seeing a creeping premonition of his own future in this debased man, a former carnival performer himself.

Stan's rise to fame occurs when he gets away from the carnival, at first not of his own free will, though he eventually realizes that he's actually gotten his big break. He brings Molly with him, and one of the film's cleverest scenes is the one where Stan concocts his newest scheme. He's thought of the idea to create a new psychic act with Molly as his partner, and a grin spreads over his face as he thinks of all the money and fame they can earn. But Molly obviously misunderstands, thinking he's happy to be with her, starting a new life with her. "Do you really mean it?" she asks breathlessly, looking at him with wide, happy eyes, and he excitedly exclaims, "yes," but there's some obvious miscommunication here. Molly's happy to be married, to be in love, but Stan is just happy to finally be on the verge of major success. He's happy he's got the girl, but only because he knows he can use her in the act, because she'll be very useful to him. The scene is staged like a conventional romantic climax, a moment of togetherness and union, but the lovers are talking past one another, seeming to say the same things but meaning something very different. The way the different meanings criss-cross in the subtext makes the scene heartrending rather than uplifting, even as the strings soar and Molly proclaims, with sappy earnestness, that she'll be a good and loyal wife to her man. It's as though the film is mocking Molly for being just another mark, just another sucker for Stan's clever patter.

It's fascinating to watch the sweet, innocent Molly hoodwinked by Stan, even as he himself gets tangled up with a calculating psychiatrist, Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who sees one of his acts and gets interested in him. The interplay between Stan and Lilith is a study in power struggles and mutual manipulation, as Stan thinks he's using the psychiatrist for her connections to wealthy society people. But, in a potent scene late in the film, the rug gets pulled out from under Stan, to the point that he begins questioning his own sanity, unsure of what's been real and what's been a con, not knowing if he's losing his mind or being brilliantly played. Goulding, ingeniously, allows the audience to wonder as well. Walker plays this scene with a hint of menace, an undercurrent of knowing manipulation, wrapped up in sincerity and bursts of seemingly genuine confusion. As the psychiatrist winds around her patient in the dark, the shadows making a cruel mask of her face, the audience is left to wonder what's truth and what's lies — to think back on what had already happened and wonder if there had been an elaborate long con running, and if so where the deceit had begun, how far back the web of lies stretched. The uncertainty places the viewer into Stan's position, concocting paranoid conspiracy theories, lost in the dark, feeling used and betrayed.

This is Stan's comeuppance, one explanation for how a man can get so low, how a man becomes the Geek. It is, in some ways, a divine justice, a form of destiny or punishment from above: the film's script is full of allusions to destiny, to the magic of the Tarot deck, and to God and the Christian Bible. There is an increasingly religious fervor to Stan's psychic performances, as he puts his audiences in touch with dead relatives and uses the rhetoric of the church pulpit as fodder for entertainment and spectacle. To him, religion is just another con, and Molly, growing afraid as he crosses the blurry line from entertainer to con artist, begs him not to invoke the wrath of God by playing the role of a spiritualist. But Stan has a literalist's understanding of religion; he believes, or tries to convince Molly that he believes, that because he never explicitly mentions God, then he is free of blasphemy. It's as though he's even trying to con God, to sneak by on a technicality. In the end, though, as Stan semi-consciously falls lower and lower until he's mirroring first Pete and then the lowly Geek, the film suggests that there's no way to con destiny, no way to avoid the inevitable and awful descent into pathetic ruin.