sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
On the one hand, I feel that the most appropriate response to David Rudkin's Penda's Fen (1974) would have been a day in the Malverns and some cloud-watching à la Thomas Colpeper, JP. On the other, I was in Providence when I saw it, and I wasn't sure of the ancestral relationship of Edward Elgar to College Hill. I spent a lot of NecronomiCon walking. That will have to suffice.

Penda's Fen is a 90-minute television play originally commissioned and broadcast as part of the BBC's Play for Today (1970–84); it was directed by Alan Clarke and I have wanted to see it ever since I discovered it somehow in the archives of the BFI in grad school. I finally got my chance Thursday afternoon in the auditorium of the Providence Public Library. It was screened on one of those small classroom projectors; there were about a dozen people in the audience besides me and some of them left or arrived partway through. What I could hear of the introduction seemed to be trying to champion it as a Lovecraftian film—I don't want to misrepresent someone who was mostly less audible than the air conditioning, but while I grant that it is a gloriously weird piece of cinema, if anything I think it's anti-Lovecraftian. Lovecraft's universe is fragile and deceptive, contaminable and contagious. The world that can be perceived is a shell over the world that is, one crack away from collapse into barbarism or madness or the abyss of time itself. Knowledge is a virus and you may well die of it. Your bloodline was compromised before you were born. The Other is always looking for a way in, and it finds one, and down into the dark we all go, unless we turn out to be the Other, in which case the dark is where we should have been all along. I don't have to alter the premise of Penda's Fen to make it resemble this template: a sheltered young man discovers that his ideas of both himself and his nation, from race and sexuality to family and religion, are soul-shakingly wrong. He is "mixed, mixed . . . nothing special, nothing pure." But where that revelation might have sent one of Lovecraft's protagonists careening into the void, Rudkin and Clarke offer an alternate path. Openly political, unashamedly Romantic, their vision affirms queerness, hybridity, and ambiguity as the true heart of England, the small, stubborn fire that the clear-cut forces of oppression—patriarchy, white supremacy, Christian supremacy—are always trying to snuff out. Salvation lies in the liminal spaces, the mixed and marginalized. This is a really cheering thesis to see so forcefully and hauntingly stated, especially since the film itself is less a pamphlet than a dark-and-bright dream of nuclear anxiety, sexual confusion, and folk almost-horror. Its language is Christian and pre-Christian, angels and demons and the echo of William Blake, but it is actually a lot like watching a version of the Bacchae where Pentheus, instead of breaking and being torn apart, shifts shape as suddenly as his cousin into the strange thing he was always meant to be. There is also psychogeography. And sympathetic magic. And Elgar. Anglophile Lovecraft may have longingly written "God Save the King!" but I don't know that he would have endorsed or even recognized the Englishness of Penda's Fen.

Stephen be secret, child be strange. )

I did not manage to catch any of the rest of the film programming at NecronomiCon, but Penda's Fen made the entire schedule worth it. I'm not even sorry I saw it in a library rather than a movie theater, since I am fairly confident its influence extends to the archival, hauntological music of Ghost Box. The real trouble with describing a narrative that treats its otherworld so matter-of-factly and this world with such an eye for the surreal is that even the attempt makes both of these modes sound much more normal than the experience: I have to stress that while Penda's Fen is not in any plot sense difficult to follow, its constant shifting and eventual merging of registers is a lot like having someone else's hallucinations for an hour and a half. I suspect this was part of the reason for the walkouts, although I kind of feel that if you show up for a film at a weird fiction convention, you should be prepared for something out of the ordinary to get into your head; I certainly expect what I saw in that noontime auditorium to stay in mine. It was messy, liberating, ambitious, and very beautiful. It left me hungry for sunsets on hills I've never climbed. It made me contemplate the sacred fires of my own country and who guards them now against the dark. Who is secret, strange, holy, and ungovernable. This dream brought to you by my mixed backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Otachi: Pacific Rim)
I just finished watching Moana (2016) with my mother and [personal profile] spatch. I can't believe that music lost out to La La Land. Also, Zootopia better have been some kind of artistic landmark, because I'm willing to bet it didn't have hand-drawn animated tattoos, a bedazzled neon monster crab, or a sea I wanted to swim in.

I had seen Auliʻi Cravalho perform "How Far I'll Go" at the Oscars in February; I knew surprisingly little about the film otherwise, although that had not prevented me from being impressed by Philip Odango's Maui cosplay. I'm sorry I missed it in theaters. I am normally a hard sell on computer-generated rather than traditional animation, but the super/natural world of Moana is beautifully done, the star-thick skies, the curl and shatter of the waves, a green and flowering goddess settling herself to an island's sleep again. I'm not in a position to comment on the accuracy of the film's mythological representation, although I recognized most of the stories Maui tells about himself (the eel into coconuts one was new to me), but I really enjoyed seeing a movie whose trickster figure is a real trickster, not just the malevolent side of chaos. I like Moana as a protagonist—her sea-longing, her sense of humor, her stubbornness and her occasional incredulity that her life now involves having to fight tiny spiky sentient pirate coconuts over the world's most clueless chicken; I like that her conflicts with her family and with Maui are not gendered. Her return to Motunui with her grandmother's necklace around her throat and an outrigger canoe gifted her by a goddess, a wayfinder, a hero, makes me think someone else read Armstrong Sperry's Call It Courage (1940) as a child and wanted a better ending. The bond between her and her grandmother is the sort of thing that causes me to cry through a movie. I have also heard much worse reincarnation ideas than a manta ray. My mother made the connection between Te Kā and Te Fiti even before the film revealed it: once you remove the ability of a Pacific island to flower into life, of course all that's left is the volcanic rock, the earth cracking into the sea. The writers of Moana handle it a little differently than Lloyd Alexander, but I realized after the fact that Maui's final willingness to sacrifice his fishhook—his magic, the only thing he thinks makes the difference between a shape-changing culture hero and an unwanted child—called out the same response in me as Fflewddur's sacrifice of his harp. I had somehow missed that Dwayne Johnson can sing.

Is the film an authentic depiction of pre-colonial Polynesia? I don't see how it could be; first of all, there's a whole lot of cultures bracketed in that description, and despite the credited participation of the Oceanic Story Trust, which I appreciated seeing, both directors Ron Clements and John Musker and screenwriter Jared Bush were white and not as far as I can tell from anywhere in the relevant regions themselves. It's a Disney movie. They're adapting to the concept of diverse creators slightly faster than the subduction of the Pacific Plate. But its attention to material culture is notable, it does seem to have taken care with some traditions, and I'm still amused that the only actor in the main voice cast who is not of Polynesian descent is Alan Tudyk, voicing the above-mentioned chicken. (I'm also weirdly pleased that I have apparently heard enough Flight of the Conchords to recognize Jermaine Clement by his Bowie impression.) I hadn't heard of Opetaia Foa’i or Te Vaka before tonight, which may mark the first time a Disney musical has actually introduced me to musicians I plan to pursue beyond the soundtrack; I don't speak Samoan, Tokelauan, or Tuvaluan, so I am not the intended audience for some of Foa’i's lyrics and that's all right. I am glad they are in the languages they are in and I can appreciate the ones written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, since I'm pretty sure he's the best English-language lyricist Disney's had since Howard Ashman. Also, I realize that snappy, poppy, intermittently immature dialogue is a necessary component of a modern Disney film, but in the persistent wake of Girl of the Port (1930) and the convention of confining indigenous characters to pseudo-pidgin or formal speech, I am cool with a cast composed entirely of Pasifika characters who get lines as lofty as "Nope!", "Fish pee in you! All day!" and "Really? Blowdart in my butt cheek?" I mean, there are also serious conversations about responsibility, apology, healing the world, growing up. There are powerful, wordless sequences between human characters, nonhuman characters, elements of the natural world. There's a shot of a conch shell that speaks volumes. But also an accidentally half-shark trickster glumly describing his chances of beating a lava spirit with a well-deserved grudge as "bupkes."

I have had a migraine for about three days now and correspondingly haven't slept except for a couple of hours this afternoon, so I know this post is more notes than extended consideration, but I liked Moana so much, I wanted at least to mention it. It's funny, it's numinous, it celebrates traditional Polynesian navigation, it has no villain in the usual sense and I love its idea of a heroic happy ending, horizon, spray, steering by the swell and the stars. My mother tells me that my niece has imprinted to the point of going around randomly quoting the dialogue, so between Gramma Tala and "Shark head!" I'm wondering if she might like to visit the aquarium to pet the sharks and rays. [personal profile] handful_ofdust, thanks for the DVD! I will acquire the soundtrack on my own time. This voyage brought to you by my sea-called backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
And now for something completely different: a movie that's still playing in theaters as we speak. I didn't manage to get it written up in July, but the movie I dashed out to catch after writing up Way Out West (1930) was Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017). The Somerville not only has a 70 mm print and the Philips Norelco DP70s to screen it on, it has David the projectionist who learned his trade on the format and handles it beautifully, so I figured I would not have a better chance to see it however Nolan intended. His films have a very mixed track record with me, so I was not sure what to expect.

The very short version: while I did not love the film as I had hoped I would, I don't think it fails its history and I liked it. It's visually striking, elegantly structured, and often curiously, intentionally anti-epic even while it's staging cast-of-thousands setpieces with a sweeping, elemental approach to historical fact. It's a war movie in which the first event on the fabled beach of Dunkirk is a combat-stunned young Tommy, thin, dark-haired, looking like a scarecrow in the heavy folds of his uniform greatcoat and whatever kit survived his scrambling, lucky escape from enemy fire in the falling city, wandering around the dunes looking for a place to take a shit because he damn near just had it scared out of him and instead finds another equally young, equally silent soldier burying a corpse, one cold, crusted foot just poking out of the sand. So he can't actually use that dune as a latrine because you don't crap on graves, especially not when you suspect they belong to other people's mates; he rebuckles his trousers and goes to help with the burial. That's a whole cross-section of a war in a few wordless minutes, black-humored, elegiac, still heart-hammering adrenaline from the soldier's race through deserted streets inhabited only by the eerie snowfall of propaganda fliers and machine-gun fire out of nowhere, splattering the men he was running alongside a moment ago. His name is Tommy, although neither my mother nor I picked that up until the credits; he's played by Fionn Whitehead in his screen debut and except for a few key scenes he is almost, like several other roles in this film, a silent part, anchoring the story with his wiry body and his dark-freckled, truculent face. Because he's one of our metonyms for the stranded soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, it would have been easy to cast him pretty, innocent. He has the vulnerability of extreme youth, but he's also a little feral, something of a scrounger—a clever bit player, maybe, in a different kind of war film. This one shifts him and his fellow extras to center stage, displacing the more familiar heroism of steadfast warriors or brilliant strategists. The closest we get to the former are Tom Hardy's Farrier and Jack Lowden's Collins, Spitfire pilots aloft for one crucial hour to provide air cover for the most exposed phase of the evacuation; the closest we get to the latter is Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton, the tireless, anxious pier-master with a host of unenviable decisions to make. The much-mythologized decency of the ordinary Briton is represented by Mark Rylance's Dawson, the mildly spoken, cardigan-wearing civilian whose motor yacht the Moonstone is one of the shallow-draft "little ships" that can get safely to the beach where destroyers would founder, but even he has odd cracks and ripples that come late to light. The most important thing about the film, I think, whatever its faults, is that it recognizes the violence and the chaos and the terror and the failure without capsizing into grimdark or overcompensating into triumphalism. The ships did come. They never should have had to, but they did. And that was the end of the phony war and just the beginning of the real one.

That's enough. )

I don't know what most people of my nationality and generation know about Dunkirk. I don't know what they'll take away from this movie. It plays like it was meant to be the last cinematic word on the history, but so was Leslie Norman's Dunkirk (1958) and that had John Mills and Richard Attenborough going for it; I'm sure we can expect a new hot take in another sixty years. Personally I don't think it will displace The Prestige (2006) as my favorite Christopher Nolan, but there's a lot in it I'm still thinking about. My mother liked it and the history is important to her. The last image is as powerfully open-ended as it needed to be. I feel stupidly proud of myself for recognizing Michael Caine's uncredited cameo by voice. I guess I have opinions about cinematography. This homecoming brought to you by my fiery backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Jonathan & Dr. Einstein)
Today was my brother's birthday observed, so I gave him an IOU for a set of automatic transmission brackets and levers that are on their way in the mail. (He's doing some car restoration.) My niece kept dragging me by the hand to come and look at her Brio trains until she decided it was more fun to have me sit on the couch with my feet up on the glass-topped table and provide a bridge for her to drive the trains beneath. I would take her to see the construction on the Comm. Ave. Bridge except that, if all goes well, the major replacements of this phase will be done in the next couple of days and then my brother and his family are going out of town. I might just have to go by myself. I don't think of it as being a very distinctive bridge, but it's been there all my life. Also, I like cranes.

1. Paul Harfleet's Pansy Project plants the flowers as memorials of and resistance against instances of homophobia and transphobia. The artist started his work in the UK, but it's an open-source, international project; he just asks that you follow the guidelines if planting a pansy for yourself or someone close to you. I don't have need of it myself right now—the last time someone harassed me in the street was based strictly on appearing female in public—but I really like the idea, both as art and ritual.

2. I know I'm in the wrong country, but maybe I'll get lucky and BBC America will show Queers (2017) and I can ask someone to tape the series; the actual BBC's streaming service just apologizes to me. This looks like the most interesting thing I've seen Mark Gatiss do since the time I watched The Cicerones (2002) and The Tractate Middoth (2013) in the same month.

3. The official video for "Stronger Than You" involves Estelle and a plaza full of Steven Universe fans and it's wonderful.

4. Courtesy of [personal profile] gaudior: "Judeo-Christian." Yep.

5. Does anyone know how far back the idea of ghosts as recordings on time actually goes? I think the earliest I've encountered it in fiction is Margaret Oliphant's "The Open Door" (1882), with the key conceit of a ghost—unlike the self-aware kind with unfinished business—trapped in endless reenactment of a moment of its life until it can be known and named and someone break the pattern. "Lord, let that woman there draw him inower! Let her draw him inower!" This question brought to mind earlier tonight by watching William Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1959), where Elisha Cook, Jr. believes firmly in the exact opposite kind of ghost: conscious, malevolent, and increasing in number with each death that occurs within the Mayan exteriors of the Ennis House, which [personal profile] spatch recognized at once from The Rocketeer (1991). He's the spooked host of the film, the house's reluctant owner who claims that spending one night inside left him "almost dead" and agrees to a rematch only because there's $10,000 in it, though he doesn't expect to survive to collect—he closes out the evening like a macabre Eeyore, sighing, "What's the use of saying goodnight?" He may be in worse shape than Roddy McDowall in The Legend of Hell House (1973), which is saying something. To the other four guests, invited for a Halloween-scare party that rapidly complicates into something more authentically lethal, he gives a lugubrious tour of the corridor where a girl's stabbing still bleeds through the dry ceiling, the basement where a husband dissolved his wife in acid that still burbles under the floor. He tells the story of his own brother's murder while holding the carving knife it was done with and keeps a drunken, self-appointed vigil over the body of the house's latest apparent victim, insisting to her incensed husband that he "didn't want them to take her away—they will if you don't watch her!" We are meant, I think, to suspect him as a pint-size psycho killer as much as trust him as a guide to the house's gruesome history, but there's such real panic in his voice when he cries, "Your wife isn't there anymore! She's already joined them!" that for a moment we expect the body to have vanished when the camera—along with Vincent Price, who was distracted by choking Cook—glances back. The real supernatural potential of the film runs on his unwavering, terrified conviction, not on the jump scares, although there are several good ones. I'm not sure it all pays off in the end in a way that doesn't leave plot holes even ghosts can't plug, but it's a great showcase for Price's barbed, silky, never quite parodic style as the playboy millionaire with $50,000 to burn and motives that are so obviously ulterior, they're successfully opaque, and its low-budget combination of gross-out and suggestion ("Funny thing is, the heads have never been found . . . You can hear them at night. They whisper to each other, and then cry") is actually at points disturbing. Human plotting and violence is one thing, but unappeasable ghosts seeping out unstoppably from the epicenter of whatever started the haunting in the first place is a much more modern horror motif than I was expecting from a movie with dripping ceilings and acid baths, especially when there's not the least implication that knowing what happened in the house could put an end to it. Cook seems to know all the stories: all it does for him is provide more reasons to drink. Even when the last act pivots through almost as many genres as plot twists, there's something unsettling left over. And the rest of it's fun. I might have to check out more of Castle's gimmick horror now. A plastic skeleton did not fly out over our heads at the climax, as in selected theaters during the original run, but I don't hold that against anything I watch off my laptop. This really haunted house brought to you by my restless backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
On my list of things to post about, I am approximately a zillion movies behind, but I have to make a note of Way Out West (1930), a Western comedy-romance directed by Fred Niblo for MGM, because I have finally seen William Haines in a talkie and I was not expecting the way it turned out to be pre-Code. I wish I had some kind of seminar about Hollywood treatments of queerness to screen it in. I should just watch The Celluloid Closet (1996) already, shouldn't I?

I discovered Haines a couple of years ago with King Vidor's Show People (1928), a delightful piece of late silent Hollywood meta starring Marion Davies as a natural comedienne who gets derailed by her studio into becoming a phony tragedienne and has to be rescued by a stiff spritz of seltzer in the face and the down-to-earth fellow-feeling of true love; Haines plays her baggy-pants co-star and was one of the more lively, naturalistic, and charming actors I'd seen from the silent period. He has great playful chemistry with Davies, a clown's limber body and the kind of fresh face that can flip from good-looking to goofy—or vice versa—with a grin. Van Heflin can mime fish-catching like nobody's business, but Haines remains the only actor I have ever seen loop-the-loop a bite of spaghetti or make his eyes pop like a Tex Avery wolf with a pair of hot dog rolls and it's sweet. He plays what Mary Renault calls "the standard boy-meets-girl manœuvres" with tongue lightly in cheek, as if inviting the heroine to join him in the masquerade; he plays the emotional connection for real. I left the Somerville desperately curious to know what he was like with sound. When one of his talkies came around on TCM, I seized my chance.

Way Out West is a classically pre-Code combination of not much to write home about and unfiltered id. Most of Haines' starring features revolved around a wisecracking anti-hero who needed to be taken down a peg before he could get the girl; here that's "Windy" Windermere, a sideshow talker slick enough to fleece the crowd of heavy-breathing cowboys he enticed backstage for a few minutes of private time with cooch dancer "La Belle Rosa" ("She's too hot to handle with bare hands and it's against the law for her to sleep in a frame building") and too full of his own cleverness to twig when La Belle pockets the take herself and skips town. With no way to repay the $200 when his suspicious marks circle back and catch him packing up his rigged roulette gear, Windy finds himself shanghaied to the ranch to work off his theft through a regimen of menial and mocking tasks, as the different hands take their turns "riding herd" on their tenderfoot toy. I'm sorry, this premise comes with kink goggles built in. As the weeks go by, the hard-rode Windy begins to pick up the responsibilities of ranch life despite his best intentions; he falls in love with spirited boss Molly Rankin (Leila Hyams, one of Haines' silent co-stars) almost the same way. Initially as unimpressed as her men, she's the first to notice that their captive con man is "taking his medicine without a whole lot of kicking" even when it almost actually kills him. The knockabout slapstick of the early scenes eases off in favor of the real possibility of Windy proving himself—not to the still-sore cowboys, Molly's protective brother (Charles Middleton) and would-be boyfriend (Francis X. Bushman Jr.) included, but to himself, with the challenging encouragement of Molly who believes he's better than chiseling and weaseling and running away all the time. Of course, dramatic tension being what it is, he chisels, weasels, and runs away at least once each before the heroic denouement, but anyone who thinks he won't come through in the clinch has not been paying attention to Hollywood. All throughout, Haines is as charming as I'd hoped from Show People, his breezy, boisterous voice translating as easily from intertitles as his physical expressiveness from silent comedy. He is also playing with masculinity in ways that I find fascinating even while I feel I can only parse about half of them. Put it this way: I had sort of gotten the idea that the major exponent of camp in pre-Code Hollywood was Mae West. On the strength of Way Out West, it may have been Billy Haines.

It is not quite the same phenomenon as Edward Everett Horton in RKO's Roar of the Dragon (1932), although it's in the ballpark. The difference is that Horton is a character actor, a supporting player with the latitude to depart from the conventional virtues of his gender and station, so that while we can be treated to the extraordinary sight of his maiden-auntish hotel clerk courageously manning a machine gun while wearing more eyeliner than a Cure concert, the A-plot still presents Richard Dix as the actual hero, a two-fisted riverboat captain with a rugged jaw and one of those macho drinking problems to overcome. There's no actual hero in Way Out West. Or there is; it's Haines, with the looks and voice of a leading man, convincingly playing a late-breaking mensch with more spine than he thought and depths he's a little embarrassed to admit to. He saves the life of the woman he loves at the risk of his own, he holds his own with his fists against a man he previously lost a fight to, he stages a shootout and braves a sandstorm with the best of them. His specialty at the start is the quick grift and the quicker fade; by the credits there's no doubt that he can face all comers head-on. That's heroism by the book. And it's performed by a hero who is snarky, slippery, and frequently, deliberately, camp. Actual lines spoken by Windy include "No, sir! I ain't flirting with no bull's wife" and "Well, I'm the wildest pansy you ever picked," not to mention the subject header, spoken in reference to Bushman's six foot four of well-built cowpuncher. He cuts his eyes sardonically at the ranch hands, who whistle at him and call him beautiful when he appears dandily modeling his carnival duds, cane and boutonnière and crisp straw boater and all (right before they send him to muck out a stable). A similar catwalk ensues when he turns up to dinner in the full Western rig he swindled out of Cliff Edwards' doleful Trilby, announcing that he doesn't just have the clothes—ten-gallon hat, dudely neckerchief, and woolly chaps out to here—he has "the figure to wear them" (right before they send him to scrub out the kitchen). Reluctantly facing a corral of surly longhorns with a milk pail in his hand, Windy gives his tormentor of the day a dirty look and then sallies forth with saccharine daintiness: "'A-milking, sir,' she said." Flirting with Molly over breakfast, he sticks an unpeeled banana in his mouth like a stogie and then tells a racy joke with it, just in case you thought it was maybe just a cigar.

It's all diegetic. This is what keeps the movie from turning into a 71-minute pansy joke: Windy uses camp exactly as it is used in the offscreen world, for self-defense, for subversion, burlesquing his position as citified sissy among the butch cowpokes, for self-assertion and survival. Narrowly escaped from the lynching that was the cowboys' first inspiration for dealing with their "thieving galoot," he coughs off his near-death experience with bravado petulance: "I don't want to play with you kids—you're too rough!" That provocative line about inhaling another man comes out when Windy's facing a fight that he knows he's going to lose, so he might as well get pasted saying something that was worth it. Even his silent responses are eloquently theatrical: realizing that he's dressed in his best for the benefit of a pile of horseshit, he checks his cuffs and tie as meticulously as if he's about to step in front of an audience and starts shoveling; when Molly rolls up in her jalopy to see how he's getting on, he makes a production of arranging the last wisps of hay on top of the heap like a prize entry in a flower show. He always does the work—he doesn't have a choice about it—and increasingly he does it well. Damned if he's going to do it on their terms, though.

It's not the only note in the character's repertoire, either. He has serious moments and some of them are startling. We don't see him lose his fight with Bushman's Steve when they step outside at the eve-of-roundup party; we watch an unruffled Steve come back afterward, dismissing the incident as "one wallop and he was through." Cut to Windy outside in the darkened yard, looking rather more grazed and bruised than one wallop would seem to account for. It feels like a pre-Code touch that he has the kind of busted nosebleed that makes a mask of his face; he's trying to clean himself up and stop the bleeding with the same overmatched handkerchief when he sees figures emerging from the house and takes cover in the brush, from which vantage point he observes and misinterprets Molly's gentle but firm letdown of Steve—complete with platonic parting hug—for its exact opposite. The camera closes on his face after the other two have gone. He looks hurt and he looks cynical with himself for being hurt. Molly's the boss; Steve's her best friend since childhood, not to mention her best hand. Windy's as weightless as his name, the "coyote" who clowns his way through the scut work, the flim-flam man who got caught. He helped Molly decorate for the party, but was informed by her brother in no uncertain terms that his "kind" weren't welcome among the guests (carnies, con artists, Easterners, queer men, whatever: this means you). Getting knocked down by a bigger, tougher man doesn't surprise him. Losing out romantically because of it shouldn't. But it still hurts. And his nose is still bleeding. And I hate misunderstanding as a plot device almost as much as I hate love triangles, but Haines' wordless acting makes this one work. The one that drives most of the climactic action, I'm sorry, not so much. The last lines are still cute.

These days, Haines is almost certainly less famous for his pictures than his place in Hollywood history as the never-closeted gay silent star whose career snapped off short in 1933 when he refused to trade his longtime boyfriend for a beard at the express request of Louis B. Mayer; he never made another movie after 1934 and he lived openly with Jimmie Shields until his death in 1973, the two of them making a name for themselves as successful interior designers and "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." This was the only thing I knew about Haines going into Show People, where it's enlightening but not vital information; it's impossible for me not to see it in Way Out West. On the one hand, this is a movie about a swishy city slicker who builds character through hazing and finally comes out on top by doing a bunch of manly stuff even better than the manly men. On the other, it's a movie in which the hero's bravest act is to walk into a party with the person he loves on his arm and start waltzing together in full view of a crowd of very straight, very hostile men who have promised to beat him up for it—one of whom actually will. "I don't stand a Chinaman's chance around here and you know it. But that ain't saying I'm yellow. Do you want to dance?" Sure, Windy's asking a woman. But Billy and Jimmie were inseparable from the moment they met in New York City until long after Mayer's cold feet about Depression finances and impending Code enforcement had kicked them both off the red carpet and it's not difficult to draw a line from one kind of courage to the other: they must have walked together into similar rooms many times. On the third hand, even if you take the plot at face value, I find it pleasantly anti-heteronormative to watch a leading man flame through a movie and still get the girl in the end, never quite straightening out along the way.

I have plans to meet my mother for a different movie entirely, so I should put this post to bed before I start doing research. The fact that Way Out West exists still kind of amazes me. It can't be the gayest thing I've seen from the pre-Code era, but it's up there. The use of camp and the relatively open in-jokes make it feel as though it must have been linked to the short-lived but nationwide "pansy craze" of the early '30's, when drag performers were trendy and flamboyant queerness was a box-office draw rather than a bridge too far, but it was a bust financially, which is fair, because I'm not actually sure that aside from Haines (and Hyams, with whom he has real chemistry when the script stays out of their way) it's much good. Cliff Edwards has a nice musical number with his ukulele, after which [personal profile] spatch pointed out that I'd have recognized him immediately if he looked like Jiminy Cricket. The opening scenes in the sideshow are glittery, seedy, and just business as usual for the performers. I'm not sure how the Hopi village got into the third act, but at least the stereotyping was kept to a minimum. If you want to track this one down, do it strictly for Billy "The boys wouldn't let me go if I wanted to" Haines, but I can tell you that at least for me he was worth it. This crack brought to you by my wise backers at Patreon.

sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
Van Heflin's first starring role and the feature debut of director Fred Zinnemann, MGM's Kid Glove Killer is not a lost classic of crime cinema, but it is a fun little procedural of a B-picture with some sharp dialogue and more forensic detail than I've seen in this era until John Sturges' Mystery Street (1950); its technical tickyboxes include ballistic fingerprinting, fiber analysis, spectrography, endlessly labeled slides, and the first-rate chemistry in-joke of mocking up a reaction with dry ice so that the flask looks like it's got something really fancy going on inside it. The film's heroes are a pair of underpaid scientists working for the crime lab of the Chicago-ish city of Chatsburg, which has lately suffered the shocking double loss of both its crusading DA and its sincerely incorruptible mayor, neither of natural causes unless ropes, ponds, and car bombs can be filed under acts of God; despite the necessarily painstaking nature of their work, Heflin's Gordon McKay and Marsha Hunt's Jane Mitchell find themselves expected to deliver miracles on command, conjuring a killer's name out of the stray threads and burnt matches and dog hairs that might as well be so many oracle bones as far as the impatient police, press, and public are concerned. No one outright suggests railroading the small business owner seen loitering around the mayor's house the night before the explosion—furious that the new DA's vaunted crackdown on crime didn't extend to the hoods shaking him and his wife down for protection—but there's a lot of official pressure to connect the dots to Eddie Quillan's hot-headed innocent. In the meantime a sort of love triangle is progressing between the two scientists and one ambitious lawyer, although the viewer can't invest too much in the romantic suspense since our privileged information includes the identity of the murderer. I confess I'm not sure where the kid gloves came into it.

It is rare for me not to like Heflin in a film, even when he's playing kind of a dick, and he makes an engaging proto-nerd here, a slouchy, grouchy smart-ass in a lab coat who has managed to figure out that he's in love with his educated, attractive coworker but not yet that flirting by insult only works for Oscar Levant. (His eventual apology is legitimately adorable.) Hunt as Mitchell is nicely, unequivocally competent and has little time for her colleague's negging even as it's clear from space that she'd reciprocate his interest if he were only a little less schoolyard about it, but her character feels like a conservative compromise when she insists repeatedly—despite sufficient aptitude for chemistry that she has a master's degree in it—that forensics is "no career for a woman." I do appreciate that heteronormativity is defused at least once by McKay conceding wryly that it's "not much of a career for a man, either. No prestige, no glamour, no money. People holler at you when there are no miracles." I suppose it is also sociologically interesting that the script's anxiety about science and gender runs both ways—unless it's to prove that spending nine-tenths of your life behind a microscope doesn't make you less of a man, I have no idea why McKay is apparently incapable of confronting a suspect without a fight scene. He is otherwise not very macho, which I am fine with. He can't throw a dart straight to save his life. If the human heart were located in the right elbow, though, that firing-range target would have totally had it.

The extremely spoilery original trailer suggests that Kid Glove Killer was intended as the start of a series and I'm almost surprised it didn't happen—if Thin Man stand-ins Joel and Garda Sloane could get a trilogy, I don't see why we couldn't have enjoyed more McKay and Mitchell. As it is, the one film is all we've got. It runs 72 minutes and they are worth it all for the scene in which Heflin performs a precise, self-annotated mime of catching, cleaning, preparing, and then jettisoning a trout, all with the serious concentration of the slightly sloshed. He handles plain air so confidently, you can see the glint of the butter knife he's cleaning on the tablecloth and want to hand him one of those modern-day rubber grips for the ketchup bottle with the sticky cap. I have no idea if it was part of the original script or improvised on set or what on earth, but now I want to know where I can find more Van Heflin doing mime. He and Zinnemann would later reteam to superb and less comic effect in Act of Violence (1948). I appear to have seen Hunt as the Broadway-bent eldest of Frank Borzage's Seven Sweethearts (1942), but I don't hold it against her. Ava Gardner cameos as a cute married carhop. I hope to God mineral oil salad dressing is as much a thing of the past as the constant chain-smoking in chemically sensitive laboratory conditions. [edit: WHAT THE HELL IT'S NOT.] This investigation brought to you by my scientific backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Being sick of not writing about movies, I appear to be writing about TV instead. Some weeks ago, [personal profile] lost_spook recommended me Chris Boucher's The Robots of Death (1977) on the grounds of David Collings and Tom Baker-era Doctor Who generally. The last time I'd seen the Fourth Doctor was "The Day of the Doctor" in high school when a friend who liked Douglas Adams rented The Pirate Planet (1978) with me. All I seem to remember of that one is a cyborg parrot. The Robots of Death delivers all round.

The story is straight science fiction, which I think of as rare for Doctor Who; visible influences include Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Karel Čapek, Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, Art Deco, and Agatha Christie, so we're talking a murder mystery in a remote outpost of a decadent civilization sustained entirely by the labor of artificially intelligent but strictly constrained robots, with sumptuous retro-futurist costuming (Morojo would be proud) and the elegant aerodynamics of streamline moderne everywhere. The robots themselves are sculpted in black and green and silver metal according to their grade and function, their classical features planed into perpetual smiles, their inlaid eyes as serenely empty as a Tiffany shade. As if flirting with the man/machine boundaries that they otherwise take such pains to reinforce, humans on this unnamed planet make up their own faces in the same contoured patterns, though much more delicately, mostly some linear accents around the eyes and nose. I got a slight glam rock vibe off the whole mise-en-scène, although it might just be this future's idea of reasonable hats. Everyone in the guest cast lives and works aboard Storm Mine 4, a vast mineral-harvesting ship on a world of sandstorm-swept deserts staffed by a small human crew and dozens more robots of all three classes. We get a few hints of wider worldbuilding—the Twenty Founding Families, Kaldor City, the Company—but the touchy dynamics among this small group are front and center, as is only appropriate when one of them is about to turn up dead. Strangled, so there's no chance of an accident, with a curious red disc stuck to his hand—a "corpse marker," which we shortly learn are used in technical contexts to identify irreparably damaged or permanently deactivated robots. Suspicion at once explodes in all directions among the already bickering crew, though there is one possibility no one raises until the arrival of the Doctor and Leela (Louise Jameson), the one the title portends. And should the mysterious serial strangler turn out to be a robot, a voiceless Dum, a reliable Voc, an autonomous Super-Voc with all the "million multi-level constrainers in its circuitry" somehow switched off and the ability to contravene the universal "prime directive" against harm to humans switched on? The Doctor's seen it before: "Oh, I should think it's the end of this civilization." We won't get to see that apocalypse, but we will witness the personal equivalent.

Collings plays Chief Mover Poul, a kind of engineering officer, and between this serial, Sapphire & Steel (1979–82), and the casting of ITV's Midnight Is a Place (1977–78), I'm close to concluding it is his life's work to play the characters I would naturally gravitate toward in any narrative where he appears. He has a trickster look here, too, sharp-faced, copper-haired, a dryly spoken observer with a gift for throwaway sarcasm—asked if a body was like that when he found it, his reply is, "Just a little fresher." The audience may guess that he's hiding something even before Leela observes that he "move[s] like a hunter, watch[es] all the time," but it's not obvious what, except that he feels the least likely of the human suspects. He sees more than he says, distracts when tensions escalate, laughs to himself but says nothing when the mine's commander repurposes one of Poul's own ripostes. He has a nervous habit of fiddling with the communicator that hangs like a medal from the breast of his sharp-shouldered tabard. Sometimes when no one's looking his face flickers apprehensively and he sputters with excessive denial at the Doctor's suggestion of killer robots, but his crewmates are dropping like flies with no solution in sight, who wouldn't be afraid? He smiles and talks easily and cynically with Leela about the money to be made sandmining, the only reason he claims he signed on to a two-year tour in this refrigerated, mechanized sluice box when he'd "rather live with people than robots, that's all." Between one scene and the next, very suddenly, he cracks.

We've all got something to hide. Don't you think so, Commander? )

In short, this is one of the reviews where I come in late to a classic, but at least I came in. I am not surprised that it's a fan favorite; I don't even know that I can call myself a fan, but I think it's terrific. It's a good science fiction mystery. It has characters as well as cleverly interlocked ideas. It definitely gives good David Collings. This mental thing brought to you by my important backers at Patreon.


1. For maximum irony of the sort that comes to pass if a person does enough science fiction, Collings played 51st-century robot detective Daneel in a 1969 BBC adaptation of The Naked Sun (1957), which I assume like its source novel came down to the terrifying concept of positronic brains not bound by the Three Laws of Robotics—robots that could harm humans, even without knowing it—and which the internet helpfully tells me does not survive in any form barring some of Delia Derbyshire's sound work. Damn it, BBC. [edit] In fact, it looks as though the BFI did a reconstruction from the surviving soundtrack and stills, further details of which can be found at WikiDelia. I'm still side-eying the BBC.

2. I appreciate that he survives the story, though I mind a little that it leaves him at loose ends, catatonic on the bridge of the sandminer without even third-party dialogue to point toward his fate. My preferred headcanon would involve him getting offplanet somewhere he doesn't have to be around robots all the time, but it looks as though radio canon has him reappearing full bore loony some years later. Maybe I will ignore radio canon. Opinions? Everyone is just lucky I did not see this serial in high school instead of The Pirate Planet, because I wouldn't have written Poul fix-it fic—I didn't start writing fanfiction until I was out of grad school—but I am pretty sure hopelessly derivative original fiction would have been guaranteed.

3. I would love to know if there is believed to be any link between The Robots of Death and Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), because I have to say that one looks a lot like a direct forerunner of the other, not just in the isolated, claustrophobic and-then-there-were-none premise, but elements of plot and atmosphere like company agents embedded in regular crews and futuristic long-haul work being just as tiresome as the twentieth-century kind. Ian Holm's Ash pretty much is what you would get if you combined Poul with D84 and turned the sympathy way down on both sides.
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
I am going through one of the stretches where I feel like everything I do is wasting people's time, not helped by the fact that I am behind on everything except my literal paying job obligations due to essentially ceasing to sleep in June. It is exhausting. I don't see any way through it except to write things and accustom myself to the idea that they will be whatever they are, however I feel about it. So—

Thanks to [personal profile] nineweaving and her access to Harvard's libraries, I have gotten hold of John Russell's Far Wandering Men (1929) and can report with some amazement that both the best and the worst elements of Bert Glennon's Girl of the Port (1930) appear to be Hollywood's responsibility. I am having trouble settling on an appropriate emotional response. Sending flowers seems overly forgiving as well as pointless, what with both of the screenwriters being dead, and sending ghosts a bag of flaming dog poop seems unwise.

For better or worse, "The Fire-Walker" is much slighter than Girl of the Port—it's of a piece with the rest of the collection, whose stories are in a mode that might best be described as strange anecdotes. They are told in a pulpy raconteur's style, with a strong sense of place, frequent outcroppings of eye dialect, and characters that on the whole are drawn more vividly than deeply; there is not always a direct narrator, although there is a consistent narrative voice and I guessed the author's nationality wrong because of it. (Russell was American. According to his obituary, he spent time in Panama, Peru, and the unspecified "South Pacific," but he was born in Iowa and died in California and either way was definitely not any kind of British, writerly diction and recurring origins of his white characters notwithstanding.) The portrayal of non-white characters is completely unpredictable, anywhere from teeth-numbingly racist to thoughtfully sympathetic. Only the last story in the book is supernatural, although irony plays a principal part in a number of them. If you read any of Russell's earlier collection Where the Pavement Ends (1919), you'll get the idea. I enjoyed the stories, but I would not call them a threat to Kipling, Conrad, or Richard Hughes. It was immediately obvious, however, why a good half-dozen of them were adapted for film: it is unfair to call them sketches or scenarios, but they are great id-hooks of characters at transformative moments in their lives or passing comet-like through the lives of others and their anecdotal nature makes them an ideal length for B- or even A-pictures in the age before two and a half hours became an ordinary runtime. They don't require condensing. If anything, they invite elaboration, which is where RKO ran into trouble with Girl of the Port.

Remember when I said that I thought this story would work just fine with the villain as a wealthy white planter? Yeah. McEwen in "The Fire-Walker" is "T. V. McEwen," known locally as "Tavua" and otherwise no more native than either the drunken young derelict he enjoys tormenting or the "Sydney-side bar-maid" who stands up to him; the narrative compares him more than once to Simon Legree, a hearty, red-faced, "big, jovial and hateful man" who carries a riding crop like a swagger stick and dresses at all times as though he's just come in from the fields, hands-on, self-made, and proud of it. His motives are exactly what I thought they would be without the race-baiting of the screenplay, bruised ego and smiling malice and the need to throw his weight around. There's no suggested hypocrisy or irony in his frequent expression of racist sentiments, just common or garden colonialism. The copra-and-sugar planters of Fiji are described early in the story as "generally large, loose and broad-minded individuals whose only prejudice is in favor of allowing the native races to carry the white man as a burden" and the reader understands that McEwen differs only in that he's willing to let his fellow white people bear the costs of his temper and humors, too. When he finds himself on the wrong end of a thrashing, it's simple turnabout for his treatment of others, native workers included. Speaking of whom, the short story is terrific about Kalita. He's significantly less hampered with cod-pidgin than his film counterpart and more importantly he's a viewpoint character, Tui-qalita the hereditary chief of Beqa Island who "served proudly and honorably from Taranto to Flanders" with the Fiji Contingent in World War I. He has his own opinions, his own reasons for helping or hindering or doing nothing at all about the white characters. Russell does call the sulu "the proper dress of his race," but he's a serious character even wearing the "old woolen uniform" of his army days with "the impassive, bronze eagle face and something of the wire-drawn, wire-limbed quality of a Roman legionary." When this Josie calls him "Corporal," it's not a joke. He does her the favor of taking Jamison over to Beqa—out of McEwen's reach, she hopes, though she's wrong—because of it. Similarly, when McEwen calls him a "dam' black loafer . . . a blasted liar . . . shirking again," it's just another strike against the planter because the reader already knows that Kalita is smart, well-traveled, self-respecting, and totally unimpressed with white people. His confrontation with Jamison over Josie, McEwen, and the symbolism of firewalking is considerably more eloquently argued in "The Fire-Walker." I'm not saying the story is the apotheosis of anti-racism for 1929, you understand, but it is sure the hell better on this front than the film.

Which is a shame, because it turns out that the entire hurt/comfort angle—Johnny's experiences in World War I and consequent struggles with PTSD, self-loathing, and drink—was also invented whole-cloth for the film and "The Fire-Walker" is weaker for its absence. The equivalent character in Russell is Jamison, a vague, gentle, not especially mysterious beachcomber who has spent the last five months earnestly trying to drink himself to death in "McDougal's Hotel, in the town of Suva, in the Fiji Islands" because of a love affair gone wrong. Like his film descendant, he can be persuaded to sing "Whiskey Johnny" in return for free booze, but it's not a nickname and the disputed niceness of the last verse has nothing to do with the fight he has with McEwen, which in any case he doesn't remember the next morning. He does, later that day, in a rare moment of lucidity, try to persuade Josie not to endanger herself with McEwen for his sake: "The poorest possible reason!" And she does her best not to, though the one brief glimmer she gets of what a sober, focused Jamison would look like—"grave and kindly, with the potential of tempered steel"—encourages her enough to confide in him the reasons she fled Sydney, which involve questionable taste in boyfriends and a murder. The narrative views them with complementary tenderness and irony, sitting hand-in-hand in the billiard room at the back of McDougal's with the sun shafting through the inappropriately clerestory windows: "Neither of them was more than twenty-three years old . . ." That's the most characterization we get for either of them, really, beyond physical descriptions like Jamison being "a tall young man—but a battered tramp of the far spaces if ever there was one" or Josie's "funny little voice" possessing "the same tinkling clarity of a small bell rung out." I am a little sorry the film dropped the idea of her having a past she's running from as much as Jamison/Johnny from his, but all things being equal I am significantly less interested in men brung low by women than I am in men who are fucked up for just about any other reason and the story's tighter, choppier timeline forces me to take most of their relationship and pretty much all of his regeneration on faith. Girl of the Port's Johnny and Josie live together for two months; they are not in love to begin with and the audience can track how it evolves between them, through conversations and housework and affection and trust coming in place of pity and gratitude. Jamison and Josie in "The Fire-Walker" have three significant interactions over the course of a week and walk off into the sunset together. Even the stakes of the climactic firewalk are simpler as originally written—for Jamison, it's the inspired, reckless gesture of a man with nothing to lose, not a facing-down of personal demons as it is for Johnny. I do like the story's low-key ending, in which the known particulars of the affair dissolve into myth as the narrator shrugs and steps away:

But later when Josie and Jamison stood apart on the green sward of Beqa Island in the Fijis, under its blue skies, near its rippled shore: what happened between these two afterward was surely the essence of a shilling romance—the Beachcomber and the Bar-maid: The Duke and the Damsel in Distress—fact, fancy and fantasy all alike, and all quite true.

I can't see that flying in Hollywood, though. I mean, it didn't. For the record, I think it is just as stupid that Jamison's woman who done him wrong, the "mistress of hearts" known as "the Contessa, the Lady Cleo," should drop by Fiji just in time for the finale of "The Fire-Walker" as it is that Johnny in the last five minutes of Girl of the Port should turn out to be aristocracy with a yacht, but I suppose these things happen in the countries of melodrama.

The screenwriting credits for Girl of the Port are interestingly split: Beulah Marie Dix is credited with the screenplay and Frank Reicher with the dialogue, with a notice in a November 1929 issue of Variety explaining that the latter was loaned to RKO by Pathé "to write and direct dialog" for the production, which was then going by the title of The Firewalker. [personal profile] spatch has suggested that while neither writer can have been blameless, I may be able to blame Dix specifically for making McEwen a "half-caste" and Reicher for the casually high levels of racist language. That seems plausible to me, based on their respective jobs. I just wish I didn't have to choose quite so obviously between the blander, more racially reasonable version of this narrative and the version where the protagonists are complex and personable enough to care about and also repeatedly racist douchecanoes. I wish the screenwriters had thought to introduce the war trauma and left all the bonus racism out. If they had been going to transfer anything from page to screen with perfect fidelity, I wish it had been Russell's Kalita, whom Duke Kahanamoku really deserved. Instead we get this strangely amplified version, with higher peaks and lower troughs, and I don't know why I expected any aspect of this movie, even the relationship of source material to adaptation, not to be confusing. I'd love to read studio notes on the process, but I'd be surprised if there are any outside of archives—my curiosity notwithstanding, I don't think there's much call for scholarship on Girl of the Port. Four online reviews do not exactly a cult reputation make.

So, that happened. I got some decent adventure reading out of it. I remain impressed and frustrated by everything about this film. Tagged for Patreon as a follow-up to the review.
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
Happy solstice! I was indeed awake all night. I'm still awake. Sleep or no sleep, however, sometimes a person has to yell about a movie on the internet.

Girl of the Port (1930), directed for RKO by Bert Glennon, is a pre-Code curiosity if ever I encountered one: a hopelessly confused adventure-melodrama-romance between a tough-cookie showgirl and a shell-shocked veteran set in the South Seas islands, which is part of its problem. Its title is technically relevant in that the heroine is the only female character of any prominence, but thematically it would have done much better to be released under its production title of The Fire-Walker, after the original short story by John Russell. Story elements include World War I, half a dozen nervous breakdowns, British tourists, mixology, untranslated Chinese, institutional racism, surprise aristocracy, the climactic if no longer eponymous firewalk, and the whole thing's over in 65 minutes, so it gets the plot in with a crowbar. There are really interesting things in it and there are really frustrating things in it and they are not arranged in any separable fashion. I am not sorry to have seen it, but I do not expect anyone else to feel the same.

It opens with title cards, setting the zeitgeist of the Lost Generation: "Not all the casualties of war are in hospital cots. There are wounds of the spirit as lasting as those of the flesh, but less pitied, and little understood. Few know the dark fears brought back from the battlefront. Even fewer know that those fears may be cast out . . . but only by the mind that harbors them." The sequence that follows startled me; I keep forgetting that while the Production Code did its best to reduce the realities of sex, race, and gender to cartoons, it also did a lasting disservice to violence—not the two-fisted pantomime kind where bullets leave no marks and people's eyes close gently when they die, but the kind people should be scared of. We see it in the barbed wire trenches of World War I, where a battalion of British soldiers is getting ready to go over the top. It's cold, dark, ghostly. A young officer is trying to reassure an enlisted man even younger than himself, a hollow-eyed boy whose head is already bandaged bloodily under his tin hat. Five in the morning is zero hour; he re-checks his watch, takes a deep breath, and blows the signal. All together, his men call out their watchword, "God and the right!" and scramble up over the sandbags into no man's land. Their German counterparts affirm, "Gott mit uns!" and do the same. There's little sense of strategy on the British side, just a loose line of men ordered into hell with rifles and nerve.1 They walk into a nest of German flamethrowers. It's horrifying. At first they don't see the danger, decoyed by the smoke and the disorienting concussions of the mortar barrage covering the German advance; then it's too late to get out of range. There is something uncanny and inhuman in the flamethrower troops with their deep-sea gear and the long, long streams of fire they send snaking out before them, licking and curling as if they were living and hungry things. The young officer stands his ground with his service pistol, trying to take the flamethrowers out, but soon he's dry-firing and then a stutter of enemy machine-guns takes him in the leg and the arm; he tumbles into a shell-hole alongside the feebly flailing body of a fellow soldier with some obliquely shot but grisly makeup effects on his face—burned, blinded. He keeps crying about the fire, about his eyes. With his helmet knocked off, we can see the officer's face under its stiff tousle of dark hair, terrified and suddenly, desperately young. "Stick close to me," he said confidently, just a few minutes ago in the safety of the trench, "and don't forget—those Fritzes are nothing but men." But fire is more than men, fire can eat men alive, and it's doing just that all around him. Everywhere he looks, the white-hot hissing light of the flamethrowers coming on and the bodies of men he knew burning, or worse, stumbling through the inferno, screaming. He's trapped. He can't get out. Suddenly he's screaming, too, high and hoarse and raw: "Oh, God, don't let the fire get me—don't let the fire get me—oh, God!" And scene.

It's a harsh opening and the viewer may be forgiven for feeling a little whiplashed when the action jumps years and genres to the rainy night in Suva, Fiji when footloose, all-American Josie (Sally O'Neil, a mostly silent actress new to me) blows out of the storm and into MacDougal's Bamboo Bar. Late of Coney Island, she fast-talks her way into a bartending job with theatrical sass, booting the current barman and introducing herself to the appreciative all-male clientele like the carnival talker of her own attraction: "I don't need no assistance, thanks. My father was a bouncer in the Tenth Ward. My mother was a lion tamer with Ringling. I was weaned on raw meat and red pepper. Boo!" She's petite and kitten-faced, brash and blonde as an undercranked Joan Blondell; her dialogue is a glorious compendium of pop culture and pure, nasal Brooklyn slang. She refers to her pet canary alternately as "John McCormack" and "Jenny Lind," derides a hoary pick-up line as "old when Fanny was a girl's name," and deflects an incipient attack of sentiment with the admonition not "to go . . . getting all Jolson about it." A handsy customer gets the brush-off "What are you, a chiropractor? You rub me the wrong way." When she finds another new patron passed out face-first on a table, their exchange as he groggily props himself up gives a good idea of the script's overall mix of the snappy and the sententious:

"Who in blazes are you?"
"Lon Chaney."
"I'm coming up to date. Usually at this stage I'm seeing Jonah's whale."
"Snap out of it, bozo. Ain't you glad you don't see pink elephants?"
"Lassie, I drink so's I
can see them. They crowd out other things. Four fingers, please."

Asked for the color of his money, the man produces a military decoration: thin and scruffy in an old collarless shirt, no longer quite so boyish with the haunted lines in his face, it's the young officer of the opening scenes (Reginald Sharland, also new to me; he had an eleven-film career between 1927 and 1934 and by turns he reminded me of Richard Barthelmess, Peter Capaldi, and Dick Van Dyke, which is a hell of a thing to say about anyone). He has shell-shock you can see from space. When the bar pianist starts tinkling a jaunty improv on "Tipperary," he recites the chorus in a kind of bitter trance, tellingly omitting the last line about his heart. Josie tries to break in by guessing his rank; when she reaches "Captain," he jolts to his feet like a snapped elastic, giving an instinctive salute and then a haggard smile: "Clever, don't you think yourself?" In a welcome gesture toward nuance, he's fucked up, but not totally pathetic. He's known as Whiskey Johnny, after the stuff he drinks more thirstily than water and the song he'll perform in exchange for free glasses of it, especially when egged on by white-suited local bully McEwen (Mitchell Lewis, wait for it). This sort of setup is usually the cue for public humiliation, but Johnny can actually sing and he grins round at the room while he does it, a slight, shabby, definitely not sober man, drawing his audience in all the same. I had a girl and her name was Lize. Whiskey, Johnny! Oh, she put whiskey in her pies. Whiskey for my Johnny! He balks only when McEwen presses him to sing the last verse, the one that Johnny nervously protests "isn't done amongst gentlemen, is it? Not when ladies are present."2 In response, McEwen insults Josie, Johnny insults McEwen, words escalate to fists escalate to McEwen pulling a knife, Johnny grabbing a chair, and Josie throwing a bottle that smashes the nearest lamp. The oil ignites as soon as it hits the floor, a quick mushroom of flame spurting up right in Johnny's face. He was unsteady but combative a moment ago; in the face of the fire, he screams like a child. "Oh, God, the fire! Don't let the fire get me! Oh, God, let me out of here!" A few voices call after him as he blunders jaggedly away through the crowd, plainly seeing nothing but Flanders and flames, but most dismiss him as a "ruddy coward . . . not worth stopping, with his tail between his legs." The next morning, flinchingly hungover on the beat-up chaise longue in the back room of the bar, he tells Josie the story of how he won his medal, the sole survivor of his company decorated for bravery for cowering in a shell-hole "watching the others crisp up and die—hearing them die—seeing the fire draw nearer, nearer, seeing it all round me—oh, God, don't let the fire get me! Don't let the fire get me!" He can recover a wry self-possession in quieter moments, but he "can't face fire" or even the memory of it: the terror is always just below the surface. McEwen has only to flick a cigarette into a bucket of gasoline to bust him back down to a shuddering wreck, trying to hide in the furniture, chokingly gulping the drink he just swore he wouldn't touch.

Josie's solution is unorthodox but unhesitating: she has him move into her cabin. McEwen can't get at him there. House rules are they don't sleep together and Johnny doesn't drink. As the intermittent intertitles tell us, "Half her time she saw that men got liquor at Macdougal's . . . the other half, she saw that one man didn't!" After eight weeks, their relationship is a comfortable but charged mixture of emotional intimacy and unacknowledged sexual tension and I think accidentally sort of kinky. Each night when she leaves for work at the bar, she locks Johnny in—by now at his own request—so that he can't wander off in search of booze despite his best intentions. He refers to her as his "doctor, nurse, pal, and jailor—and savior, you know. That is, if a chap who didn't deserve it ever had one." His hands shake badly when he kneels to put her shoes on for her, but he insists on doing it anyway, just as he insists on helping with the washing-up even when they lose more plates that way. She treats him practically, not like something broken or breakable; she calls him "Bozo" because she doesn't like "Whiskey Johnny" and he doesn't like "Captain." Eventually, diffidently, he introduces himself as "Jameson," at which Josie shoots him a skeptical look: "I've seen that name on bottles." She's fallen for him by now, which the audience could see coming from the moment she deflated his romantic sob story of a contemptuous fiancée who betrayed him with his best friend with the tartly dismissive "What a dim bulb she turned out to be," but she keeps a self-protective distance, correctly recognizing that she's given him a breather, not a miracle, and in the meantime he's imprinted on her like a battle-fatigued duckling. When he declares his love, she warns him, "Now don't go mixing up love and gratitude, 'cause they ain't no more alike than champagne and Ovaltine." They end up in a clinch, of course, and a jubilant Johnny promises that they're going to "lick that fear—together," waving her off to work like a happy husband already. The viewer with a better idea of dramatic structure vs. runtime waits for the third-act crisis to come home to roost.

All of this is an amazing demonstration of the durability of hurt/comfort over the decades and to be honest it's pretty great of its type, even if occasionally over the top even by the standards of idfic. Both O'Neil and Sharland's acting styles are mixed somewhere between early sound naturalism and the full-body expression of silent film—O'Neil acquires a vocal quaver in moments of emotion and Sharland employs some highly stylized gestures in his breakdowns, though there's nothing old-fashioned or stagy about his screams—but since they are generally in the same register at the same time, it works fine. They make a sympathetically matching couple with their respective fears of being unlovable, Josie who bluntly admits that she "ain't a nice girl," Johnny convinced he's a coward and a failure, "finished." Some of their best romantic moments are not declarative passion but shy happiness, the actors just glowing at one another. The trouble is that what I have been describing is the best version of the film, the one without the radioactive levels of racism that start at surprisingly upsettingly high and escalate to Jesus, was D.W. Griffith ghosting this thing? and essentially make it impossible for me to recommend this movie to anyone without qualifiers galore.

Perhaps you have a little something yet to learn about native blood, milord. )

I do not know how closely Girl of the Port resembles its source story, which can be found in Russell's Far Wandering Men (1929). Since he seems to have specialized in South Seas adventures, I assume some of the racism is baked in; I also wouldn't be surprised if some of it was introduced in the process of adaptation. I can get his earlier collection Where the Pavement Ends (1919) on Project Gutenberg, but Far Wandering Men isn't even in the local library system, so it may take me a little while to find out. Until then, I don't know what else I can tell you. "Frustrating" may have been an understatement. I don't want Sharland, O'Neil, and lines like "There you go, full of ambition. You have your youth, your health, and now you want shelves" to have been wasted on this film, but I fear that they may. Duke Kahanamoku certainly was. Mitchell Lewis, by the way, is most famous these days for his uncredited three-line role as the Captain of the Winkie Guard in The Wizard of Oz (1939)—I didn't recognize him as such in Girl of the Port, but once I made the connection, the deep voice and the strongly marked brows were unmistakable. I like him a lot better when he's green. This damaged recovery brought to you by my stronger backers at Patreon.

1. And kilts, which means they must be one of the Highland regiments, but in the chaos of battle I did not get a good look at the tartan.

2. Seriously? I've got like five versions of "Whiskey Johnny"/"Whiskey Is the Life of Man"/"John Rise Her Up" on my iTunes and I wouldn't call any of them racy. It's a halyard chantey. What have I been missing all these years?

3. Once safely outside MacDougal's, Kalita spits on the coin in disgust and then throws it away in the rain. I really think the script is trying its best with him, but because even his positive scenes rely on stereotypes, I credit most of his extant dimensions to Kahanamoku.

4. With a slur I've never heard before: "That little tabby over there . . . T-A-B-B-Y, tabby. The girl that's trying to make you!" From this context I assume it means a gold digger or a tart, but if it's real slang rather than minced for purposes of the Hays Code, I don't think it widely survived.

5. We are also, presumably, supposed to cheer plucky Josie for finding a way to turn the villain's heritage against him: before she agrees to his blackmail, she makes him swear to keep his end of the bargain on something he won't be able to cheat, not God or his honor, but the carved shell charm from his Fijian mother that he wears beneath his European shirts and suits, the hidden and telltale truth of him. "Swear on this Hindu hocus-pocus," she challenges, gripping it in her white hand. "Go on. That'll hold a Malay." Native superstition out of nowhere wins the day. Looking suddenly shaken, he swears.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
I have now seen the first three serials of P.J. Hammond's Sapphire & Steel (1979–82) and while I have not gotten the sleep I wanted, I am tired of not writing about things. Preliminary notes.

Sapphire & Steel is weird stuff. I mean that as both description and taxonomy. I can trace a common lineage with other genre-mixing, time-crossing British TV like Doctor Who (1963–), The Stone Tape (1972), and Children of the Stones (1977), but I can't remember the last anything I ran into that reminded me simultaneously of Robert Aickman, John le Carré, and Diana Wynne Jones. There's not even that much of it. Six serials aired on ITV over a span of four years, irregularly spaced and eventually canceled; all but one were written by Hammond and none of them have official titles, which is why I have been watching them on YouTube under the designations "Assignment 1" and so forth. It is glacially paced and nearly no-budget. And it is so far some of the most haunting, liminal, minimalist TV I have ever encountered in my life. It's full of ghosts and echoes, ambiguities and unanswered questions. Its worldbuilding hangs in implication behind its characters; its characters know each other so well, they don't need to talk about themselves. It gets more out of explaining less than any science fiction until Shane Carruth's Primer (2004). To match the single sets that give each serial the atmosphere of a filmed play,1 most of the show's best effects are practical and theatrical: changes of light, juxtapositions of costume, and suggestive, spooky sound work on a par with the heyday of the Radiophonic Workshop. The plots run on something more patterned than dream logic, but like nightmares they can take perfectly ordinary objects and charge them with unspeakable danger and dread—a child's nursery rhyme, a marching song, a swansdown pillow. Time itself is a source of horror; it cracks, frays, gives way beneath the pressure of aeons and the entities that prowl endlessly outside the "corridor of Time," looking for a way in. History deforms its fabric like gravity. Heirlooms and memory can become a black hole. Ghosts come out, if you're lucky. Other things if you're not. This is classic cosmic horror, but it's not, except in the introductory scenes, played from the viewer's accustomed perspective of humanity. Whatever Joanna Lumley's Sapphire and David McCallum's Steel may be—and I don't ever really expect to find out—human is definitely not it.

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver, and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned. )

That was a lot of notes for a preliminary. In conclusion, the following dialogue just took place between me and Rob—

"Hey, I think the worst possible thing happened that could happen while a person is talking about Sapphire & Steel."

"Did they go off of YouTube?"

"No, my watch stopped."

—so I think I should perhaps get out of here before something comes out of the music I'm listening to. It was Belbury Poly for a while, which is very much in the same hauntological tradition. Maybe an album drawn from recordings of Ganzeld experiments was not the best alternative. So long, it's been good to know you. I'm not sure I can count half a TV series for Patreon.

1. The third serial includes some cutaway scenes on a roof which [personal profile] ashlyme tells me belonged to the ATV offices themselves.

2. The subject is slightly lampshaded in Assignment 3, when Steel gives a rare laugh at the thought of "Silver having any kind of beginning, any kind of childhood" and Sapphire responds that she was just thinking the same about Steel. He's indignant: "I have very positive origins! Inexpressible, maybe, but positive." A scene or two later, he's still mentally muttering, "I have impeccable origins."

3. At this point in the process my brain completely jumped its tracks and I thought of Silver in the role of Puck, Steel as Oberon, and Sapphire as Titania, and Ashlyme didn't help by calling the thought of a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream possessed by Time "mouthwatering." I just don't want to have to write it.

4. You know what I'm genuinely surprised doesn't exist? Crossover fic for this series with A Tale of Time City (1987). Otherwise the ways in which it reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones are more tonal and thematic: ordinary-looking people of strange domains and powers, magic-like science (or science-like magic) that works sideways in ripples and allusions, not explaining things. I find myself thinking of the luminaries of Dogsbody (1975), the Reigners of Hexwood (1983), the families of Archer's Goon (1984) and The Game (2007). So far there is slightly less of a tendency in Sapphire & Steel for people not to know who they are, but I'm willing to wait.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I knew I would have trouble with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Quiet American (1958). I had known about it for years: it was the bad movie version of a book my parents liked. When a more faithful adaptation was released in 2002, directed by Philip Noyce and starring Michael Caine, it was received with such relief by my mother that I got her the DVD as soon as it came out. When a Mankiewicz retrospective came through the HFA a few years ago, we saw People Will Talk (1951) and Escape (1948) and 5 Fingers (1952) instead. I had already guessed there was no way that a close version of Graham Greene's 1955 novel—a prescient indictment of American involvement in Vietnam—could have made it unscathed through the Hollywood machine in the days of the Red Scare, not to mention imminent U.S. escalation in Vietnam. But it came around a few nights ago on TCM and I thought, all right, let's see how bad this gets.

In its favor, the film is beautifully photographed and cleverly cast. Otherwise it is a deliberate and insulting inversion of Greene's novel and a criminal fucking waste of Michael Redgrave. Spoilers everywhere because otherwise I'll just keep on swearing where the cats can hear me.

I'm a reporter. I'm not involved. )

But of course what Mankiewicz didn't have was the cultural or political permission to film a definitive adaptation of The Quiet American in the late 1950's. Trying to find out what the hell besides McCarthyism had happened to a director I had always considered basically lefty, I ran into the stranger-than-fiction fact that Lansdale—you know, the guy who ran General Thế for the CIA, so popularly if incorrectly associated with the character of Alden Pyle that his authorized biography was titled The Unquiet American (1988)—actually consulted on the film, where by "consulted" I mean "among other input sent Mankiewicz a three-page letter detailing the true history of the bombings at the Place Garnier and encouraging the writer-director to disregard it completely and blame the Communists." Okay, then. The end credits are dedicated "To the people of the Republic of Vietnam—to their chosen President and administrators—our appreciation for their help and kindness," which I doubt Mankiewicz as producer would have been able to secure without assurance of a positive spin on the present state of South Vietnam, five years in the film's future. Both Greene and his novel were banned by Diệm's government. Allen Dulles signed off on the script treatment. I have no idea if I can or should recommend this film to anyone. Certainly it is historically significant, attractive to look at, and it is a truth at least semi-universally acknowledged that Michael Redgrave distraught and disheveled is pretty hot, but as I shouted to [personal profile] spatch, "No amount of hot Michael Redgrave is worth intellectual dishonesty!" Your mileage, I guess. This betrayal brought to you by my engagé backers at Patreon.

1. Murphy had starred as himself in the 1955 screen adaptation of his 1949 autobiography, To Hell and Back.

2. I'd love to be able read her gesture postcolonially, as independent Vietnam rejecting both naïve America and paternal Empire, but I am pretty sure it's just your standard Code-mandated reminder that only heroes get the girl in the end. Either way, casting Phuong's relationship with the American in the light of tragically lost true love romanticizes and retroactively legitimizes his complete failure to see her as a person rather than a symbolic object to be saved.

3. In the 2002 film, she is played by the actually Vietnamese Đỗ Thị Hải Yến and, while she gets very little dialogue compared to her male co-stars, appears to possess an interior life in consonance with the novel, which several times suggests that she sees more than either of the men she lives with. Fowler likens her to a bird, to opium, to her namesake phoenix, to her own country, but he has at least the grace to recognize the existence of her independent self, of which she shares only so much with him: "But even while I made my speech and watched her turn the page . . . I knew I was inventing a character just as much as Pyle was. One never knows another human being; for all I could tell, she was as scared as the rest of us." Quite seriously, if anyone knows of literature or nonfiction revisiting the events of The Quiet American from Phuong's perspective à la Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) or Lauren Wilford's "Possessed: Vertigo Through Her Eyes" (2015), I'd be fascinated.

4. He filmed a similarly liminal Belfast for Reed's Odd Man Out (1947): he had a talent for showing cities as both their documentary selves and their expressionist reflections. I am charmed that his first solo credit as director of photography was Leslie Howard's The Gentle Sex (1943).
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
Frank Borzage's Strange Cargo (1940) lives up to its name. It's like a prison break directed by Elizabeth Goudge. I know I enjoyed it, but what on earth.

It begins like an adventure film, complete with scene-setting titles: "Deep in the Guianas . . . a penal colony for men set aside to be forgotten by the world, to whom the present, the future and the past are one—for men without hope . . ." Clark Gable's Verne is one such man, a tough thief with a history of failed escapes and punishing stints in solitary; he emerges from the latest wincing but unbroken, retorting to the warden who counsels him to serve out his brief remaining time quietly, "I'm a thief by profession, not a convict. There's nothing worth stealing around here except freedom—and I'm after some of that." Detailed to longshoreman's work on the wharves, he meets Joan Crawford's Julie, a Marseilles prostitute fetched up as a bar girl on the island for reasons as murky as Verne's own past. They have a stinging anti-chemistry that pays off in a kiss like a mutual insult later that night when Verne evades the guards for just long enough to sneak into Julie's quarters. She turns him in. He's returned to the general population, where he discovers an old enemy planning to break out with anyone who can pony up the cash for a share in the boat waiting up the coast. She's ordered off the island, though without enough money for her own passage she's forced to rely on the dubious chivalry of strangers rather than accept the price-tagged attentions of the prison informant played with circumspect sleaziness by Peter Lorre, known to all as "M'sieu Pig." By the time their paths cross again in the jungle, though neither of them knows it yet, both Julie and Verne are already entangled in something a little stranger than your average jailbreak, increasingly presided over—though not apparently controlled—by the most enigmatic of the escaped convicts, the easygoing, compassionate, almost certainly supernatural Cambreau. He's played by Ian Hunter, who got my attention for life in John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940) and is fully as good here in a role that sounds frankly stupid when baldly described. By the second act I started wondering if he was the Angel of Death. I finished the picture pretty sure he was an avatar of God.

Not Christ, though, which is one of the reasons Strange Cargo interests rather than repels me. Whatever process of regeneration the film is chronicling, it's not as direct or as obvious as a Second Coming—it can't be or the story's peculiar grace would collapse into that particularly nauseating brand of portentous syrup that characterizes so much Production Code Christianity. If it once winked at its audience, if it yielded to special effects or declamation or, God forbid, whimsy, it would be unwatchable. Cambreau works because whatever else he may prove to be, he's mortal. He has a sense of humor; he gets tired, thirsty, looks like hell after a week of trekking the jungle and becalmed drifting. He looks like Ian Hunter, which means that he's got a pleasant enough face, but nothing head-turning, certainly nothing that suggests a hotline to the otherworld. He seems to know things, but none of them individually is beyond human ken for a perceptive watcher of people and the weather—only in aggregate does the reliability of his guidance start to feel spooky, to the point where one of his fellow-convicts accuses him of being the Devil. (That's a different jailbreak movie.) He never pushes his authority or even his opinions, never takes part in the macho jockeying that preoccupies Verne and his comrades. He says everything as though it means exactly what it sounds like. Even when you're sure he's double-speaking, you'll never prove it from his manner, which is both seriously interested in everyone and everything around him and not taking anything too dramatically. He appears out of a flat white afternoon in the prison yard, taking Verne's place as the thirty-sixth man1 to return from the wharfside work detail; when the guard shouts at him to hurry up, he replies absently, "I must have fallen behind. There's so much to do out there." What we chiefly see him do over the course of the escape is help the other prisoners, variously taken out by snakes, heat, sharks, each other, through their dying: their anger, their shame, their regrets and their hopes and their terror that it's too late for any of it to mean anything. He takes up the same conversations with the living, if they want them. Some of it is philosophy, some of it is theology, a lot of it seems to work like therapy. He asks people the kinds of questions they ask themselves. He rarely gives them answers they couldn't work out eventually, either, but it makes a difference to hear it from someone else. Even his climactic argument with Verne—explicitly over his own life, implicitly over the other man's soul—doesn't sound like a psychomachia; it sounds like the classic are we going to talk about it or are we going to do it. "Or does it take something to kill me you haven't got?" And indeed, after Verne has risked death himself diving over the side of the storm-tossed boat to save the man he angrily roundhoused into a raging sea, half-drowned Cambreau looks up at his attempted murderer-rescuer, who is trying to pretend with tears in his eyes that he did not just give the muttered, telltale eulogy "You're an awful sucker to do things like that for rats like me," and he smiles. It's not patronizing, it's not victorious, it's not even beatific, it's just pure, exhausted, shared happiness and a little as if he is gently teasing Verne: guess it takes one sucker to recognize another, hey?

Only in the last few seconds does the film overplay its hand, as the fisherman watching Cambreau disappear into the rain-glinting, net-hung darkness at the back of his boat makes the reverent sign of the cross over his heart. I guess MGM couldn't let it go without a little syrup. It's annoying. We don't need the shorthand; we have already witnessed the thing itself. But the fact that I can say this about a movie in which there are no miracles and very little preaching is fascinating to me. The most prominent uses of a Bible in Strange Cargo, beyond a graveside reading of the bit about "the temple of God" from 1 Corinthians (which provokes the derisive remark from Verne quoted in the title of this post), are the transmission of a map carefully copied onto its flyleaf and the most passive-aggressive application of the Song of Songs I have ever encountered, sarcastically addressed to a weary, bedraggled Julie by Verne on their first night alone in the jungle (it makes her cry anyway, imagining a life in which someone could compare her to pomegranates and honey and mean it). The script itself mocks the idea that Cambreau will be some kind of charismatic Bible-belter: "Well, why don't you start reading out of that book and I'll jump off the boat? Don't give me any of that sister-come-to-salvation look, I'm not buying any! I know the routine. It starts out with a prayer and ends up with a Bible in one hand and me in the other." Later in the doldrums of the voyage, Julie will snag her fingers into the raggedy leg of his canvas trousers and pull him down beside her so that she can talk to him, slantwise, about all the things she's not talking about with the person she most wants to: "You'd know I could want a lot of things if Verne were around. But he'd have to want them, too." This time when she weeps, Cambreau will stroke her hair, as gently and carefully as a cat that has just begun to trust him, and because he means nothing more than comfort by it she'll let him. It is not an extraordinary gesture, just a reasonable human one. I don't happen to believe in Cambreau as a version of God, but if you must have them in your worldview, the kind with a sense of humor and a good understanding of boundaries seems like a good start to me. He doesn't redeem any of the characters, subject-verb-object. He gives them the space to change themselves. Whether they take or leave it is their call.

I may have to be more awake to explain why any of this reminded me of Elizabeth Goudge. The deep Christian bedrock of the story is part of it, the way a lot of ordinary things happen that are yet concerned with the saving of people's souls—even if the language is never used, just as I can't remember the dialogue ever mentioning Christ—with the ways that people choose to make their lives better, to take responsibility for themselves and care of others, to do the hard things that yield joy instead of the quick gratifying things that feed right back into the same aimless holding patterns that don't need to be a French colonial prison in order to feel like iron bars and hell. There are echoes and flickers of the core myth, no straight re-runs. Cambreau may be the movement of God in the world, but according to him so is the good in anyone. I finished the movie thinking that if Borzage instead of Victor Saville had been handed Green Dolphin Street (1947), it would have turned out a lot weirder and a lot more like its source novel. (Alas, he wasn't and it is not.) The Catholic Legion of Decency apparently fainted in coils and condemned the picture out of hand, which I feel was missing the point; I am pretty sure that most practicing Christians would get more out of it than I did, at least in terms of recognition and reinforcement. It was similarly banned in Boston, ditto. I'll have to see what its reputation is today. I had started to back off Borzage—I loved Moonrise (1948), boggled at Seven Sweethearts (1942), and the best I can say about Hearts Divided (1936) is that Claude Rains makes a really entertaining Napoleon—but Strange Cargo is in all ways a counterintuitive enough film that I am curious about his other work again. It has cinematography to speak of, in the nascent expressionist style that turned noir in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940); it has a good supporting cast, almost all of whom I have wildly overlooked in this appraisal. Gable is himself, but Crawford is smarter and flintier than her archetype calls for and I appreciate it. I hope I haven't exhausted all the really good Ian Hunter. This strange delivery brought to you by my changing backers at Patreon.

1. Borzage was raised Catholic and the spiritual values of Strange Cargo are definitely Christian, but if you tipped this story just a little, I could almost accept Cambreau as a tzaddik.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
I am several weeks' worth of exhausted and in consequence going through a protracted period of feeling too stupid to think critically or even decoratively, but I just got back from seeing Noel Black's Pretty Poison (1968) at the Brattle and I want to say something about it. [personal profile] handful_ofdust, if you have not yet seen this movie I commend it to your attention immediately. It stars Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, some spectacularly bad decisions, and some gloriously sideways dialogue. "Boy, what a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?"

Seriously, where to begin? Monday. Perkins. He's the first reason I wanted to see the film and I might have picked up different resonances in his performance if I had actually managed to see Psycho (1960) by now, but since the art houses of Boston persist in running it only, ironically for Mother's Day and Halloween, I can tell mostly that he's cast to play with type as Dennis Pitt, a recent release from the New England mental institution that has been his home since he was fifteen. Assigned to work in a lumber yard in Lowell and check in with his case officer once a week, he skips town only to resurface a year later in Winslow, Massachusetts (actually Great Barrington—[personal profile] spatch recognized Berkshire County from the autumnal trees and diagnosed a rough location from spotting "Stockbridge" on a green-and-silver highway sign), renting the trailer permanently parked in the side yard of Bronson's Garage and punching the clock at the Sausenfeld Chemical Company where the runoff spills in beautiful vermillion ribbons into the old mill stream. He listens to Russian shortwave on the radio, takes careful, surreptitious pictures of the factory's leaking superstructure and passes his landlady the film to develop under her name, not his. He never walks anywhere when he can run, usually in his shirtsleeves, with a lanky, loping stride that looks more appropriate to a fidgety teenager than a man in his mid-thirties. He vaults over the backs of movie seats rather than sitting down into them; he gets in and out of a convertible without bothering with the doors. Here as in Phaedra (1962), Perkins is slidingly beautiful, with some of the same volatile quality of a person whose emotional, intellectual, and physical ages are all over the map from one another. Being a ward of the state for twenty years teaches you a lot of things, but not necessarily how to grow up. The catch is that he's not crazy. He's a fantasist with a juvie record, but he's not delusional; he says outrageous things with a straight face just to see if people are listening ("I must tell you, Mr. Azenauer, a lumber yard does seem a slight waste of my talents . . . I've been taking a secret course in interplanetary navigation. I had hoped to be appointed to the first Venus rocket") and plays an elaborate spy game with himself to brighten up the humdrum routine of watching little glass bottles full of mysterious red chemical clink down the assembly line while his boss glares over his shoulder and he tries not to dream on the clock. For every real moment of uncertainty or distraction, there's another flick of smart-alecky amusement or an ostensibly apologetic smile offered as pure dodge. "You're going out into a very real, very tough world," his sympathetic case officer warns him in the pre-credits prologue. "It's got no place at all for fantasies." Cut to Dennis perched on a split-rail fence, watching a high school color guard drill to the wholesome piccolo twirls of John Philip Sousa. What's more all-American than a blonde drum majorette in white ankle boots proudly marching with the state flag? What's more fantastic?

Enter Tuesday Weld. I had never seen her before, although Rob identified her for me as a former child actor who broke out playing the primary love among The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959–63); she's dynamite. From the moment her fresh-faced appearance causes Dennis to bang his head on the diner truck's awning in his eagerness to change her a quarter for the pay phone, Sue Ann Stepanek fulfills every cliché of the desirable cheerleader, the prom queen-in-waiting, all slim hips in schoolgirl skirts and sundresses, her golden hair flying, the freckled sculpting of her cheekbones wrinkling back to disclose a milk-toothed giggle and a hungry curiosity for whatever adult excitement this tall dark stranger can let her in on next. Perkins was my age at the time of filming and the audience is given no reason not to assume his character is the same. Weld was twenty-five playing "almost eighteen." The script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. not only acknowledges the age difference, it leans on it till the horn blares. There's a quirky charm in the combination of parody and sincerity with which Dennis involves Sue Ann in his CIA playacting, slipping her a stolen-from-work bottle of "tetra-acetic disaccharinous peregrinate" in a clipped monotone that sounds steely and professional so long as your experience of secret agents is confined to TV spy-fi,1 revealing by snippets his eco-terrorist mission to sabotage the Sausenfeld before it dumps another seventy million gallons of poisonous waste into the waterways ("By next spring there may not be an unmonstrous fish as far south as New York") and bolstering his claims with stonefaced double-talk and a lot of acronyms, of which my favorite is "PAC-NS"—"Plausible Agentry Contract, Non-Salaried." The game becomes queasier when he offers her lozenges of something that might be the power of suggestion or might be a Class B substance and rolls her out the driver's seat of her own car into the moonlit, birch-shadowed meadow of Fall Road, known to the locals as "Makeout Alley." One of the ways we're signaled that Sue Ann's chain-smoking, highball-drinking mother (Beverly Garland) is no good is the bland malice with which she interviews her daughter's new beau, letting him squirm over the obvious white lie that he's the nephew of a family friend while simultaneously evaluating him as dalliance material herself—uncomfortable with every aspect of this situation, Dennis hemming and hawing in an ill-fitting sports jacket looks every inch the hangdog creeper, but Mrs. Stepanek merely sees him out the door after her defiant daughter, cattily content to wait until the cops who shine flashlights down Fall Road bring the rumpled and illicit lovers in.

What has happened between these two points is the hinge of the film, which is worth not spoiling in detail except to say that I understand how Pretty Poison got its reputation as an early neo-noir and I don't understand why it didn't catapult Tuesday Weld into the first rank of weird and fearless actors appreciated in their time.2 Anyone with half an eye for irony can guess almost to the second when the shine will start peeling off Black's small-town American fantasy like gilt off sour brass, but it just cranks the dissonance up that even at her most conventionally perverse—straddling the slow thrashing of a drowning body like a trick rider, her pink tongue curling out with concentration as she sights down the barrel of a stolen Colt—Sue Ann never looks like anything less than a healthy American teenager of the teenybopper generation, cheerful, eager, a little spacey. "What a nut," she scoffs affectionately at Dennis, who has tentatively offered an embroidery of his own to her daydream of running off to the Bay of Mexico. "Hasta luego, nut!" The truest thing Dennis ever says about her is "I've noticed you do have quite a capacity for loving." The truest thing she ever says about herself is "I feel empty."

Both of these things being true is part of what gives the film its genre-slipping tone, which at this hour of the morning I am still struggling to define. It looks like it's in direct descent from the transgressive lovers-on-the-run tradition of They Live by Night (1949), Gun Crazy (1950), and even the previous year's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but the further the plot slides into noirish questions of breaking and keeping faith, the less it feels like any of its predecessors or even its contemporaries. Pretty Poison does not feel like 1968. It does not feel like an earlier decade, either, noir influence or not—if anything, it reminded me most of Twin Peaks (1990–91) and David Lynch generally, with its colorful soapy surface and something really creepy-crawly in the seams. Its sense of humor is touched with the grotesque and surreal: one scene cuts from Dennis' fed-up boss fuming, "Oh, no, Pitt, I don't doubt you, I just wish I could prove what I don't doubt about you! I'd—I'd—" to the violent sizzle of a raw hamburger smashed down on a short-order grill. Dennis and Sue Ann's day-for-night open-air lovemaking is shot as seriously as a grand passion and accompanied by a delicately romantic theme that turns swoonily inappropriate just from thinking about it. Cool as robotic ice when spieling the tallest of spy tales, Dennis faced with the lethal reality ("Crazy, you're all sweaty when you were the one with the experience in killing people") buckles at the knees and loses his lunch, all six foot two of skinny Perkins collapsed in a staring stick heap. The internet tells me Pretty Poison was the actor's first Hollywood film after seven years in Europe and I guess it didn't reintroduce him to the American mainstream any more than it did Weld, but it should have: he's never less than sympathetic and almost never uncomplicatedly so. When he says, "I do no kidding love you," it sounds like the most eloquent vow in the world.

In short, except for its ending which goes on three to five minutes longer and ties off more neatly than I expected, Pretty Poison is exactly the sort of weird cult artifact I would love to own except the damn thing appears to be available only on Blu-Ray, which given the ancientry of my laptop's disc-playing ability does me no good. [edit: [personal profile] lemon_badgeress found me a not recent, but quite extant DVD.] I hope it benefits someone reading this post and I hope I get the chance to see it on 35 mm rather than DCP one of these days. It was beautifully put together. I can't tell if the central metaphor goes too far in having a literal stream of beautiful poison running through a deceptively idyllic town, but I also can't tell if I care if it does. This very tough fantasy brought to you by my very real backers at Patreon.

1. I can't even figure out how to punctuate his opening speech to her because I think what it really wants is a lot of silent telegram-style STOPs: "Don't say a word act perfectly natural we're under surveillance. Rendezvous tonight bring this object. Spring Street movie house eight p.m. seventh row balcony left side aisle got that? Make your phone call. Don't look after me." He sprints away across the street and up one of the catwalks of the Sausenfeld Chemical Company. She watches him go and then asks the air, quite reasonably, "What?"

2. I get that she has a cult following and I have probably just joined it, but critically this movie seems to have fallen over sideways and disappeared for decades and for Weld's performance alone that should not have happened.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
So I mentioned having an unsatisfactory film experience: it happened over the weekend and I find it frustrating. I can't tell if it's the film or me. I am usually very good at seeing the film that's there, not the film I wanted or the film I was expecting. But either I saw the beginning of this one wrong or it fails one of its characters badly or I just tripped over the Production Code and need to ice my disbelief. Whichever way, argh.

The film in question is Ramrod (1947), a Western noir directed by Andre de Toth and starring Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea. I got it out of James Ursini's "Noir Westerns" (Film Noir Reader 4 ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini, 2004), which made it sound like my sort of genre-bending thing; I think it would be, except that as I wrote to [personal profile] kore, I have trouble with a movie which castigates its lead female character for her "greed and ambition" when her primary motive for striking out as an independent rancher was to escape her violent stalker of a would-be husband, especially when the script initially seemed sympathetic to her situation. The night that bullying cattle baron Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) runs off his latest competitor in love and business is the night Connie Dickason (Lake) finally decides she's done with trying to play the stacked deck of a good woman's proper place in the West. Her toadying father was no protection against Ivey, pushing her to accept his boss' attentions and then blaming her for the bloodshed that threatened when she refused; she's never been able to find a suitor strong enough to stand up to Ivey's intimidation. "They'd break any man I wanted. They'd find a reason. Like they made sheep the reason for breaking Walt. But I'll never turn to Frank Ivey. A little money of my own—enough to buy some cattle and hire a crew—they won't break anybody when I get through with them." She's the new mistress of the Circle 66, Walt having thoughtfully signed over the land to her before skedaddling ignominiously out of town. The day she takes possession, Ivey has her new home burned to the ground. Counseled to keep on the clean side of the law ("The sheriff's our blue chip. Anything we do against Ivey's got to be legal"), Connie eventually decides that she can't wait until Ivey escalates the already murderous range war any further and makes an unethical move of her own. Rocks immediately start to fall. More than one person will die. And it is not that I disagree either that it was a poor decision or that she should at least not have lied to her "ramrod"—her ranch foreman—about it, but it's one thing to watch a character draw herself down the road to hell with the best intentions, as happens in many a noir, and another to be abruptly asked to reconsider her as a heartless troublemaker from the start, deserving of whatever consequences her cavalier treatment of others can visit on her.

I suppose one of the problems here is that I want to see Connie succeed. A woman who wants control of her own life in the face of men who would treat her with less consideration than their cattle: what's not to sympathize? The film even seems to encourage it. Frank Ivey is a sneering, domineering heavy, not quite a mustache-twirler, but he might try tying a girl to a track if the railroad would only come through town. Her fiancé folds without a fight; her father blusters like he wasn't bought years ago. Only Connie is icy and fearless, a small woman carrying herself with the adamant and defiant pride of space she has a right to. She's not fighting fair, but she's not on a level playing field. When Ivey orders one of her men beaten in front of her to teach her a lesson, she can't even defend him: alone and unarmed, she's easily caught and restrained by Ivey himself, his big hands around her wrists and at least the lewd smirk startled off his face when she followed up the heroine's traditional slap with a cold, contemptuous pummeling. Her anger is clear and understandable. But the film's recognition of it doesn't last. As the ramifications of her decision begin to ricochet through the valley, the script decides that her fearlessness is foolhardy arrogance, her desire for independence merely the willful and inappropriate bucking of the proper authorities—and when it lets her win the range war, she's righteously condemned for it by the hero as he walks away into the arms of another woman, leaving her with the feminine Pyrrhic victory of all the power she ever dreamed of and none of the man. The third act does not fall quite as far as a humiliation conga, but no character seems to pass up the opportunity to pass judgment on Connie and nothing in their presentation suggests that we the audience are not assumed to agree. I suppose we can if we judge her strictly on her behavior in the second half of the film, after the personality transplant. Her last, plaintive line is hardly recognizable as belonging to the woman who originally declared her intent to make a life without relying on the lenience of men. Hold that thought.

It is especially frustrating because I like so much of the rest of the film. McCrea is understated and effective as Dave Nash, the slow-dawning hero who's barely got himself in shape in time for the plot to start. He's sober now, but he was on a hell of a drunk when he arrived in town; it got him a reputation that dogs him into the bar and offers Ivey's men easy pickings to taunt him with and he only came out of it with the practical assistance of the town's aging sheriff (Donald Crisp) and the low-key sympathy of dressmaker Rose Leland (Arleen Whelan) and her sometime swain, the cheerful hell-raiser Bill Schell (Don DeFore). "Took me a week to rope that hangover," he answers when the sheriff gently sounds out his steadiness. He buys the older man a drink in thanks, but perhaps also to prove that he can walk into the Special and not have to be scraped off the floor at the end of the night. He relates the tragedy that started him drinking so directly and simply that it doesn't sound like necessary backstory, just one of the terrible, inexplicable things that happen in the world sometimes. Once hired by Connie as her ramrod, he insists on honest dealing not just out of pragmatism or native decency, but because he spun out of control once before and didn't like it; he is a curiously tentative protagonist, not so much easily led as unsure of the limits within which he can be trusted now. Meanwhile, DeFore is acres of magnitude more interesting as a charming, haphazardly principled drifter than he was as the avenging moral majority in Byron Haskin's Too Late for Tears (1949), where I could have swapped him without noticing for any number of sturdy second leads—Bill's loyal to his friends and quick in defense of them, but he'll cut corners on his ethics without hesitating if he thinks it'll get results. His relationship with Rose is informal but affectionate. I am aware that his relationship with Connie is framed as though she's seducing him to her own ends, but since the film has already established that he can do moral ambiguity on his own dime and he'll never say no to a willing girl, I can't buy it: it plays much more like a hookup of convenience on both sides. It's a good film to look at. Russell Harlan's cinematography treats daylight scenes with a flat, almost overexposed objectivity that washes out even violent actions into a kind of indifferent glare, while night scenes are dense and dramatic. Fires happen at night; so do showdowns, ambushes, and stampedes. Deaths happen by day and there is nothing expressionistic about them. Ramrod handles its violence unusually for the time—a fistfight in a bar is quick, scuffling, and messy, with blood on both men's shirts and faces by the time it's broken up, while the brutality of a fatal beating is conveyed by the camera's steady focus on the face of a man who is coolly and professionally, with short, hard, bare-knuckled blows, reducing another man's face to the blinded pulp he'll die of. (We never see his handiwork, but the doctor brought vainly to treat the dying man asks after a look, "Was he dragged by a horse?") There is little gunplay in the film and it doesn't follow the expected rhythms. A snipers' game of cat-and-mouse on a brushy canyonside drags on all night until someone gets shot in the back. The climactic shootout ends with a shotgun blast. I thought Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952) was ahead of the curve on demolishing the romance of the West, but de Toth obviously got here first.

And yet. I last saw Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942), a movie I loved and totally failed to write about a year ago. Essentially it's a wartime spy story that turns into film noir by making its protagonist, instead of the sterling cop pursuing the sticky threads of industrial and international espionage through more than one murder and the kidnapping of his girlfriend, the double-crossed hitman who's in possession of a vital chemical secret but only wants to get back at the boss who set him up; even when the rest of the movie behaves like action-comics pulp around him, he and his relationship with the heroine are complex and ambivalent and unpredictable enough to pull the other genre through. Alan Ladd plays the hitman and seeing this movie after Jean-Pierre Melville's Le samouraï (1967) was actively disorienting, because I hadn't realized until then what a pure homage Alain Delon's Jef Costello is to Ladd's Raven, who loves cats and cares nothing about people and lives in an apartment so sparsely furnished he might as well not exist between jobs.1 Lake plays a professional magician freshly recruited by the U.S. government to spy on new employer Laird Cregar, who just so happens to be the hitman's double-crossing boss. She is tiny, beautiful, radium-blonde. Ladd is equally tiny, equally beautiful, dark-haired in this role so that they make a strange matched pair; together they feel simultaneously more real and more fairytale than anything else happening in the movie, deadly Hansel and duplicitous Gretel in the nightclubs and railyards and factories of Los Angeles. Robert Preston plays the cop who loves Lake, but he was always better at slippery than sterling and he doesn't have a chance against the leads' chemistry. At one point Lake wears skintight black vinyl and slinky hip waders to perform a fishing-themed nightclub number. And strictly speaking, she betrays all three of the leading men in the picture. Cregar's Willard Gates may be taken for granted, but it is less traditionally forgivable that she should at different points work with or against the policeman or the hitman depending on which one will get her closer to solving the mystery of the secrets Nitro Chemical may be selling—and yet she remains sympathetic, heroic, and generates such a charge with Ladd that I'm not surprised they were reteamed for three more films. She is not punished for her betrayal of Preston's Detective Lieutenant Michael Crane by losing his love and she is not punished for her betrayal of Raven by losing his respect. Daniel M. Hodges in "The Rise and Fall of the War Noir" (also Film Noir Reader 4, I am so glad to have discovered this book) considers it a unique feature of wartime noirs that they include women as equals, allies, and protagonists in their own right—either way, not obstacles or rewards—and while I feel this may be slightly overstating the case, it is true that if I look at Lake in This Gun for Hire and Lake in Ramrod and consider them at all representative of their respective eras, it does look bad for 1947.

Ramrod was adapted from a 1943 novel of the same name by Luke Short, which I have not read; it is possible that it went weird in translation. Since it is not reasonable to interpret a film strictly according to its source material, however, that doesn't help much with the fact that Connie as introduced and Connie by the finale feel like two closely related but actually different characters, with little to explain the transition between them unless it turns out that I misread the degree to which the film intended me to find her sympathetic in the first place or I accept that it is impossible for a woman to exercise power without misusing it and/or needing a man to share it with. In which case I think it's not me, it's the film, and I should definitely put some ice on that disbelief. For the record, Lake does a bang-up job with her fractured character. I just wish the entire film thought she was as amazing as I did. This irritation brought to you by my headstrong backers at Patreon.

1. I find it very thoughtful of the Brattle to double-feature This Gun for Hire and Le samouraï at the end of this month. I'll be there.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
All right. In hindsight of the continuing exodus from LJ, the third of April feels a bit like an international day of social media mourning, but I regret nothing about my decision to cope on the night by self-medicating with Leslie Howard. [personal profile] skygiants had sent me the link years ago for a propaganda short called From the Four Corners (1941) which I had never gotten around to watching despite it being a grand total of fifteen minutes long. It was directed by Anthony Havelock-Allan and produced by the Ministry of Information; there are no writing credits per se, but we are told that "[t]he incident originated with Leslie Howard and A. G. Macdonell," one of the co-writers of Pimpernel Smith (1941). With a title like that, you might as well brace yourself for Empire, especially when it opens by quoting the title music from the Kordas' The Four Feathers (1939). Like Howard's wartime features, though, it's subtler and stranger than simple flag-waving and it set off a thoroughly unexpected chain reaction in my head.

The story sounds like the set-up for a joke: three soldiers from the Dominions all meet at Nelson's Column, where two of them are looking for a pub and the third is sightseeing. Specifically, he is taking a picture of what he dryly terms "Typical scene of London air-raid panic"—four Londoners on a park bench in different attitudes of total unconcern. Embarrassed by the effusive patriotism of a woman who rushes up to praise them for "coming all those thousands of miles to answer the Motherland's call to arms . . . splendid fellows!" the soldiers are rescued by the drawling interruption of one of the park-bench Londoners, the one who was smoking with his hands in his pockets and his hat knocked over his eyes. He is credited as "A Passer-By"; he is Leslie Howard and he knows where to find a pub.1 Over pints all round, he quizzes the soldiers on their reasons for joining up, each of which furnishes a miniature flashback. Corporal W. Atkinson of the Australian Imperial Force co-owned a bicycle shop in Sydney; he made his decision after catching his business partner in a newsreel, marching to the troopship with the rest of the new recruits. Private J. Johnston of the Black Watch of Canada hails from a farm outside of Vancouver; his father was killed at Vimy Ridge and he not entirely jokes that he ought to finish his job. Private R. Gilbert of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force was a law student in Auckland, finishing up his degree when he wondered suddenly if common law would mean anything in the event of an Axis victory; he walked right out of his exams and into the recruiting office next door. They may be standing in for their respective countries, but they are also real-life servicemen playing versions of themselves, and they bridle when Howard professes himself unsatisfied with their answers. "Kick[ing] Hitler in the pants" may be an admirable goal, but what makes it so? What are they really fighting for? If not the Empire ("That's a lot of hooey!"), what have they left their homes and families to defend?

Like the academic he so often played, Howard takes it on himself to answer his own question. He brings the three soldiers up to the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral—itself already a vivid symbol of national resistance—and gives them a bird's-eye crash tour of London, pointing out its landmarks and sites of interest, tying each to a resonant moment of English history. Kingston, where the coronation stone of the Saxon kings still stands in the market square. Runnymede, the signing of the Magna Carta which formed the heart of all the Commonwealth's laws. For the Canadian Johnston, he points out St. Peter's Church in Petersham where Captain George Vancouver is buried. For Oceanians Gilbert and Atkinson, Greenwich Hospital because "Captain Cook had a job there once." When he shows them Bankside, he stresses that the audiences of Shakespeare's plays would have included far-flung soldiers on leave just like themselves. "And that's where your fathers and my fathers stood when we were threatened with the Armada and invasion," though most of Howard's forefathers in 1588 would have been somewhere quite different from Tilbury.2 Finishing up at the House of Commons allows him to (optimistically, in June 1941) include the Americans among the inheritors and defenders of their shared ideals. "Well, it's all yours," he concludes, "all part of London and part of ourselves . . . Yes, it's all there—British city, Roman city, Saxon, Dane, Norman—English." All the while he was talking, I was thinking that I had heard something very like it before, the visionary, scholarly, slightly laughing and slightly otherworldly voice layering time through itself and rooting it in the present day, spellbinding its listeners and waking them up to their history and inheritance, and the moment I made the connection I was seized with a desperate and conflicted longing because Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944) is the reason I love Eric Portman, but I would love too to know what the movie would have been like with Leslie Howard as Thomas Colpeper, JP.

Let me be clear: I don't think the Archers could even have approached him for the part. He was already under the Bay of Biscay when shooting began in August of 1943, and in any case their first choice for the magistrate of Chillingbourne had been Roger Livesey, whom I will always thank for turning them down. He found the role "off-key." He wasn't wrong. Colpeper is a deeply peculiar character, as difficult to pin down to a single interpretation as his signature wrongheaded act. He has the vision of a poet and the blinders of a missionary, the superiority of a judge and the guilt of a penitent; he gives mesmerizing lectures on local history and keeps breaking the slide projector. He loves his country and its deep, distant past that to him is as immediate and tangible as the warmth of the sun and the smell of wild thyme and he does some very silly, very dangerous things to try to fix history right where it is, not yet understanding that the earthquake of modernity will not erase the echoes of his beloved Kentish village any more than the last two thousand years have washed the Roman road away.3 He's a crank and a trickster, a magician and a fool, and like the other characters he's trapped until he gets his miracle, which comes in the last form he expected and the first he should have known to watch out for. He's not unsympathetic. He's never quite safe. I'm not knocking Livesey as an actor—he made three films with Powell and Pressburger and in all of them he was exactly what the part required, a tragicomic English archetype in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), an unforeseen romantic alternative in I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), and an adroit and skeptical advocate for science and love in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Someday I'll even see him in a film by some other director and I expect he will continue to be very good. But I think he was right to refuse Colpeper: he would not have been weird enough for him. Portman was. And as Howard had proved almost from the start of his stardom, he would have been, too.

That's the trouble. You believe in miracles. )

This is fantasy casting at its finest. If any practical link existed between Leslie Howard and A Canterbury Tale, given my interest in both of these things I can't imagine I wouldn't have run across it before now. I believe what I'm seeing is a case of parallel evolution, drawing on the same shared resonances of myth and literature and national archetype like a collective unconscious of the country, and I have neither the scope in this post nor the professional credentials to diagnose exactly what that is. I just can't believe I didn't see the fit before. Howard had even worked with the Archers once before, playing one of his disarming intellectuals for 49th Parallel. I'd love to know what either of them thought of Pimpernel Smith, since I stand by my assertion that it comes the closest of any other British war picture to the off-kilter numinous of their work in general and A Canterbury Tale in particular; I've found nothing in the two volumes by Powell that I own. I need to get a biography of Pressburger sometime. To get back to the short that started this whole megillah, From the Four Corners is not A Canterbury Tale or even Pimpernel Smith, but it served admirably as a celebration of Howard's hundred and twenty-fourth birthday and an antidote to a really depressing evening and you can watch it yourself thanks to the good offices of the Imperial War Museum. I apologize about the watermark. I got used to it after a few minutes of dialogue, but it interacts unfortunately with the opening titles. Anyway, it'll take you less time to watch than this post did to write. The version where I actually did all the research I thought about would have gone on for even longer and run the footnotes off the bottom of the screen. At least I didn't pour glue in anyone's hair. This monograph brought to you by my transcendent backers at Patreon.

1. Honestly, in a film of this era, I feel it may be safe to assume that any angular, pipe-smoking person looking especially careless in public is Leslie Howard. If he's wearing an overcoat and has a tendency to lecture about abstractions, that clinches it.

2. Although the character is explicitly identified as the actor himself—glossed for non-British viewers who might not recognize the name by Atkinson's description of the local weather as "too Pygmalion cold"—I found myself thinking of him as Howard's Passer-By, like Dante's Pilgrim. He can say the line about his fathers at Tilbury (our fathers of old) and mean it literally. He's autochthonous.

3. Powell and Pressburger use it for wonder rather than horror, but the way they conceive of history leaving its imprint on time is interestingly close to the idea of residual haunting that Nigel Kneale popularized with The Stone Tape (1972) or the endlessly reenacting myth of Alan Garner's The Owl Service (1967): once a thing has happened in a place, it is always on some level happening there, echoing forever in the land. Where it happened transcends when. "And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme and the broom and the heather, you're only seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds are singing. When you lie flat on your back and rest and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you're so close to those other people that you can hear the thrumming of the hooves of their horses and the sound of the wheels on the road and their laughter and talk and the music of the instruments they carried."

4. It is completely not Howard's fault that I flashed on The Magician's Nephew (1955) when I hit the line "Most of you, I'm sure, will know what I mean when I speak of the curious elation which comes from sharing in a high and mysterious destiny," especially since he meant just about the opposite from Andrew Ketterley by it. It does kind of make me wonder if Lewis heard the broadcast. If so, I guess he wasn't impressed.

5. It took me an absurdly long time to realize that none of the blessings received by the four modern pilgrims of A Canterbury Tale has to do with things changing for the better: each has to do instead with seeing things as they truly are, not as the characters have feared or convinced themselves they were. They are revelations, realizations. They are like archaeology. Nothing of the beloved past has been lost, not a girlfriend, a fiancé, or a vocation; things believed not to exist have come as naturally to light as an old coin in a field, reminders that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. They prove the constancy of time.

6. There is a tangential question here which I am not sure I am qualified to engage with: the degree to which it is possible or useful to read Howard's intellectual heroes as neuroatypical as opposed to merely very smart, knowing there's a significant Venn diagram of the two in popular representations of intelligence. Certainly I feel as though a case could be made for several of the characters discussed here, but I've seen Howard in seventeen movies and IMDb gives him thirty-eight acting credits; I don't think I have enough data. I also feel this study should be conducted by someone with a better idea of what "normal" behavior looks like. When Atterbury Dodd says, "I don't like parties. I don't know what to say to people. I just sit in corners and wish I might go home," I mean, that was me and socializing for years. All that changed was I started getting invited to a better grade of party.

7. I have appreciated for years that Howard, national treasure that he was, never had too much vanity to play against audience sympathy for as long as a script required. Smith may have some cold, abrasive moments on his way to rethinking the primacy of Aphrodite, but Higgins carries scientific detachment to the point of being a stupendous jerk; it is one of the reasons I suspect so many people, myself included, find the ending of the 1938 Pygmalion and its immediate descendant My Fair Lady more satisfying than the impervious curtain of the original play: he gets absolutely kicked in the ass by his own human susceptibility and he never sees it coming. Dodd is never deliberately insensitive, but he has to learn how to see people—including himself—as people, three-dimensional, fallible, worthwhile, not just numbers or functions. Even the narrator of The Gentle Sex, while he understands and appreciates intellectually that women will be part of the war effort, so repeatedly underestimates the extent and the impact of their contributions that by the film's end he's had to give up trying to predict what they'll do next and simply trust that it'll be all right. Alan Squier, let's face it, is a really charming trash fire.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
My verdict after seeing James Goldstone's Rollercoaster (1977), a cat-and-mouse thriller featuring on-ride footage from the Rocket at the now-defunct Ocean View Amusement Park and the Great American Revolution at now-Six Flags Magic Mountain as well as scenes filmed generally at Kings Dominion:

"Too much plot; not enough point of view."

To be fair, I also enjoyed the concert footage of Sparks performing at the fictionalized opening of the Revolution, especially since I hadn't known they were in the movie at all (the internet tells me it is one of their greatest regrets), and I was delighted to learn from [personal profile] spatch that the filming of Rollercoaster directly inspired the formation of American Coaster Enthusiasts, but the plot mostly consists of George Segal running around and Richard Widmark being annoyed and Timothy Bottoms actually being quite effective as a quiet-eyed, precisely spoken domestic terrorist who looks barely old enough to buy his own drinks but is heavily implied to have seen action in Vietnam, which without any further development or motivation for his plan to extort a million dollars from the heads of five major amusement park corporations in exchange for not bombing any more rides (his backstory was cut from the movie lest the audience feel sorry for him, the internet also tells me) makes an interesting and slightly dubious snapshot of the anxieties of the time. I don't know that there's any great societal significance to the subplot in which Segal's divorced character keeps having to palm his shared custody weekends off on girlfriend Susan Strasberg because he's too busy taking phone calls from the bomber, although it is neat that his daughter is played by fourteen-year-old Helen Hunt and she already sounds exactly like herself. I think that may have been the human interest that I was supposed to care about, but which mostly got in the way of me enjoying Bottoms' methodical underplaying and the coaster history. I felt the same way about the camera's tendency to cut away from the hurtling twists of the track in favor of the riders' reactions: yes, fine, human faces are all well and good, but this is for all intents and purposes a point-of-view video of the first vertical looping coaster built since Coney Island's Loop the Loop—and that was torn down in 1910—and the part where the horizon turns over is essential. We know the riders are enjoying themselves, screaming at the sky with their hands up for the g-forces. We know the terrorist in the last car is preoccupied with his plans and therefore not enjoying the air time nearly as much as he should be. You bothered to kick viewers in the rear with Sensurround on the film's original release; you want something that immersive, stop breaking up the first-person experience! I realized when I got home that scriptwriters Richard Levinson and William Link were the creators of Columbo (1968–78, 1989–2003) and the film is structured not unlike an episode of that show, with the details of the crime and the identity of the perpetrator shown from the start; I almost wished it had been one. I will put up with a lot of silliness for the sake of Peter Falk.

I think the moral of this screening is that I need to go ride some roller coasters. Luna Park opened last weekend. Ditto Six Flags New England. I have to wait till May for Canobie Lake. Oh, New England. I like your weather fine when it's not seesawing wildly between November and July in April, but does it have to be such hell on coaster culture? This appeal brought to you by my fast-moving backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
It has been a traveling day. We left the house at eight-thirty in the morning and arrived at the con hotel in Tarrytown just after four in the afternoon, having spent the intervening hours on one Amtrak and two Metro-North trains plus associated public transit and a taxi, and while I did stare at my computer for some of that time mostly what I did was doze. New Haven's Union Station looks almost exactly as it did when I last took the Metro-North to Grand Central Station except that the departure board has gone from a fluttering split-flap display to a large flatscreen TV in alternating stripes of red and blue, which is considerably less interesting. I didn't remember a station in West Haven; that's because it opened in 2013. Fairfield Metro would also have been new to me except that I think I was either asleep or reading when we went through it and therefore missed the whole thing. Bridgeport has lost another drawbridge since I last went over the Pequonnock. I didn't know it was Congress Street till I looked it up just now, but I remember its leaves were always open: now they're gone and the severed sections of street on either side greened over like a park, a block of open water running in between. I am afraid I still associate Bridgeport with Richmond City, [personal profile] kenjari, but I'll re-evaluate New London the next chance I get.

[personal profile] spatch faceplanted as soon as we got to the hotel; I got my badge and gravitated immediately toward the dealer's room. At Somewhere in Time Books, I heard the story of how Tundra (1936) was recut into Arctic Fury (1949)—and got to see an original Belgian poster for the former, with our hero menaced by a polar bear while his crashed seaplane smolders in the background—and acquired a first edition of Leigh Brackett's The Starmen (1952) and something called Lord of the Horizon (1943) by Joan Grant, which I picked up because it had a Horus-falcon design on the cover and looked like maybe YA-grade historical fiction and now I am looking forward to it incredibly because apparently the author was writing past-life autobiography and just didn't mention it to her publishers at the time. There is a paperback collection of short fiction by Cornell Woolrich that I wish were not as expensive as it is.

And I knew going into this convention that I was going to miss the Somerville's 35 mm screening of Victor Sjöström's The Wind (1928) on Sunday and I was a little sorry, because I had been impressed by Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage (Körkarlen, 1921) and I always enjoy Jeff Rapsis' live scores, but it turns out I didn't have to spend the weekend without a silent film because the media track at Lunacon screened Paul Wegener's The Golem, How He Came into the World (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, 1920), accompanied by none other than Jeff. I think I feel about it more or less the way I feel about Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956): I am not sorry to have seen it and it is very obviously a non-Jewish filmmaker telling a Jewish story for a non-Jewish audience. For example, I am skeptical that Rabbi Loew resorted to books of necromancy and the aid of the demon Astaroth to learn the word which would bring the Golem to life. (As a piece of cinema, the summoning of Astaroth is fantastic: the rabbi draws a circle of fire around himself and his useless assistant, holds aloft a six-pointed star and calls into the darkness that has fallen away in all directions from the ordinary confines of his study. Out of the darkness come little fires that dart and dance like self-possessed things before a ring of smoke rises to veil the camera as well as the characters; out of the smoke comes Astaroth like a mask that no one is wearing, its big-eyed, wizened face at once childlike and dreadfully ancient. It is a creepily apt incarnation of a spirit we have been told can give life to anything, even the dead and things that were never alive to begin with—it is not alive itself, it is a carved and painted thing and all the flickering fires of ambient magic cannot lend it even the illusion of life, but it answers the rabbi's call. Smoke spills from its parted lips, far longer and far more of it than a human chest could contain. The letters of a word come wavering up through it: AEMAET. When this word of Astaroth—which is never once associated with Hebrew אמת in the film, nor with the name of God—is placed inside an amulet in the shape of a five-pointed star and fastened to the Golem's chest, he comes to life. And I was incredibly kind to the ten or so other members of the audience and did not bust out with a chorus of "Substitutionary Locomotion." I cannot believe that I never before noticed that Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) is a golem story, but the instant the intertitles flashed "From the dreaded spirit Astaroth I must wrest the life-giving word that will bring the Golem to life to save my people," a penny I didn't know I'd been waiting nearly thirty years for dropped on my head. Miss Price brings the armor to life to fight Nazis, for crying out loud. There just aren't any Jews on the scene, which I can see confusing the issue. But someone on the writing team must have at least bounced off Wegener, because Astaroth is nowhere in Mary Norton's The Magic Bed-Knob (1945) or Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947) and neither is the idea of marshaling a supernaturally animated defense against the threat of genocide. That movie just gets weirder every time I look at it.) Wegener himself plays the Golem and he's great: monumentally tall—six foot six before the built-up boots—massively built, his broad-boned face given a burnished, fired look by its clay-slip makeup, he moves not with robotic stiffness but a stony solidity, a toppling weight in every step; he's a template for Karloff's Monster minus the neck bolts and plus a worse haircut. As with all good monster stories, there is pathos as well as horror in his corner of the uncanny valley. Inevitably he goes on a rampage, but in his defense it wasn't yet a trope. He carries off the heroine for a bit. When he encountered the small child playing with flowers, I think everybody in the room was thankful there wasn't a river nearby. I'm just not sure what to do with the film around him, which I don't believe was made to be anti-Semitic, but which still reproduces a buttweight of Jewish stereotypes combined with cultural inaccuracy to the degree that Wegener's sixteenth-century Prague might as well just have a ghetto of space aliens in the middle of it. Karl Freund did the cinematography, so at least it looks more than fine. All things considered, though, next time I want a shot of German Expressionism I will probably just rewatch Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920). This recognition brought to you by my spirited backers at Patreon.

Dinner was kind of a mess, but we made a run to the supermarket on the other side of the industrial park and now at least we have oatmeal.

When Rob pointed out that the room number on our bedside phone did not match the number on the door, I said automatically, "Your bedroom's not your bedroom, but your telephone don't know," and now I don't know how to get Tom Waits to write the rest of the song.

That's five things; I'm going to bed. I read tomorrow at noon-thirty.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
Earlier in the week I was talking to [ profile] derspatchel about definitions of film noir: how the hallmark of the genre for me really is not guns or girls or rain-wet city streets but the sense of destabilization I've mentioned before, the shape-shifting of the known and secure world into something much less predictable, much less safe, perhaps even much less real. It's the reason so many good noirs have the feel of a nightmare, where familiar objects take on new and terrible meanings; it's what makes noir such a good genre for social issues, where the American dream can undergo the same skeptical collapse as a happy marriage or the sunniness of suburbia. Everything from your faith in the system to your sense of self can drop out from underneath you in a film noir and all things being equal it probably will. It can be horrifying; it can be liberating; it can even pull out the occasional happy ending without feeling like a cheat precisely because a totally grimdark, crapsack world would be missing that element of uncertainty—nothing is really in question when everything ends in tears. Without that ability to estrange, to leave characters and audience unable to guess which way the cards will fall, a movie might be any number of genres, but increasingly I feel it's not noir. So it was very satisfying for me this past snowy Saturday to open up TCM and discover a movie which put this theme front and center and is definitely a film noir: Tension (1949), directed by John Berry and starring Richard Basehart in a nearly double role as an unassuming pharmacist with a cheating wife and the confident alter ego he adopts to establish his alibi for the murder of his wife's lover, which is where his troubles begin.

If you're feeling kindly toward Warren Quimby, night manager of the 24-hour Coast-to-Coast drugstore on the corner of St. Anne's and 13th Street, you might refer to him as mild-mannered. If you want to be accurate, he's a nebbish. He's nice enough looking, with a soft-mouthed, boyish face once you get past his Coke-bottle glasses and his rounded shoulders, but his tiny tough cookie of a wife (Audrey Totter, bright and harsh as peroxide) has been running around on him for years and all he can do is watch her walk out of the store all but on the arm of a different man every night, older men, generally, with fast cars and money to burn, while Warren stays dutifully behind the prescription counter, twelve hours a night and five nights a week so he can save up for the good life they must have promised each other once. If he can just give her what she wants, if he doesn't rock the boat, maybe it'll be enough to put things back the way they were. He can't imagine life without Claire, coming home every morning not knowing whether she'll be in their bed or just the blond-wigged, china-headed doll she leaves around their one-bedroom apartment like a sympathetic object of herself. Inevitably, one morning she's not. She and her china calling card have moved in with Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough, hirsute), a rugged, cigar-chewing liquor salesman with a big car to chauffeur her around in and a big bankroll to peel bills off and a big house to lounge around on the beach in Malibu, not the suburban development Warren was so painfully proud of getting a loan for and Claire wouldn't even get out of the car to survey. "It was different in San Diego," she snarls, stuffing clothes into a suitcase as if she were punching dough or her husband's face. "You were cute in your uniform. You were full of laughs then. Well, you're all laughed out now!"—though she'll get a last, nasty one at her husband's expense when he comes to win her back, a ridiculous Quixote sweating in his suit and hat and glasses, stumbling with the sand in his shoes as his lady in her neat black swimsuit curls her lip in disgust and her hero in Hawaiian-print swim trunks rises to his suntanned full six feet to whale the tar out of his shrimpy challenger as effortlessly as the "before" half of a Charles Atlas ad, complete with territorial bluster of "And don't come back, you four-eyed punk!" as Warren picks himself stiffly out of the sand, his nose bleeding, one lens of his glasses splintered like a star. So the thought of murder; so the idea of creating someone else, some dangerous stranger who might have a well-documented animus against Deager while there are witnesses that funny little Quimby, like a damn-fool knight-errant, actually shook the hand of the man who beat him up in front of his wife and wished them both well. "The trouble with you, Mr. Quimby," his friend and counterman Freddie (Tom D'Andrea) declares, "you keep turning that other cheek till you're dizzy." And indeed, the more time Warren spends planning his revenge, the more he realizes he doesn't need to go through with it. It helps that his roleplaying shows him there are other ways to live; it doesn't hurt that big-shot, he-man lover-boy is freaked the fuck out to wake up and find the "four-eyed punk" standing over him smiling like a hit man. But when Deager turns up dead anyway, the beautiful, obvious trail Warren has been laying to lead the police to the door of a man who doesn't exist starts to burn right back toward him—and it's on a quick fuse.

This is the substance of the first act; Rob pointed out when I described it to him that it could have furnished an entire movie and I love that for Tension it's just the starting point, the floundering collision of reality and fantasy that for all the strong California sunlight locates the story firmly in the world of noir. "Paul Sothern" may have been made up out of thin air and the cover of an issue of Screen Digest, but he's everything Warren Quimby would love to be. Where Warren switches dowdily between his druggist's coat for the customers and his drab suit for going home in, sharp-dressed Paul doesn't shrink from bold ties and assertively checked jackets; instead of mechanically filling prescriptions from a covert of aspirin, liniment, and Vicks, he hits the road each week as a commercial traveler for a cosmetics company. He strolls around in the sun while Warren toils away on the night shift. Thanks to the new miracle of contact lenses, he doesn't even wear glasses.1 Perhaps best of all, he has a girl interested in him—not a sulky, contemptuous wife who punishes her husband for his material failures without lifting a finger to help earn the money she longs to spend, but a hardworking neighbor who admits she's got a boring job and practices photography in her spare time, whose idea of a good date isn't cruising the city's hot spots in a flashy car but making a telescope out of a pipe cleaner box and building a shared fantasy about life on a desert island, which is closer to the truth than she knows. "It can be real, Paul," she tells him softly. "It can be real." With no strings attached, this is the life Warren would slip into for good, leaving the shed skin of his failed self behind as quick as shaving and packing a bag. But it's a dream, and any dream can turn on a dime to nightmare. Paul Sothern was created to murder a man and, rather golem-like, without Warren's desire or knowledge, he appears to have. Or at least there's no other clear suspect in view. And because this is California in 1949, because the homicide detective narrating the movie (in a fine pulp style: "You know, these stores have everything—raisins and radios, paregoric and phonographs, vitamin capsules and cap pistols. They'll serve you a cup of coffee, sell you a pack of cigarettes or a postage stamp—and in a pinch, they'll even fill a prescription for you") may be as corrupt as any other cop in the genre, because Warren is such a five-star shlimazl and this is a film noir, you can't tell if he's going to fry for something he only dreamed of doing. The horror of the mask is that it won't come off your face, no matter how hard you pull or what starts to tear away with it. The dream had a death built into it from the start.

I can't help seeing a kind of Superman echo in the role Warren's glasses play in his double life. His entire attitude changes when he's Paul, not just the self-confidence with which he squares his shoulders and tells a lot of trustworthy lies. He meets cute with Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse, whom apparently I don't recognize when she's not dancing) when he accidentally crashes one of her photographs—and for his next trick, with his arms full of a suitcase and groceries, knocks over all her gear while trying to make amends—a first impression that would have reduced Warren to cringing embarrassment but which Paul meets with good humor, sincere apologies, and a willingness to talk shop as a fellow amateur photographer which leads first to friendly hanging-out and presently to dates by the nighttime sea. That's only on the weekends, of course; the rest of the time Paul's traveling for La Femme Beauty Preparations. The rest of the time Warren's working the Coast-to-Coast, the same polite but unimpressive person his staff and his customers are used to. Glasses on, shlemiel. Glasses off, regular guy. It is therefore both poignant and hilarious when it turns out that Warren is in point of fact one hundred percent recognizable to people who know him whether he's wearing his glasses or not. (Possibly Superman is not the best model for a secret identity after all.) I do not think it's an accident that only in the last scenes of the film, when Warren has a chance of integrating his real life with his dream one, do we see him wearing his ordinary clothes and his contact lenses. The regular shlemiel.

So it's an unstable world full of fantasies and anxieties threatening to break into three-dimensional form, but it's one real people live in, which makes it worse when it goes so badly off the rails. I like that the Los Angeles of Tension is casually multicultural: there are Black regular customers at the lunch counter and the pharmacy, Deager's Latino houseboy later turns up working as a ringside doctor at a boxing club, and when Warren earnestly checks with an East Asian-looking kid that his mother will be able to read the prescription directions in English, the kid scoffs all-Americanly, "You kidding?" I like the way the postwar setting plays into the story, with Claire disappointed in the kind of civilian her cute soldier turned out to be and Freddie reading the daily news with a kind of fatalism: "They're still at it, trying to find out who owns Germany, who owns the A-bombs—floods, cyclones, earthquakes, riots—they're loaded." I like that we don't know if we can trust Lieutenant Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) from his opening, pre-credits monologue because what he's talking about is the way to break people, not whether the people he breaks really committed the crimes. I love that I may finally have discovered a specimen of the elusive noir saxophone in the wild. I didn't think it existed—I believed it was an invention of neo-noir, which did much more than original flavor noir to associate jazz with the genre—but Claire's entrances are accompanied by a sinuous, sauntering theme that sure sounds like the swinging slide of an alto sax, as lazily and seamily sexual as the points of her breasts flaunting through her tight white sweater. And while I have technically enjoyed Richard Basehart in noir before, he's better here than anywhere I've seen that isn't La strada (1954), which may only mean that I need to see him in more noir.2 This was the sunlit kind. I like those. You only think the daylight makes things safe. This reinvention brought to you by my dreamy backers at Patreon.

1. I did not realize until I looked it up after the movie that corneal lenses—as opposed to the much larger, scleral kind—were newly introduced and expensive in 1949, cutting-edge technology on which the film hangs an important point of its plot. I always enjoy that sort of thing.

2. There is one place where his character lost me and I feel I should mention it because it is the scene in which Warren strikes his wife. Once across the face, at the conclusion of an argument, and she looks more startled than hurt—turning instantly to seething hostility as she realizes it means she won't be able to soft-soap him into being her doormat anymore—while he shoves his hands deep in his pockets, hunches his shoulders and turns his face away as though he's ashamed of himself, but it was only that last physical business that kept the character from losing my sympathy on the spot. The viewer is very clearly not intended to condemn Warren for it; this is not how the script signals that he's a bad guy. He was pushed too far, we're meant to interpret. He lost his temper. He crossed a line and he realized it. Perhaps we are even supposed to worry for him, knocked even farther out of himself by domestic frustration than he was by his murder plans: as much as he fantasized about killing Deager, all those weeks he was Paul Sothern, he never imagined harming his wife. Nonetheless, I watch that scene and think that it doesn't matter if your partner just lied to the police and entangled you in their alibi in such a way that you couldn't contradict them without incriminating yourself, if they followed up their cheating by berating you for spinelessness and stupidity, if their sudden reappearance in your life feels like some evil albatross you'll never escape, you still don't get to hit them. You just don't. It was a place where I could see suddenly how much some social norms have shifted since the '40's and I was glad of it.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
Notes on Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1949), mostly cribbed from e-mail to [ profile] handful_ofdust, because I am slammed with work and don't want to forget all the interesting things about it.

Along with examples of the genre I have been calling housewife noir and Jake Hinkson in his introduction to my reprint double of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's Kill Joy (1942) and The Virgin Huntress (1951) describes less gender-specifically as domestic noir, I seem to have been inadvertently collecting non-urban noirs—just to name some I've actually managed to write up, The Reckless Moment (1949), Act of Violence (1948), The Prowler (1951), and Detour (1945) constitute some of the most interesting entries I've encountered since I started paying attention to film noir. As well as adding to their number, They Live by Night offers another slant on the genre I have not often seen: it's a romantic noir. I am drawing a distinction here with noir romance, as the latter tends to lean more in the direction of folie à deux, self-delusion, or just cosmic bad timing.1 Or maybe I mean it with a capital R. The protagonists of They Live by Night are sweet people, loving, faithful, heartbreakingly earnest, neither of them dumb. They just also happen to be doomed, as we're warned straight off by the pre-credits subtitles that run like the tagline of a trailer beneath a dreamy, intimate close-up of two young people kissing blissfully, all unawares: "This boy . . . and this girl . . . were never properly introduced to the world we live in . . ." Belonging only contingently, they can be snatched away at any time.

The thing is, it's painfully true. Bowie (Farley Granger) was sixteen when he was convicted of murder and now he's twenty-three; when he breaks out from a prison farm with a pair of small-time career criminals, he knows nothing about life on the outside, not how to talk to strangers, not how money really works, definitely not how to hold or even conceive of a job. Tomboyish Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) has spent her equally young life running her alcoholic father's gas station and garage in the Midwestern middle of nowhere and she understands money, strangers, and hard work, but nothing about relationships. She's never had a boyfriend or even wanted one. She's not even interested in Bowie when they meet for the first time, though he has Granger's lanky, wistful face and almost flinchingly sensitive body; she disapproves of her no-good uncle Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) claiming the garage as a hideout for himself, Bowie, and fellow escapee T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and she's not amused by the other men joshing about the inevitable attraction between the virginal boy and the lonesome girl. When he does try to talk to her, tentatively offering his damaged history and his hopeful dreams, she listens with an indifferent irritation, long inured to the sob stories of men. Hearing that he plans to raise the money for an appeal by going in on a bank job with Chickamaw and T-Dub, she responds with typical bluntness: "You'll get in so deep trying to get squared they'll have enough for two lifetimes." They bond only after Chickamaw in a characteristic moment of success-flushed recklessness involves himself and Bowie in a road accident, dumps the stunned, bruised, but not permanently injured kid on his niece, and hightails it into the night, leaving the two of them really alone for the very first time—and then it's instant, permanent, like imprinting, sealing themselves to one another with a shock that's half undiscovered physical awareness and half absolute emotional honesty, like they're the only two people in a deserted world and they've just discovered one another. They run away that night. They board a bus together. They get married for twenty dollars plus tip by the blinking neon advertisement of an all-night justice of the peace and buy a hot clunker of a Plymouth Deluxe for a price so extortionate, they have obviously been clocked as "Bowie the Kid, the Zelton Bandit" and his moll, but the "Kid" doesn't hesitate to lay down all thirty-two hundred dollars in pocket-wadded bills because how should he know what a car costs? They are not profligate, nor do they throw themselves into the consumer frenzy of the postwar boom; they rent a resort cabin in the mountains and buy each other Christmas presents. Neither [ profile] derspatchel nor I thought guests were allowed to repaint as well as redecorate the interior of a rental cabin, but they do it anyway.

And the audience knows they can't last forever, living in the seams and cracks of the American dream with Keechie unable to go into town because her picture's the one that ended up in the papers and Bowie knowing no line of work that isn't a stickup, but you want them to make it somehow. You want Bowie to be able to afford that lawyer in Tulsa he's always talking about hiring to reopen his conviction. You want Keechie to feel safe having the baby she confirmed was on the way while Bowie was out of town pulling another job. You want them to get the chance to hold hands in a darkened movie theater like they've heard couples in love do. "Someday I'd like to see some of this country we've been traveling through." They make wonderful ethnographers of the alien culture that is mainstream America, gravely looking in at it from the outside without shame but without all that much longing, either. Golf confuses both of them. Neither of them knows how to dance and neither evinces much inclination to learn. Riding on horseback would be fun if you were going someplace, but just trotting round and round a track? They speak a language of evasions and equivocations, never asserting anything too definitely in case it doesn't come true: could be, maybe, suppose so, sure. On the other hand, they live in a world that by grace of its un-socialization is strikingly absent almost all of the toxic dynamics that characterize male-female relationships in this genre. Keechie is a capable mechanic, Bowie has a strong nesting instinct. As they drive aimlessly across the country to which they never quite belong, they take turns behind the wheel. They fight like people who don't really understand arguments; they check in carefully with one another's happiness. "If you want me to" is always answered by "If you want to." Tragedy comes in part because Bowie makes a solo decision for them both.

It is an incredibly outsider film, which is the strongest reason besides the fatalism and the cinematography that They Live by Night reads to me as noir; it is an incredibly sympathetic outsider film. It felt telling to both me and Rob that the criminal world never betrays the fugitive lovers—it takes someone deeply invested in the image of themselves as an honest, law-abiding citizen to do that.2 The title of Edward Anderson's 1937 source novel was Thieves Like Us and I am sorry RKO did not permit Ray to keep it, because it is thematically echoed throughout the script; it was restored by Robert Altman's 1974 adaptation which I have not seen. I suppose I could compare-and-contrast the two, though at the moment I am still in the spell of moments like the opening helicopter shot tracking the three convicts' stolen jalopy as it corners a dust-bowl crossroads and peels out onto the highway or the way the last words of the film become an affirmation between the living and the dead, impossibly speaking for two people at once. This getaway brought to you by my unworldly backers at Patreon.

1. Bogart and Bacall are the reliable exception.

2. One of the film's few purely funny moments occurs when Bowie is confronted in the men's room of a nightclub where he and Keechie have taken the risk of dining out: the dinner-jacketed stranger who effortlessly disarms him and orders him out of town is not a representative of the law but the local syndicate. "Nothing against you, you understand?" he explains, man-to-man. "We don't want a lot of trigger-happy hillbillies around here. This is a nice cool town. Business is good." He gives an astonished Bowie back his gun and hands him a wad of traveling cash besides.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
It's been a long week. Have some seventy-three-year-old escapism. It worked for me.

I watched On Approval (1944) because it was on TCM and I had Clive Brook on the brain after rewatching Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927) last week; I am recommending it because it turned out to be one of the funniest and oddest movies I have seen of its era, Busby Berkeley and the Archers included. I can make it sound relatively normal if I describe it as an acrid comedy of misalliance in the tradition of Noël Coward and Oscar Wilde, all good lines and bad behavior—when a rich, exacting widow engages her titled but impoverished suitor for a month of platonic trial marriage in a remote cottage in the Highlands, the cross-purpose arrivals of their respective best friends throw the experiment hopelessly awry and everybody gets, if not what they wanted when they arrived, then at least what they deserve by the time they leave. You will get a much more accurate idea of the experience of actually watching this thing if I mention up front the parodic use of stock footage, the fallible, interactive narrator, the surrealist dream sequences, and the rampant fourth-wall-breaking. The film opens with a deafening montage of ripped-from-the-newsreels warfare—dogfights, depth charges, incendiaries, anti-aircraft guns, all of which the doughty newsreader's tones of Gaumont's own E.V.H. Emmett survey more in sorrow than in anger. Nostalgically, he attempts to encourage the narrative back to the halcyon tranquility of the pre-war years, only to discover a riot of jitterbugging teenagers zooming around on motorcycles, mashing in the back seats of motorcars, and littering in the parks; in order to get away from this "age of speed and noise so much like war you hardly notice the difference," he's forced to hopscotch back over World War I and the Edwardians before relaxing at last into fulsome praise of the late Victorian era, its gentility, its restraint, and especially its gender roles. "Women were women and they didn't forget it!" However much the narrator may blather on about the virtues of the shy, modest Victorian maiden as opposed to that deadly assertive creature the modern girl, however, the camera is slyly on the side of the women, showing them smiling stiffly at the fatuous attentions of their menfolk and gritting their teeth through afternoons of needlepoint and piano. The film's very premise puts the lie to the submissive myth of the angel in the house, as the narrator will discover when he follows some of the ladies to a night out at the theater. They are going to see the "terribly daring" new play On Approval; in the pages of the program a sharp-eyed viewer may discern photographs of the film's principals in character. The narrator perks up: "Perhaps we're going to find out just why they were called the Naughty Nineties." If he has a hat, you hope he's hanging on to it. He has no idea what he's in for.

On Approval was Brook's last major work in film—he would appear in a handful of TV parts in the '50's and an all-star-cast cameo in 1963—and it is a hell of a swan song as such. He not only directed but co-produced the film with Sydney Box, co-wrote the screenplay with Terence Young, and co-starred with Roland Culver, Googie Withers, and Beatrice Lillie.1 The cast are uniformly excellent and look like they are having a blast, performing their archetypes at just the right pitches of satire or relatability. Lillie's Maria Wislack is a diamond-cut distillation of imperious, icy snippiness who can give as good as she gets with acid-tongued roués like Brook's George, ninth tenth Duke of Bristol, but has perhaps a little more difficulty judging the effect on her tender-hearted intended; that's Culver's Richard Halton, who has the weak-chinned good-sportingness of a Freddy Eynsford-Hill and trims his moustache to the strains of "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay" and has trouble telling whisky from soda, though he can distinguish the color of a woman's eyes. Withers doesn't bother pretending to an American accent as Helen Hale, the pickle magnate's daughter who's renting Bristol House for the duration of the London season; she starts out luminously attentive to her rakish, penniless host, who seems to her the height of British sophistication, but there's steel under her sweetness and those dewy eyes can conceal amused resolve as well as suppressed tears. Brook himself as George reminded me unexpectedly of Alan Rickman, with whom he shares a saturnine deadpan and the ability to say flamboyantly cynical things while barely opening his mouth, as if the object of his insults were hardly worth the enunciation. He could go toe-to-toe with Lord Henry Wotton for world-weary epigrams and has a habit of interesting himself unstoppably in the affairs of his friends, especially when they don't want him to. He does not get all the best lines. It is only partly his fault that everyone ends up at Maria's cottage near Kyle of Lochalsh with no servants willing to wait on them and only a dinghy to get them on or off the island, after which the Highland weather promptly goes down the drain in solidarity with the help and the quartet's interactions take on the ominous chemistry of vinegar and baking soda. I was prepared for the movie to go all sorts of places after the prologue and generally it did, but I did not expect it to give me flashforwards to Bruce Robinson's Withnail & I (1987)—as the rain plinks merrily through the fifteen different leaks in the roof and they only have fourteen pots and bowls to catch it in, George buttoned to the chin in an extraordinary plaid overcoat slumps against the kitchen wall and moans, "My stomach is cold, my head is hot, my arteries are hardening—only alcohol will get me on the train." I had just time to think "I must have some booze. I demand to have some booze!" before Richard replied briskly and unsympathetically, "Nonsense. Never again will I raise a finger. Besides, you shouldn't have drunk all the cooking sherry," and then we had to pause the film so that I could explain to [ profile] derspatchel that I was laughing because George was just lucky they didn't have Ronsonol lying around in the 1890's. I also admit that while I watched this movie for Brook, I didn't expect to see quite as much of him as I did thanks to one scene which finds him indolently knees-up in a too-small bathtub with only some suds and a well-placed sponge to preserve the innocence of the British Board of Film Censors. God knows how this picture was even released in the U.S. Nine-tenths of the itchy, twangy tension in this film would dissolve at once if anyone just had sex, but the platonic terms of the trial—and the laws of comedy—preclude it, so everyone sublimates furiously into dialogue as fast and sharp and innuendo-riding as screwball. Or, in Helen's case, just murmurs sweetly into Richard's ear: "Tell her to go to Hell."

As with Charles Laughton and The Night of the Hunter (1955), I can't believe Brook never directed anything else. He has an incredible sense of what works on film and how far he can push the theatricality of both the action and the camerawork. I named Wilde and Coward as influences, but more than anything else On Approval made me think of movies from the 1960's when Richard Lester was throwing every cinematographic absurdity at the screen that would stick. It's not enough to reflect the increasing claustrophobia and dissatisfaction of the passing weeks in the characters' dialogue or manner; we get a hectic montage of creaking oarlocks, clattering dishes, and Maria striking over and over the opening chords of a song that goes "I'm just seventeen and I've never been—" until we're afraid to find out just what she's never. All two-person conversations are cross-cut with their opposite numbers, breaking down apparent lines of alliance or showing up supposed matches to devastating contrast. A pair of intercut nightmares include a talking moose head and a balletic passage in hilariously pretentious slo-mo which then undercranks itself à la Benny Hill to catch up. The narrator is behind the eight-ball to the last, mixing up the details of his characters' lives and receiving from them the amusement he deserves:

"Tell me, Duke, how did you lose your money?"
"Yes, I know; I mean your big money."
"Big women!"

Brook and Young adapted the screenplay from Frederick Lonsdale's 1926 stage hit of the same name; TCM tells me it was Brook's idea to translate the action from the Roaring Twenties to the Victorian era, on the theory that the racy premise would be even funnier in a more famously repressed age. I think not only was he right in terms of immediate payoff, the spoofing effect of a lavish period setting—costumes by Cecil Beaton—with a satirically modern sensibility is one of the reasons On Approval hasn't dated at all, because not many people were pulling that kind of stunt in 1944. You could double-feature it with Bryan Forbes' The Wrong Box (1966), is what I think I'm saying. I applauded the ending gag at home, in my own office, because I had never seen anything like it outside of the photography of Angus McBean. Plus the story remains both funny and clever about its battle-of-the-sexes tropes in ways that hold up in the era of third- and fourth-wave feminism, which I suspect is even more unusual than being visually ahead of one's time. I regret that I cannot point everyone toward instant gratification on YouTube, but it looks as though the film may be available on Blu-Ray and has streamed on Amazon in the past. Grab it if you see it in a library sale. This social experiment brought to you by my not at all straitlaced backers at Patreon.

1. Despite a five-decade career on stage, Lillie made only seven feature films, of which the best are considered the silent Exit Smiling (1926) and On Approval. One of the others is Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), which is where I turned out to have seen her and about which I feel very awkward.

2. I've seen this kind of imploding narrator in one other movie from the '40's, Leslie Howard's The Gentle Sex (1943). If anyone knows of other examples, I'd love to hear about them.

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