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 [livejournal.com 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 [livejournal.com 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 [livejournal.com 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 [livejournal.com 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?"
"Women."
"Yes, I know; I mean your big money."
"Big women!"
2

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.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
Tonight's movie comes courtesy of Eleanor Farjeon: Joseph Jefferson, one of the younger of her equally creative brothers, wrote the original short story developed by RKO and Julius Hagen's Real Art Productions into The Ghost Camera (1933). How could I resist a title like that? I discovered that it belonged to a well-regarded quota quickie directed by Bernard Vorhaus, just over an hour long and in the public domain. I called up the least fuzzy version on YouTube and had a wonderful time.

Despite the title, The Ghost Camera is not a supernatural story but a charming light mystery, rather like the more comedic of Hitchcock's romantic thrillers or a cozy Agatha Christie. I had never before seen its star Henry Kendall, but he is a national treasure as the nebbishy chemist who comes into accidental possession of the eponymous camera and its last snap of some vague violent act between two figures, which he has just enough time to realize might be the evidence of a murder before some person unknown breaks-and-enters his darkroom and absconds with both the camera and its half-developed, spectral negative. The only potential clues remain in the other, overlooked photographs, which appear to show quite ordinary subjects like a girl standing in the doorway of a house, a train viewed from across its track, a ruined castle viewed from a moving angle, the picturesque signage of an inn with the unhelpfully generic name of the "Red Lion." Tracing each of these images, putting them into their correct narrative order like frames cut from a film, our hero will recapitulate the progress of a witness to murder—or a murderer themselves—but the tone is not so much Antonioni and Blow-Up (1966) as it's like watching a member of the Drones Club try to take up amateur detecting. Seriously, Kendall as he enters the picture is a damn near dead ringer for Richard Garnett's Gussie Fink-Nottle, down to the gawky stoop and the unfortunate spit curl; his diction is clearer, though just as lugubrious—a kind of fretful drawl, suitable to statements like "Man is an irrational animal, Sims, persisting to hope for what his reason has proven nonexistent." (He's talking to his assistant about going on vacation.) He could be early Campion if he were thinner and fairer, distractedly twiddling with his hat and pushing his glasses up his nose in sheepish speechlessness. When an attractive girl tells him with more than a hint of interest that he's funny, he responds with serious self-examination: "I don't think I've ever been considered particularly humorous. I should think I err rather on the side of solemnity—almost morbidity." As with Garnett, I suspect the actor was basically good-looking—the stills from Counsel's Opinion (1933) look like it—but he disguises it well with horn-rims, bowtie, and a wonderfully embarrassing little snort of a laugh with which he breaks up some of his more sententious observations. The highest compliment his assistant can pay him is "He's much better than he sounds."

The plot itself is speedy and straightforward enough that any further discussion risks giving the rest of it away, which would actually do the movie a disservice; nonetheless, its major interest remains its cast and its cinematography. In the role of the prime suspect, a jeweler's employee already under suspicion of diamond theft, we get John Mills in his second appearance on film, so young that he's recognizable only by his voice and nascent cheekbones and the way his hair falls down over one eye; Ida Lupino as his sister is even younger and less familiar-looking in her fourth feature outing, a blonde waif with a very British accent she never allowed near any of her American noirs. She and Kendall have a screwball chemistry, panicking into one another's arms after a threatening incident at an inn in the middle of the night and utterly failing to notice that she's in her slip and he's in his boxers and socks until the innkeeper knocks them up and they flee into opposing corners of the same blanket, winding themselves into a sort of conjoined toga. (She will fall asleep on his shoulder, apologizing for being "terribly tiring" while he reassures her with one of the great understated deliveries of our time, "On the contrary, I find it excessively stimulating.") Cinematographer Ernest Palmer is not to be confused with his American counterpart of the same name, but his work behind the camera, combined with the editing of an equally young David Lean, is gonzo. We've got whip pans, fast zooms, handheld camera, kaleidoscopic wipes between scenes and sudden drops into subjective camera like a flashback depicted strictly from the narrator's perspective or an anxious, reeling montage when an accused man enters the courtroom. When the word "murder" is uttered for the first time onscreen, it is promptly spelled out by a quick-cut succession of newspapermen—"M for mother, U for uncle, R for red"—culminating in the gasp of a telephone operator who brings the whole word together just in time for the newsreader to pick the rest of the sentence up. The trial itself is elided into dissolving shots of the courtroom artist whose sketch of the prisoner in the dock elaborates, at the announcement of the verdict, into the portrait of a convict in jail. I would love to be able to draw some formal, thematic link between the camerawork which keeps drawing attention to itself and the significance of the camera in the plot, as if reminding the audience to take all apparent objectivity with a grain of silver halide, but mostly I think it's just the film having fun with its genre, as it does when Kendall correctly predicts the adorability of Lupino from the simple reasoning that "the heroine of a mystery drama is always a ravishing creature."

I recognize that some very specific forces produced the British quota quickies that did not apply to their American B-movie counterparts, but I like them for a lot of the same reasons: character actors, invention on a shoestring, the latitude to play weirder than the prestige pictures. The Ghost Camera even has location shooting—the ruins are Corfe Castle in Dorset, standing in for the fictitious "Norman Arches, a few miles from Merefield, Surrey"—though I would call it lagniappe rather than the main attraction. That would be Mills at twenty-five, Lupino at fifteen, and Henry Kendall whom you may pry from my silly-ass fingers only if you pass me some actual Wodehouse first. Farjeon's screenwriting credits just give me further incentive to check out Michael Powell's The Phantom Light (1935). Vorhaus' resume frustratingly includes the Hollywood blacklist, but if most of his work was comparable to The Ghost Camera, he left a decent legacy regardless. If nothing else, it is the only movie I have ever seen use slide whistles to signify suspense. Admittedly I can see why that didn't catch on. This snapshot brought to you by my sharp-eyed backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
In which I attempt to make some dent in the backlog of unmentioned movies which accrues from being sick three out of the four weeks of an already short month. Not helped by the internet cutting out for a couple of hours tonight. RCN, we left Verizon for you. Don't make anybody regret it.

It should go without saying that when a film turns up on TCM with a circus setting and Ben Lyon in the cast, [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I need no further enticement to watch it, though in this case the one-line summary "A romantic triangle involving a hypnotist and two trapeze artists threatens to destroy a circus" was admittedly pretty attractive. I am pleased to report that it rewarded our benefit of the doubt: John Harlow's The Dark Tower (1943) is a neat little B-picture that gets an agreeable quotient of thrills and chills out of its modest budget and even managed to surprise both of us by the finale. Plus now I know that William Hartnell was shockingly beautiful when he was my age and I wasn't expecting that.

The film was a transatlantic co-production of the generation that followed quota quickies, produced by Warner Brothers at Teddington Studios with an American star and an otherwise British cast; theoretically adapted from the short-lived stage play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott,1 it has pleasingly more in common with the pulp fiction of its time, tracking the seedy but not hopeless atmosphere of a traveling circus in tough straits and the unglamorous but not uninteresting lives of the performers going on around the edges of the plot. Brothers Phil (Lyon) and Tom (David Farrar) Danton are co-owners of Danton's Empire Circus, the former being the American-accented "guvnor" in charge of the practicalities while his more dashing younger brother works the high wire with longtime love interest Mary (Anne Crawford), but in wartime the crowds are thin and the takings thinner and the "feast of equine dexterity and acrobatic marvels" which opens the movie ends with Phil forced to admit to the company that the money's run out. He's taking a vote on whether they'd rather disband now and get it over with or soldier on to the next town when their fortunes are unexpectedly saved by the appearance of Stephen Torg (Herbert Lom), a penniless drifter whose dark eyes and deep, cold voice are the outward show of an extraordinary magnetism: he calms a fractious lion with nothing more than an unblinking gaze and a few masterful gestures. "What a good fellow is Pasha," he croons to the subdued big cat, before explaining coolly to his human audience, "It's very simple. I make them obey my eyes—I make them like my voice—and then they do what I want them to do." The suggestion that he hire the stranger as the new lion trainer gives Phil a brainwave. Could Torg repeat the same trick with a person rather than an animal—Mary, perhaps? Under hypnotic control, might she be serene and sure enough to perform a high-wire act without any of the customary props used for balance? If Mary's willing, of course. Mary is indeed willing, even a little intrigued by this shabby, saturnine young man whose reticence about his origins does not conceal his arrogance about his skills. The test run is encouraging. The act is a smash success. With the spellbinding assistance of the now-"Dr." Torg, Mary can perform the most death-defying of stunts without tremble or hesitation, the kind of nail-biting that really packs an audience in. Once word gets out, it's all the way to the Winter Palace with Danton's Empire Circus: except that Torg is rapidly alienating his new family with his work-shirking, his fancy spending, and his bruising disdain for every other act under the tent, and while everyone from the abrasive sharpshooter to the enthusiastic publicist can see for themselves that Mary and Torg are spending more and more time together, it's increasingly and upsettingly unclear if it's love or mesmerism. The night that Tom falls during a trapeze act with Mary and avoids death only by a narrow margin of broken bones, it's impossible for Phil to escape the conclusion that Torg had something to do with it, but he can't see or prove how. He can't even get rid of the man without endangering the entire circus—the hypnotist is a bigger attraction now than the trick riders, the ice skaters, the low-wire clown. "I'll go," Torg promises darkly, after Phil's misgivings boil over into a physical altercation at the center of the after-hours ring, "but in my own time." And when he leaves the big top, obediently, Mary follows.

The opening titles contain the marvelous credit "Circus staged by Reco Brothers" and while I can't find much about this circus online beyond some mentions in Billboard, it is their participation which lends The Dark Tower its part-documentary feel, as the majority of the action takes place under the big top—performances and rehearsals—or in the ring of wagons where we observe the circus folk out of the spotlight, mending costumes, doing dishes, chatting with their neighbors, being entertained and slightly weirded out by the waxwork novelty their publicist brought home. When we watch the circus on the move or the big top being raised, I'm pretty sure it's just footage of Reco Brothers on the road for the season. The acts are good, too. There are precision cyclists, a standing bareback rider. The trio of ice skaters are astonishing: on a square of ice that can't be more than ten feet by ten, they perform high-speed, multiple-person spins, lifts, and spirals, a dizzying testament to the power of centripetal force. The best as far as I was concerned was the low-wire burlesque of Mary's act performed by Reco himself, a bald-pated tramp clown with a genius for entangling himself in the very tightrope he's trying to walk. He wears a mime's white gloves right up until the point where he steps on them while holding a pose more normally assumed by pretzels. I respect beyond words the degree of balance and grace it takes to wobble and flail that wildly while never actually falling. At the finale, of course, he looks the whole six feet down and panics and topples, Coyote over cartoon air. This ordinary realism is part of what keeps the story grounded even after it shifts gears into a kind of mystery-horror. It helps, too, that the stakes are never higher than the survival of the circus and Mary's health and happiness—which is plenty high for an invested viewer—and that Torg at his worst is never megalomaniacal or diabolical, just ambitious, frustrated, and unethical. At times he resembles a devil's bargain, appearing from nowhere with an offer too good to refuse, but despite his accent he's no Svengali.2 He was a bullied boy who came from nothing; now he's a man who has to have the best of everything if only so that he can rub it in other people's faces, whether that means a swanky car in a community that lives out of caravans, a girl whom everyone knew was in love with another man, or a controlling interest in a circus he despises. "It's a great thing, power. It makes you feel a king, especially if all your life you've been made to feel a beggar." Just once, he looks as young as he really is and not so sure of himself, confessing his love to Mary, but as soon as she gently rebuffs him, his face cools again. Anyone who knows Lom only as Peter Sellers' increasingly unhinged boss in the Pink Panther movies should check out Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1956), but they should see him in this movie, too. It was his fourth English-language role and the star-making one.

And the rest of the cast look like they're having fun. Despite his top billing, Lyon is more of a high-profile supporting part than a lead in his next-to-last screen role (he didn't die, he just moved into radio), but at this point I'd enjoy him if he read me a want ad for soap flakes and the important thing is that he convinces as the kind of circus director who's sharp and generous enough to have earned the trust of his company even when no one's getting paid, but just slightly too much of a nice guy to believe that things are going to get as bad as they've gotten already; Josephine Wilson has to supply the cynicism he lacks as the tart-spoken, chain-smoking sharpshooter with a soft spot for her "guvnor" and no love for the mysterious Stephen Torg. I had good memories of Crawford as the snobbish but not stupid factory girl striking sparks with Eric Portman's working-class foreman in Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder's Millions Like Us (1943) and she certainly couldn't be replaced by a blender here, but she suffers from the usual problem with spending half a movie in a hypnotic state—Mary is most interesting in the early scenes when she's fully herself, her eagerness to run the experiment of the "Slide for Life" suggesting both a scientific curiosity in and an erotic response to Torg's powers. With his thick dark hair and his long jawline, Farrar makes a rugged, credibly acrobatic romantic lead in the first half of the film, then puts his physical weakness to bitterly sensitive use in the second half as his body knits itself back together while his heart takes its time; it is not the actor's fault that I don't find him at his most beautiful here, having been introduced to him at a pitch of outrageous sexiness in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947). Besides, I'm still trying to figure out how Hartnell—still credited here as "Bill"—got typed as cops and sergeants and other hard men when he's adorable as Jimmy Powers, the floppy-haired publicist with an excitable stammer that doesn't stop him talking a mile a minute when he wants to pitch an idea. He has one of those high-boned, clean-lined faces with very dark, very soft eyelashes and brows to match, a quick-cornered smile and sleek fair hair that keeps coming out of its brilliantine while he runs around the fairground like an eager art student in his pullovers and flat cap. I couldn't tell if it was saying something about his sexuality or just accurately reflecting carny talk in the wild, but he provides one of the few examples I've heard of pre-Round the Horne Polari when he calls a blustering but ineffectual ringmaster "a pompous pot-bellied palone." He has some plot significance, but his stammer doesn't.

I'm a little sorry there isn't a pulp novel of this film, really, because then Hard Case Crime could reprint it and I could shelve it next to Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders (1941). Also then maybe Warners would bring it out on DVD and I would not have to refer you to the questionable internet if you want to watch it between its periodic appearances on TCM. I never know why most of these movies are obscure. Director Harlow was unknown to me, but cinematographer Otto Heller would go on to do distinctive work on films as diverse as Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1949), Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), and Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965),3 and the editor was just some guy named Terence Fisher. The title is absolutely meaningless to the finished film. Now I want to rewatch Millions Like Us and see if I can track down more films from William Hartnell's adorable period. This feat brought to you by my mesmerizing backers at Patreon.

1. As far as I can tell, the film retains only the title, the sense of romantic threat, and the key concept of an artist performing in an altered state of mind. What interests me most about this setup is that Warner Bros. had already filmed a more faithful adaptation in the U.S., about a year after the play's 57-performance Broadway run, under the title The Man with Two Faces (1934). It starred Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor and I will almost certainly try to check it out sometime just for the cast and the comparison. I would love to know why the studio chose to sort-of-not-really remake it almost a decade later.

2. Herbert Lom was born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru in Prague in the next-to-last year that city could be located in Austria-Hungary and I actually like that while his accent suggests not one of us, the script itself makes no effort to mark him out as foreign, any more than it attempts to explain why one of the Danton brothers has a British accent and the other is American as the day is long, in slang as well as sound: "All the time you thought she was high-hatting you. That wasn't Mary—that was a dummy and Torg was her vent!"

3. I am retrospectively impressed with myself for recognizing some likeness between the latter two films in 2010, although it did not apparently then occur to me to check whether they shared any crew.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
Another President's Day has gone by (marked with protests, I hear) and [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I have observed our sixth 'Thon together. We did not make the full twenty-four hours of science fiction film this year, but then again we had not planned on having to ditch the marathon for an emergency room. I am very ready for my physical health to start putting itself back together any time soon. For obvious reasons, this will be a shorter review than some previous years.

Neither of us had gotten much sleep the night before, so we did not make it for the traditional noon kickoff of Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953) or even the first feature, which in honor of the marathon's forty-second anniversary was Hammer & Tongs' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Fortunately, we got another chance at Sam Rockwell and Alan Rickman with Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest (1999)—we were in fact too late for Alexander's panic attack, but we made it to the balcony just in time to hear Dr. Lazarus swearing to a stricken Thermian that by Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Worvan, he would be avenged, at which point the audience as one correctly erupted in applause. I hadn't seen the film since it was in theaters, which never prevented whole swathes of its dialogue from turning up in my brain at the slightest excuse; I was especially glad to catch any of it on 35 mm, given how much of this year's marathon was digital. It was the rare contemporary movie in its year where I actually recognized more than one member of the cast, mostly thanks to Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, and Tony Shalhoub. I did not realize until the credits rolled that I had spent most of last year seeing earnest, dorky, dolphin-sounding alien leader Mathesar—Enrico Colantoni—as Elias on Person of Interest (2011–16), where he is not even faintly any of the above. I love character actors very much.

It is impossible for me to watch William Alland and Jack Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) now without associating it with Caitlín R. Kiernan's "From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6," to the point where Antonio Moreno levered the fossilized, grasping claw of the Creature's ancestor out of its plaster strata of Devonian shale and I thought Grendelonyx innsmouthensis, but I can remember being in third grade and seeing—not the entire film, I think, because I recognized very little beyond the design of the Gill-man and some underwater footage of him swimming through the silt and weeds of the Black Lagoon, but enough that it went into my head as something haunting and not a little upsetting, accelerated shortly afterward by finding in my elementary school library a lavishly illustrated book about '50's monster movies which summarized the two sequels. I knew already that I felt bad for the monster. I already knew that I wanted gills and retractile claws and webbing between my fingers; I swam open-eyed, underwater in the Atlantic and had to be taught actual human swimming strokes. On that level the movie still resonates with me, even while I'm not actually sure as an adult that it's very good. I love the cosmic opening with its condensing clouds of atmosphere and prehistoric seas; the fossil itself is a great hook, even if it's essentially forgotten once the expedition enters the lagoon; I found it a fascinating touch for 1954 that one of the accumulating villainies of Richard Denning's sleek, competitive, increasingly trigger-happy scientist—the kind who's more concerned with getting his name in the papers than advancing the frontiers of human knowledge, unlike hunky but high-minded Richard Carlson—is the disclosure that he's been taking credit for his female colleague's research while convincing her that she wouldn't even have a job in her field without him. (The audience hissed him for that. Good audience.) The underwater shots of a carefree Julie Adams splashing tantalizingly against the sky while the unseen Gill-man shadows her stroke for stroke so vividly recall the opening shark attack of Jaws (1975) that Spielberg has to have seen this movie. The scene in which the Gill-man mauls and drowns an expedition member foolhardy enough to go after him with a spear gun employs no blood and gets a real predator-prey jolt out of the thrashing braid of bodies half-seen in a churn of bubbles, naked human limbs grappling ineffectually with armoring scales and claws. Just why in the name of Poseidon is the Creature so obsessed with Julie Adams except that the monster carrying off the pretty girl is a trope of horror movies and God forbid that after all the scientific buildup we apply any rationality now? Or, as Rob said succinctly over chicken shawarma at Noor this afternoon, "Tits."

I had not seen Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997) since it was in theaters, either, where it was almost certainly my introduction to all three of its principal actors, although Jude Law was the name I took away with me at the time. I misread the movie's construction of suspense and spent the entire runtime concerned that the hero's 99% fatal heart condition would kill him at some dramatic or ironic moment, including the climactic blastoff into space. On rewatch at least I didn't have that problem, but then I was free to notice how little the film holds up as science fiction. It makes a great parable, but I can't believe a future America premised on eugenics would actually look or behave like Niccol's cool, retro-modern dystopia; I'm not docking it points for the technological minutiae of the all-pervasive DNA-clocking system which Ethan Hawke's Vincent must study and deceive in order to achieve his skyward dream, because nothing dates faster than detailed anticipation of the future, but thanks to the nationwide tidal wave of anti-intellectualism and general irrationality in which we are all living, right now I am much more worried about conceiving in a society that would force me to carry to term a child that would know nothing but incoherent pain in its short life (I'm an Ashkenazi Jew; Tay-Sachs is the first thing I would screen for) than I am about winding up in a world in which the un-engineered are disparagingly known as "faith-births" and "Godchildren," as if religious conviction is the only reason a person doesn't jump wholesale onto the eugenics bandwagon, throwing out potential geniuses left and right just because they might also turn out manic-depressive or asthmatic or obese or bald. The movie treats genetics as an almost inherently evil science, presuming that it's better never to know in advance because any probability would be accepted instantly as written fate. I look at people I know doing disability and autism awareness and I'm not saying we don't have institutional hangovers from people self-servingly misunderstanding Darwin, but I also look at people I know doing IVF and I'm pretty sure they're not the top of that slippery slope to state-encouraged sterilization. About the only place where I agree with Gattaca is its linkage of class and eugenics: while the wealthy can afford top-of-the-line kids with the most designer tweaks, like the back-broken Olympian whose flawless genetic signature Vincent appropriates to sneak him into the exclusive space program where his own applied intelligence and dedication can take him to the stars, Vincent's own working-class parents conceived him hopefully in the back of a Buick Riviera and then, seeing in horror that he turned out short-sighted with a predisposition to attention deficit disorder and a life expectancy in his early thirties, scrimped and saved to upgrade the next pregnancy. (And while I assume it is part of the point of this movie that the protagonist's life-defining "disabilities" still leave him an able-bodied straight white cis man with the looks to pass himself off as a genetically tailored "Valid" and the smarts to teach himself celestial navigation, I still find myself wondering, all right, so what if you're black in this future and you have a learning disability? What if you're brown and autistic? What if you're a woman who isn't Uma Thurman's lanky porcelain blonde? How do you hack this system?) What this really comes down to is that there's a particular strain of science fiction in which science itself is the inevitable enemy of the human heart and I hadn't realized until I saw it again that Gattaca belongs to it. At least I was still impressed by Jude Law.

We had planned to run out for dinner during the first act of George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and then return in time for Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) because it's one of Rob's favorite movies and Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes, 2007) because I had very good ten-year-old memories of its twisty, panicky time-loop co-starring the director as a pleasantly sensible time-machine-inventing scientist, but instead we went to the ER at Mount Auburn where some very nice night staff gave me a nebulizer treatment and the X-ray of my lungs came out clear, of which the doctor had not been confident while listening to my chest and the sounds I made in between the coughing. If medical monitors produce a permanent record that gets stored somewhere in a patient's chart, mine almost certainly looks ridiculous because I got bored and started playing with biofeedback. (It was genuinely reassuring for me to know that I can still hold my breath for two minutes without strain even under lung-straitening circumstances.) I've now got two inhalers which I am supposed to use for the bronchitis and apparently I was sick enough this week that I almost completely forgot to eat; I shouldn't do that again. We got back to the Somerville for the denouement of Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End (2012), which involved cultists in pig masks, a dimension-conquering biological supercomputer and its shock troops of giant spiders, a heroic dog, two slackers, some evidently extra-strength soy sauce, some cutesy-splattery animation, and Clancy Brown being randomly badass in shades, which I kind of assume is just a thing Clancy Brown does. I am a little sorry to have missed earlier portions of the film including Doug Jones as a helpful alien, but the coda in which our two heroic slackers are summoned to save yet another universe and flat-out blow their prophesied calling off may have recapitulated everything I need to know.

The film I really wanted not to miss was Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven nor Earth (Ni le ciel ni la terre, 2015). I had read positive reviews of it last year when it got a U.S. release and they were all justified: it was the standout of the marathon for me. I liked it so much that I have difficulty describing it. It is and is not a war film, just as it is and is not a horror film, because both of those genre labels raise expectations that the film itself effortlessly frustrates. The plot tracks a squad of French soldiers stationed in the Wakhan in Afghanistan in late 2014; under the command of wiry, blond-bearded Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier, incredible), the small garrison patrols and oversees a small, rocky, scrubby valley on the border of Pakistan, constantly reporting back and forth from their north and south posts. Sometimes they skirmish with the local band of Taliban, so far without apparent casualties on either side; sometimes they interact, in carefully mannered and mutually incomprehensible ways, with the local villagers whose sheep are always straying into their sector. The ISAF is pulling out of Afghanistan, but until that time their high-tech, high-testosterone, bored to fucking tears surveillance routine is unvarying. Check in, check out. Rotate. E-mail your wife. Spar. Check your weapons, break them down, check them again. Light a candle in the tarp-shadowed corner that is the barracks chapel, a black cross spray-painted on a white piece of board; if you think of Crusaders in the desert of eight centuries ago, you aren't the only one feeling those echoes, even if Antarès himself is resolutely non-observant. Whistle for the camp dog and feel a little sad when nobody can find him. Hang up on your wife when you hear the captain coming. Check in. And then one morning two soldiers don't. They don't respond by radio; their relief arriving at the north post finds no one in the little box of cement and tin siding, pin-ups and graffiti on its walls and blankets on the floor. There were civilians seen on the ridge that night, performing some kind of fire ritual—we see it through two kinds of enhanced night vision, green-and-white ghosts in a shimmer of uncertainty. The captain leaps to the same conclusion as the viewer, enemy action, collaboration, these people whose land they have been occupying and whose interests they have been hypothetically protecting have shown their Taliban sympathies at last. But the villagers can demonstrate that it was only a sheep that was burned (they won't explain why, but nobody in the squad cares; it is enough for them to know that the locals observe some form of Islam, so long as it doesn't radicalize them the soldiers are under orders not to interfere) and Antarès despite reviewing all available footage and communications can prove no link between his missing men and any outside influence. He tightens security protocols, sets more cameras up. The soldiers start to get nervous; one dreams repeatedly of his missing comrades asleep in a cave while another panics and wastes a sheep in the dark. A messenger comes on a motorcycle from Kabul, is sent away with pictures of Tek and Delcourt just in case. And another man disappears. Not in the middle of the night, even: broad daylight at the south post while his mate steps outside for a piss. Quickly now, the simple answers begin to recede—the local Taliban come waving a white flag, demanding the French soldiers give back their missing men. Antarès agrees to a cease-fire on the assumption that he'll get his own men traded back, but the truce with "the Sultan" (Hamid Reza Javdan) and his equally gung-ho, equally spooked men stretches uneasily as neither side finds what they were looking for. The messenger's motorcycle turns up in the village, his one-man camp under the fig trees inexplicably deserted. The apparently purposeless iron stake in the center of the valley has a sheep tied up to it, bleating overnight in a circle of white paint. A fourth soldier disappears. If heaven and earth are accounted for, as the title would have it, then the traditional division of the cosmos leaves only hell, but the boy from the village insists that the valley is "Allah's land" where it is forbidden to sleep on the ground or "Allah takes you back." To the squad's translator Khalil (Sâm Mirhosseini), the Sultan's men begin to speak of "the people of the cave," the Quranic Seven Sleepers to whom God granted refuge, dreaming beneath the earth until the unknown time comes for them to awaken: "Some say there were four, some say there were five . . . Some say there were seven men and a dog." Another soldier connects the disappearances to the Christian Rapture, imagining in terror a world from which God is removing his creations, one at a time, in the reverse order from which he created them. And Antarès, the modern scholar-soldier, a young but hardened commander who has famously "never left a man, a body, or even a vehicle behind," finds himself for the first time in his life feverishly, dangerously in need of answers, even as the land itself seems placidly disinclined to provide them. I was reminded of the films of Werner Herzog, especially the ones where Klaus Kinski goes crazy in a hostile landscape; I was reminded of the fiction of Gemma Files. I am pretty sure there is some postcolonial theory in this movie, but there are also arresting, singular images that don't reduce easily to any one reading, like a soldier dancing alone before a techno-blasting stack of amps, his rolling, tightly muscled shoulders showing a pair of eyes tattooed one on each shoulderblade; he looks like a monster himself in that moment, he looks like a drinking cup with apotropaic eyes, he looks like the owl of Lilith's deserts, he looks possessed. It was the right film to show at three in the morning and I am so glad the digital copy consented to show its subtitles, since I might have been able to hack the soldiers' French if I saw it written, but my Persian is not a thing.

I have such mixed feelings about Christian Nicolson's This Giant Papier-Mâché Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy (2016). It is an obvious labor of love, filmed and produced with the assistance of Kickstarter, family, and friends. The initial amusing but finite concept of three regular joes from Auckland mysteriously sucked into a far-future, low-budget world in which not only the clichés but the production values of old-school space opera hold true pivots in the second act into something a lot more metafictionally interesting and then does not quite pay off in the third, even while the inventiveness of the production design remains shameless and delightful, fashioning ray guns out of eggbeaters and pirate ships out of commodes and consoles of futuristic buttons and levers out of everything you could find literally underneath your kitchen sink. The dialogue has the time of its life sending up infodumpy worldbuilding and tin-eared heroic epithets and whoever was managing the color saturation dialed it up and down convincingly for different eras of space opera. The writer-director is one of the stars and he doesn't even give himself the most triumphantly delivered line, which has to do with the reclamation of once-spurned geekery and occasioned foot-stamping audience applause. I even think the script has a handle on the comedic deployment of profanity, which I am kind of a hard sell on unless you're Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (or Boston's own Unreliable Narrator, whose Planet of the Warrior-Bunnies last October gave our household the plummily accented, rhetorically invaluable "What a clusterfuck, eh?"). I'm just not sure that it takes the fullest advantage of its premises and to a degree that left me thinking back on the plot with more yes, but they could have than awesome, they did. In this respect it is doing no worse than many summer blockbusters with orders of magnitude more budget; I just really enjoy seeing tiny homegrown oddities outdo the big studios on every level, not just the creative repurposing of squeegees and forks.

So I know I'm not the target audience for John McTiernan's Predator (1987) because I sat through the first act of lovingly slo-mo South American guerillas being shredded with machine-gun fire or pinwheeled through the air against sheets of rolling orange flame and vine-tangled green hell at the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his elite special forces squad in some kind of action-movie wet-dream do-over of Vietnam ("Makes Cambodia look like Kansas") and when Rob came back from CVS with more seltzer I said, "I have drowned in testosterone." I am not even crazy about the second act in which the commandos are stalked by Kevin Peter Hall's Predator moving like a mirror against the trees, despite the inherent interest of trying to figure out the capabilities and limitations of the hunter-alien from the very little information we have, because the logic of survival horror demands the culling of the herd of characters and I knew Schwarzenegger wasn't going to cop it with his name above the title on the poster and all. I was pleased that the script avoiding killing either of its two main black characters until well after Jesse Ventura's chest had been plasma-exploded. But I did not actually start caring about anything that happened onscreen with more than surface curiosity until the third act dropped straight into the full-bore mythic with Schwarzenegger masked in river mud bending himself a longbow, lighting a torch, and giving voice to a primal scream to alert the Predator to come and get him. Go know. After that I did not watch to see whether the hero would defeat the monster, but how, and what the monster would do about it. I had a general idea of the Predator design from the internet, but had not gathered the amphibious texture of its skin—why should it be mammalian at all—or the intricacy of its mouthparts, which gives it a familiarly doglike look until it unfolds. I was expecting much more explanation at the end than we got. I liked the withholding. I feel I may now wish to try Alien vs. Predator (2004), which both my father and brother enjoyed. They mentioned at the time that it has a black female hero, which I am pretty sure is still rare in genre film or any other kind, really.

I am the target audience for Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer (1991). I have two contradictory memories of discovering the subject material: the timing suggests that I saw the movie first, because I remember seeing it in theaters with my parents, but I also remember purchasing a secondhand copy of Dave Stevens' original comic because the trade paperback had an introduction by Harlan Ellison. In any case, I managed to get enough mental distance between the two versions that I can enjoy the film on its own terms rather than in competition with the comic, which means that I can bask in the performances and the successfully realized retro aesthetic and mostly mind only that the first act is kind of a mess and Jennifer Connelly, though she has many fine qualities which the film duly appreciates, is not Bettie Page. I did not know before this afternoon that Stevens has a brief but memorable cameo as the Nazi rocketeer who blows himself up in the suppressed training film; I keep forgetting that the German propaganda cartoon of rocketmen soaring in black arrows across the Atlantic to bring down the White House in flames and unfurl the Parteiadler in place of the American eagle was directed by Mark Dindal, who has a usually charming and here chilling eye for historical animation styles. I feel it can't merely have been punch-drunk adrenaline that had the audience hollering at every blow of the Nazi-punching climax. I've never seen Billy Campbell as anyone but Cliff Secord, but he has the right hair and the right smile; I have a longstanding fondness for Alan Arkin dating back to The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), but I think he's pretty much perfect as Peevy. Other people I keep forgetting are in this film include Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes ("Congratulations, gentlemen. Thanks to the diligence of the FBI, this particular vacuum cleaner will not fall into the wrong hands"), Paul Sorvino as Eddie Valentine ("I may not make an honest buck, but I'm one hundred percent American—I don't work for no two-bit Nazi"), and Max Grodénchik as the criminal underling Wilmer, which should tell you right there what his chances of surviving this story are going to be. I am not sure I had actually noticed before that William Sanderson plays one of the other stunt pilots at the airfield, which means I have finally seen him as someone other than J.F. Sebastian. I think it is highly likely that The Rocketeer is the first movie in which I saw Timothy Dalton, meaning I may never quite separate him from his Errol Flynn impression. Johnston directs period pieces so well, I wish people would let him do more of it.

And by that point it was nearly eleven in the morning and we had seen a beautiful print of Ron Underwood's Tremors (1990) at the Somerville's noon-to-midnight Halloween marathon four years ago, so we bailed on the DCP and went for lunch at Noor, where we had been planning to eat dinner the previous night before the whole ER situation intervened. It was extremely satisfying. I really like pickled turnips. The cats sang the songs of their disgraceful neglect as soon as we got home, then presented belly for petting and, in the case of Autolycus, tried to stick their faces into my tomato soup some hours later when I made myself dinner on the not-forgetting-to-eat plan. By now it is time for me to remember to go to bed. I am not sure this 'Thon review is all that much shorter than in previous years; it might just be distributed differently. This annual observance brought to you by my stalwart backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Sydney Carton)
I finally managed to watch a movie for the first time in weeks. (It's been a bad few weeks.) I am coming to the conclusion that I really like the films of Joseph Losey. For some reason I had gotten the picture of him as an icy stylist—clever, symmetrical, but cold. I could almost see it with The Damned (1963), a deliberately off-kilter mash-up of biker pulp and pre-apocalyptic science fiction, but The Prowler (1951) isn't cold and neither is Time Without Pity (1957), which I watched last night. If anything, attempting to describe it to [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel, I kept coming back to the adjective hysterical, which is not the first state associated with most cinematic explorations of masculinity. But it suits the film. The plot is conventional; the transforms Losey runs on it are not.

To begin with, as if in a British B-noir Columbo, the audience witnesses the murder. We don't yet know who these people are in the darkened flat with modern art on the walls, but when the girl jolts back over the couch and her head rolls like a broken doll, we get a good look at the middle-aged man crouching over her, the fury that thickened his face slackening into panicky horror. He blunders out of the room and the titles come up over the nearest painting, a sort of Guernica-looking thing of a wild bull at bay. When we see him again, we'll recognize him. But when David Graham (Michael Redgrave) lurches into London clutching a suitcase and blinking in the early morning sun, jet-lagged, red-eyed, and newly sprung from the Montreal sanitarium where he was drying out from his latest fall off the wagon, he doesn't know who he's looking for: he just knows that his son Alec (Alec McCowen, R.I.P.) can't have committed the domestic murder for which he'll hang in twenty-four hours unless David can scrounge new evidence out of a case that opened and shut months ago. Redgrave got my attention some years ago with his almost subliminal acting in The Browning Version (1951) and here he shows the same naturalistic care for a difficult character. The parental fuck-up making a heroic effort for the life of their child is a pattern I've seen enough times now that I gather it's a popular anxiety,1 but David is an especially unprepossessing variation, a tall man in a trenchcoat and a suit that was cut when there was substantially more of him, his hair smeared stickily back from his face which looks shapeless under its flop sweat and five o'clock shadow. He blinks a lot, winces, wipes his hands over his face in a gesture that is half shame and half unabashed hiding. He is not stupid and he loves his son, even if his early promise as a novelist melted at the bottom of a glass and his very real affection for the boy snarled in the guilt-games of a messy divorce. But his social instincts misfire so reliably that the audience watches each interaction to see not whether he's going to screw it up, but how badly. He's pushy where he should be patient, hesitant where he should assert himself. He has trouble with the telephone, which is such a contemporary social anxiety that I was fascinated to see it captured on film in 1957. He has his greatest success as an amateur detective when he just keeps his mouth shut and lets people tell him the things they assume he already knows. As a result, the premise is a classic race against time, but the events of the narrative are a lot of stone walls and blind alleys; combined with the open secret of the murderer's identity, the effect on the audience is much more the don't-go-near-the-castle frustration of horror than the unfolding suspense of a procedural. The doctor tsk-tsks over the strange red marks on the throat of his fainting patient and the audience screams IT'S A VAMPIRE YOU DUMBASS, but the doctor doesn't know that he should be looking for supernatural explanations instead of medical ones and David doesn't know that he's asking the wrong questions. He doesn't know what kind of story he's in.

I'm not entirely sure myself. Five or ten years ago this scenario would have been unambiguously noir and it still could be, at the dissolving outer edge of the cycle that produced experiments like the sexual reversal of The Big Combo (1955) or the slapstick splatter of The Killing (1956). Screenwriter Ben Barzman had collaborated with Losey on the anti-war fantasy The Boy with the Green Hair (1948) before their respective blacklistings from Hollywood; working from Emlyn Williams' 1953 stage play Someone Waiting, he retained the basic constellation of characters but radically rewrote everything from the timeline to the mood. The glassy sense of nightmare agrees with film noir, as does some of the visual/verbal stylization; one of the reasons the tone can scale so successfully into melodrama without collapsing into camp is that it starts at least one high-strung degree out from realism,2 the cinematography and the often intrusive music as anxious and awkward as day-late-dollar-short David, who's still trying just to catch up on the facts of the case as he prepares to see his son for the first time in years. It has the moral ambiguity and the social critique. But so do many other genres that aren't noir and those are the ones that Time Without Pity, though I'm still working to pinpoint why, might belong more to. It's not as symbolic a universe, perhaps. In Roy William Neill's Black Angel (1946), it's a significant moment both personally and narratively when dry drunk Dan Duryea goes on his third-act bender; it signals the end of his ghost marriage with grass widow June Vincent, the resumption of the wastrel downward slide that will solve the mystery of his wife's death and her husband's guilt or innocence. Redgrave's David struggles to stay sober for the first half of Time Without Pity, but when he finally goes for the booze, the film is unemphatic about it. By this point he is being warily assisted in his quest by Honor Stanford (Ann Todd, playing about fifteen years younger than her age), the elegant, guarded mother of Alec's best friend from university; she briefly loses track of him after an upsetting interview and by the time she catches up to him in the nearest pub he's on his nth whisky double and already pretty blind. She tries to persuade him to stop drinking. He downs another and faceplants into the bar. A little while later he wakes up. And more or less sobers up. And he'll spend the rest of the film in sliding states of drunkenness, hangover, and strung-out sobriety, but he's been a functioning alcoholic for years, he can operate like this. It isn't the thing that will make or break his ability to clear his son's name. If there's redemption involved in this tale, that's not the key to it.

The social justice angle could be noir, too, though the decade that produced it had no shortage of message pictures. Much is made of the efficient machinery of the English justice system which has effectively railroaded Alec Graham without anyone involved in the process feeling very strongly about it one way or the other. Once I got over the shock of seeing Peter Cushing in a non-genre supporting role, I conceded that he provides a necessary perspective as Alec's lawyer, a polite, intelligent, colorless man who did the best he could for his client within the boundaries of the law but is now reluctant, his sympathy for both father and son notwithstanding, to push much further. He isn't heartless and he isn't a hypocrite. He just did his due diligence and he doesn't see what more there is for him to do. Neither does the Home Office, even after David pulls every string he can imagine to get an audience in hopes of obtaining a stay of execution; the support he gets from a reform-minded MP is superficial and strictly ideological, holding up Alec's case as a potential miscarriage of justice with no individual concern for the boy's guilt, innocence, or survival. Even the priest who will perform the last rites for the condemned turns his father away with some Teflon platitude about heavenly hands being kinder than the hands of earth. "All of you trying to make it look so humane and decent," David rages. "Well, you can't. I want my son to live. I'm not going to let you kill him!"

What was he to you? Someone to weep over when you were drunk? )

The ending is satisfying. I hadn't been sure it would be; the film is just enough of a noir and David's agency so marginal that it could have gone completely bleak and I wouldn't have been able to dispute it, just dislike. Instead the climactic confrontation comes down to the manipulation of narrative, a strategy any writer can approve of: the man who was always "about to write" his great novel has finally found a story worth telling and a means to make it stick. The final tableau is fantastic, deep-focus as a raked stage. The last line is the right one. I still don't think Time Without Pity is as complex a film as The Prowler or as flat-out weird as The Damned, but it was Losey's first British film under his own name and more than just a placeholder on the way to his work with Harold Pinter. If nothing else, it's got Michael Redgrave. He's sympathetic on the strength of little more than good intentions; he's less fragile than he looks, but that's not the same thing as effective. Especially in light of these last few bad weeks, I find it important that he never does turn into an action hero—at his bravest, he can still be rattled, still have to nerve himself up, still hates the telephone. This eleventh hour brought to you by my tenacious backers at Patreon.




1. Though I've seen it four or five times now with fathers and I'd really like to know where their female counterparts hang out. Pre-Code? Indie filmmaking? Foreign films? I'm taking suggestions.

2. I love the way clocks are used in this movie. They are the obvious symbol of devouring time, so the set design puts them so blatantly everywhere that they become surreal and start to get on the audience's nerves as much as they do the protagonist's. An important witness' mother (Renée Houston, a perfectly pitched grotesque) has filled her parlor with them. The aggressive, oppressive ticking unsettles David, already on edge with the nearness of the liquor she keeps offering him and liberally drinking herself; whenever an alarm goes off, she leaves it "just to hear it ring and know that you don't have to go anywhere—it's wonderful" while David tries and fails not to hear Alec's time running out with each new chime. He can't get away from mirrors, either. He's the last thing he wants to look at or think about—his past failures, his dwindling future, the fatalistic way that Alec, as sensitive as his father and already more bitter, claims to welcome his own hanging as an escape from "turn[ing] into something like you." He sees his own face reflected over his child's and would do anything to take that doom away.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
So the first weekend of this month I was in New York City and the second weekend of this month I was at Arisia and the third weekend of this month I was protesting on Boston Common and in between I have been working overtime and the news has been a non-stop horror show, so I am not really surprised that I am exhausted and my attention span is shot. Nonetheless, it is time to talk about movies. Specifically, about the pre-Code comedies of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. I've seen three and a half and I love them.

The half-movie is the Ziegfeld musical Rio Rita (1929), adapted from the stage hit of the same name. The A-plot is some bunk about a dashing Texas Ranger and a south-of-the-border bandit named the Kinkajou and the beautiful Mexican-Irish woman whose brother is the most likely suspect and the Russian general who's blackmailing her into marriage because of it; it is remarkable mostly because the title role marked Bebe Daniels' successful transition from silent stardom to sound and because the finale in two-strip Technicolor is our best record of a Ziegfeld stage show in the wild. The B-plot is just as much of a farrago of bootleg liquor and phony divorces and sketchy legal advice and last-minute partner-swapping to make it all come out right, but crucially it retained for the screen the actors who had originated onstage the roles of baby-faced bootlegger Chick Bean and his cigar-chewing shyster Ed Lovett: Wheeler and Woolsey. They had never met before starting rehearsals for the stage show in 1926, but [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I thought they must have been a long-time vaudeville team we had unaccountably never heard of. They have the timing down, the interlocking rhythms of Wheeler's plaintive innocence and Woolsey's assured nonsense. They are funny even when the jokes are old enough to have voted for Garfield. Wheeler has great playful chemistry with Dorothy Lee, who would become a staple of their RKO comedies and even come out of retirement in the '40's to tour with Wheeler after Woolsey's (I'm sorry, it depressed me to find this out, too) untimely death; I don't think Helen Kaiser ever worked with the pair again, but her sniffy ex-wife waltzes off cheerfully with Woolsey in the last reel, the first in a long line of non-ingenues to capture his heart. Basically, I can't remember a thing about the resolution of the A-plot except that it involves a lot of singing, but I am unlikely to forget the scene where Chick and Lovett get bladdered on a mezcal so potent it dissolves the shot glass and hallucinate a striptease with disastrous results. If you ever get a chance to see this thing, the comedy is worth checking your watch through the melodrama for.

Their starring features are harder to describe, or at least harder to describe in a way that you won't have to take my word for. So far I have seen Hold 'Em Jail (1932), Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), and most recently Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934) because that's what's turned up on TCM; the first of these sends up two popular film genres simultaneously and at the same time by starring the duo as joke-shop drummers decoyed onto a prison football team, in the second they're hard-luck lipstick salesmen who find romance while helping out a struggling cosmetics company, and the third finds them going all points, ruffs, and anachronism as a couple of early modern hobos ("Egad and gadzooks—to say nothing of a couple of odds bodkins—this Pullman service is awful") who wind up impersonating the King's physicians while Dorothy Lee impersonates Mary Martin in Peter Pan a boy. You must understand that I have no idea if any of these movies are what you would call conventionally good. Despite three different sets of writers, the prevailing tone in all cases is an absurdist ricochet through riffs and skits and non sequiturs, structure optional, pacing optional, double entendres a must. Plot is relevant only so far as the writers can hang jokes on it. Continuity is negotiable, especially if it would be funnier to ignore. Get the songs in there with soap and a shoehorn if you have to, but they'll be catchy. As with the Marx Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey are essentially themselves from picture to picture, whether they go by the monikers of Curly and Spider, Andy and Dr. Dudley, or—as far as we could tell, neither of them ever got a proper name in Cockeyed Cavaliers—"the doctors," and the same kinds of stock characters orbit them at all times, daffy young girls, shrewd older women, an endless array of men in authority set up like tenpins and ideally played by Edgar Kennedy. No matter how far afield the storyline has caromed, the last act comes back to extended exercise in slapstick: the big game complete with chloroformed handkerchiefs and a high casualty rate of referees, a cross-country auto race with tadpoles in the radiator and helium in the tires, a boar hunt where the boar is doing the hunting. Oh, and romance, adorable and goofy as you can get it.

All of this stuff is fun for its own sake—even when a scene drags, the sheer silliness of the gags usually saves it, and so far no one has plunged off any racial cliffs—but there are a specific couple of reasons I am evangelizing. One is the fluidity of their double act. Broadly speaking, they divide along classic vaudeville lines. Moony Wheeler with his schoolboyish face and his plangently earnest tenor is the eternal naïf, always falling in love or taking metaphors at face value or otherwise ganging aft agley the best-laid schemes of wiry, world-weary Woolsey, the four-eyed, fast-talking know-it-all who got his diploma from the same school as the commedia's Dottore and thinks he's got all the angles figured until it turns out he was doing his calculations in a curved mirror. The former can be counted on to meet cute with the only eligible girl in the plot, the latter to sidle up to the nearest dowager in sight; the one flirts by shyness and the other by cracking wise; it is terrifyingly possible to describe Wheeler's screen persona as a cross between Naunton Wayne's Caldicott and Zeppo Marx, but Woolsey in the right light can be mistaken for late-period George Burns. He wears plaid vests and sport jackets that can be heard from space. And their chemistry works so well in part because they don't observe a strict straight man vs. zany divide. For all his assumed professional expertise, Woolsey is just as likely to don a tutu or leap into a nonplussed bystander's arms as Wheeler is to produce an inexhaustible supply of bananas out of thin air or steal a coach and four in a kleptomaniacal trance; either one of them can flummox an opponent with anti-logic and both of them can dive like Olympic champions for the door when a big lug escalates from slow burn to HULK SMASH. Wheeler is capable of maintaining a look of cherubic bemusement in the most life-threatening of circumstances, annoyedly waving off a prison break on one side and the armed guards' artillery on the other so that he can meet the warden's daughter at nine o'clock with a bunch of flowers just like he promised, making shadow rabbits with the searchlights while he waits. Woolsey meets all obstacles, threats, and reversals of fortune with a characteristic cry of "Whoa-oh!"—eyes round as his horn-rims, not infrequently clearing the room ahead of his compatriot. They are not unstoppable forces of anarchy like some of their contemporaries, but time and again they skip out on the rules through wits, persistence, and damn-fool luck.

And the women are in on the fun. So far I have found no Margaret Dumont in a Wheeler and Woolsey movie. The ingenues—here represented by Dorothy Lee and Betty Grable, whom I am not sure I had ever before seen outside of a pin-up—are spunky and loopy, disobedient daughters and go-getting working girls, with senses of humor that snap right into place with Wheeler's faint air of picking up Radio Mars on his bridgework. In a modern setting, Lee necks so enthusiastically on a park bench with Wheeler that he fails to distinguish between her caresses and the squirrel scampering up his pant leg; in seventeenth-century drag, she gets to climb out a window, start a brawl, charm a barmaid, and not get clocked until she impulsively kisses Wheeler, who is delighted to discover her deception until he remembers telling her "the story of the itinerant merchant and the peasant's daughter" and has to take a moment to die of embarrassment. Grable smooches her jailbird beau over the cake she's supposed to be frosting and chirpily refers to her authoritarian father as "Popsicle" until you can see the steam coming out of his ears. Edna May Oliver and Thelma Todd take the older women's parts1 and steal scenes like they're going out of style. As the warden's spinster sister in Hold 'Em Jail, Oliver bamboozles her brother with more straight-faced finesse than either of the two misfit inmates whom she gets made trusties for her own benefit and her niece's. Her inimitable tartness appears to act on Woolsey like a curl of perfume in a Pepé le Pew cartoon; they waltz one another into walls, share a romantic duet of "Chopsticks," and he chloroforms himself into her arms at the finale, declaring, "I'm just a prisoner of love. Take me!" Resplendent in theoretically Restoration fashions, Todd flirts outrageously with Woolsey in Cockeyed Cavaliers (she promises to meet him on her balcony "with bells on" and they both break up laughing when he rejoins, "Never mind the bells, honey!") and is even called out by the dialogue as a co-conspirator in their masquerade, but her finest moment almost certainly belongs to Hips, Hips, Hooray! The internet tells me that Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby's "Keep On Doin' What You're Doin'" was originally written for and then cut from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933), but even in that anarchic company I can't imagine it could have been more fun than Woolsey performing a mating dance for Todd with a lampshade around his waist in response to which Todd gracefully extends one high heel and kicks a vase off its pedestal. (Previous courtship behaviors involved her twisting all the buttons off his waistcoat and pulling a tablecloth out of his pants.) He leaps around the office scattering memoranda like rice at a wedding; she trails yards of ticker tape like bunting. When the young lovers get in on the action, Lee ends up hanging from the very Deco light fixture and waving to the office's actual occupant when he enters and stares. Woolsey dances him off into a closet and everyone slams the door and runs like hell. I love this sort of thing for much the same reason that I love the secondary romance in Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia, Limited: women who are weird and funny and cherished for it. More, please.

I can't speak for the duo's entire oeuvre. I have seen three and a half films out of something like twenty-one and I have read more than one warning that the quality declines after the enforcement of the Production Code. Frankly, I can't imagine what a Code-compliant Wheeler and Woolsey movie would look like. Any time the scene returns to Maiden America Beauty Products, Hips, Hips, Hooray! is wall-to-wall with girls who are wearing clothing in the sense that there is material between them and the camera, although sometimes it is transparent and most times it wouldn't count if they turned around. A deep-bosomed gown in Cockeyed Cavaliers is described as "the coming thing," with which Wheeler concurs "because there's a lot of it that hasn't arrived yet." Side by side at the piano in Hold 'Em Jail, Oliver and Woolsey share the following Hays-defying exchange:

"I spent four years in Paris. Of course, I'm not a virtuoso."
"Not after four years in Paris, no."
". . . I trust we're both talking about the same thing."


No wonder these movies disappeared for years. In Hips, Hips, Hooray! alone, Wheeler and Woolsey wake up kissing, Wheeler and Woolsey lean in to kiss the same girl and lock lips with each other instead, Woolsey kisses a line of girls to quality-check the flavor of their lipstick (it's a plot point) and the last one throws him back in a clinch and sucks face until he's levitating: "Public enemy number one!" he gasps as she puts him back on his feet. There is a pansy joke, which is inseparable from an actually funny Busby Berkeley parody. Plus Thelma Todd runs her own cosmetics company which is in trouble only because her smarmy—male—sales manager is selling her secrets to her competitors. In short, it does not feel possible to list the pre-Code content without simply summarizing the plot, and for no other reason the films of Wheeler and Woolsey may be of interest to pre-Code aficionados. Also I am enjoying the dickens out of them so far. This silliness brought to you by my snappy backers at Patreon.

1. I know Thelma Todd was younger than me when she died in 1935, but in both of her appearances with Wheeler and Woolsey she is playing the role of a glamorous matron or businesswoman rather than a girl. Wheeler (1895–1968) looked younger than he was, Woolsey (1888–1938) looked older. Their leading ladies were cast to match.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
Tonight I saw Lloyd Bacon's Wonder Bar (1934) at the Harvard Film Archive. I have no idea how to talk about this movie. I must have spent an hour in the basement of the Harvard Book Store post-morteming it with [livejournal.com profile] ladymondegreen who had watched it on DVD at home, being unable to attend in person due to family obligations,1 and I still have no idea. It's not that it's difficult to describe; the technicalities of the plot are complicated, but no more so than the similarly interwoven Grand Hotel (1932). It has pre-Code content coming out its ears, but that's nothing new around here. The introductory speaker pointed out that all of the elements which made Wonder Bar so controversial and censor-baiting on its release in March of 1934—the breezily amoral treatments of adultery, murder, and suicide, plus a rather lovely moment with two queer men who are not a pansy joke—barely raise an eyebrow with a modern audience, who instead have heart attacks from the element viewed at the time as a beloved, wholesome American art form; that would be the blackface. About fifteen minutes of it, staged and filmed elaborately as any other musical number by Busby Berkeley, densely packed with clever sight gags and, yes, giant fruit. It is skull-spinningly racist. I think it may have been intended as some kind of tribute. I have no idea how to talk about this movie.

I might have been better prepared for it if I had ever seen Al Jolson before, but I hadn't—I've seen Overture to Glory (דער ווילנער שטאט חזן/The Vilna City Cantor, 1940) with Moishe Oysher, but not The Jazz Singer (1927). I had somewhat studiously avoided ever even listening to "My Mammy." So I can't tell if Al Wonder, owner and emcee of the Wonder Bar in Paris, a decadent nightspot that flashes its name in three different alphabets of neon and attracts a clientele from expatriate White Russians to good-time American businessmen to high-rolling German officers, is a good representation of Jolson's star persona. "Manic" is one word you could use to describe it. "Proto-Borscht Belt" is another. At different points he reminded me of Groucho Marx, Danny Kaye, and the Emcee from Cabaret. The character is a quick-change tummler, bouncing from persona to persona with each new routine, a fast deadpan crack out of the side of his mouth or a dialect shaggy dog story that tops off in a performance of "Ochi Chornya" so spreadingly schmaltzy, I thought I could hear Kaye starting to sneeze and Tom Lehrer starting to never forget something about Lobachevsky; he moves so fast that it's impossible to tell what's underneath the patter and the punch lines, leaving open the possibility that the answer is nothing. According to the plot, he's in love with specialty dancer Dolores del Río, but she, despite past history with torch-carrying bandleader Dick Powell, is self-abasingly obsessed with her dancing partner Ricardo Cortez, who is smarmily romancing married Kay Francis and planning to skip town later that night with the profits from her diamond necklace, whose supposed loss is sufficiently high-profile to have triggered a call from a pair of insurance investigators to her banker husband Henry Kolker, who happens to be a friend of Jolson's and a big patron of the Wonder Bar. A sloshily peripatetic Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee keep trying to pick up a pair of garter-tossing bar girls while their reproving wives Louise Fazenda and Ruth Donnelly set their sights on a gigolo with a pocketful of visiting cards, each printed with a compliment appropriate to a different kind of woman (the one he eventually hands over to the Schenectady matron claims that she reminds him of his mother). Robert Barrat withdraws his last funds from the bank, set his monocle at an angle to match his dueling scar, and strides off backstage to divest himself of all his worldly possessions to the delight of the bare-legged chorus girls. Jolson's Wonder is in near-constant motion throughout, greeting his patrons in four languages, covering for the late entrance of the dancers with the tongue-twister "Vive la France" ("Frenchmen are gallant, the women can't resist them / Frenchmen have talent—you ought to try their system"), and darting in and out of dressing rooms in order to keep track of the plot, which is more than the audience can hope for. He's definitely some kind of trickster, but not necessarily the nice kind—he resolves an inconvenient murder by stashing the body in the trunk of a suicidal patron's car and simply not standing in the way of the owner when he peels out for his fatal rendezvous with a cliff. How pre-Code is this movie? That's the happy ending, it's that pre-Code. Jolson doesn't get the girl, of course, but maybe she dodged a bullet going home with Dick Powell instead of Comus.

The thing is, when Jolson's in mile-a-minute trickster mode, he is actually not repellent to me. "Vive la France" was recorded live on set because Jolson said he couldn't do it to playback—so the house band at the Wonder Bar is the actual Warners studio orchestra—and I think he was right. It's a live wire of a number, maybe a minute and a half tops of innuendo and nonsense and the obligatory "Fifty Million Frenchmen" reference and it blasts past on the high-octane excitement of a performer throwing themselves a hundred and ten percent into a song and at least looking like they are enjoying the hell out of it. Not all of his emcee's punch lines landed for me, but the exchange about the giraffe is so absurd it hasn't dated at all. The aforementioned queer moment depends on switched expectations, but not on stereotypes—"Boys will be boys," Wonder whistles after a handsome young man politely asks to cut in on an equally attractive couple and then waltzes off with the smiling man rather than the expectant woman (she shrugs and wanders off into the crowd). We just start to run into problems when we hit the art form he was famous for. From the original trailer, capitalization not mine—

"Going To Heaven On A Mule" is a musical creation so startlingly different
that to show you ONE SINGLE FLASH of its 42 unforgettable scenes
. . . would rob you of the greatest thrill you've ever had in a theatre
YOU'LL NEVER FORGET IT!
YOU MUST SEE IT!


DU MUẞT CALIGARI WERDEN I GET IT OKAY. Look, whoever put together that trailer for Warner Bros. was quite right that Wonder Bar's big closing number resembled nothing I had ever seen before in my life and that I would never forget the experience. It's just not going to be for lack of trying. I literally ended up making bibble-bibble-bibble noises at [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel while attempting to convey something of the effect of Berkeley's conception of an all-black heaven, into which a blacked-up Jolson in raggedy overalls and a frazzled straw hat rides his literal mule direct from the plantation by way of a rather attractive Bifrost bridge that deserved to lead into a legitimate Art Deco Valhalla rather than a tinsel-winged parody of Harlem where pork chops grow on trees and chickens are flash-fried at a wish. A full-length portrait of Abraham Lincoln hangs in the receiving room where Jolson is fitted for his robe and his wings, because Emancipation is funny. God forbid we should save on shoe polish and cast some actual black people in this number, so Saint Peter and the Angel Gabriel make their appearances in blackface while among the white clouds and little burnt-cork cherubs can be glimpsed such sages of minstrelsy as Old Black Joe and Uncle Tom. Jolson will later win the epaulettes off Emperor Jones in a game of craps, which in heaven can be played all day without danger of gainful employment interfering. You lose your wings and get the express chute to hell if you pass bum liquor to Peter, though. Typing all of this out isn't helping. I don't even feel sociologically qualified to unpack the moment in which, having his shoes shined at the bustling intersection of Lenox Avenue and the Milky Way, Jolson's new-minted angel flips up his newspaper and grins at the audience over the Yiddish-language front page of the The Garden of Eden Star—דער גן עדן שטערין. I am normally all about Busby Berkeley and giant fruit, but at the point where blacked-up Hal Le Roy emerged from within giant slices of watermelon for a white-grinning, jitter-legged tap dance, I started to pray for Carmen Miranda to descend from the Technicolor Olympos of people who are least in on their own jokes and just squash him with a Terry Gilliam-sized banana or something. It improves nothing that on top of the inherent screaming racism which all the inventive little details of this chocolate-colored heaven only emphasize, blackface has, for me, the uncanny valley quality that many people seem to associate with clown makeup—nobody's lips look like that. Nobody's eyes look like that. I don't care that we're on monochrome film stock, people aren't that color. An entire screenful of this sort of thing turns into nightmare fuel after a while, e.g., two seconds. The occasional sighting of an actual, un-painted, I wish to God I thought they'd gotten hazard pay for it black chorus member just makes it worse. I keep asking myself how this happened and I know how it happened: blackface was Jolson's thing and Berkeley spun his usual surrealism on it and the combined results are a live-action cartoon of the kind Disney is currently attempting to make everyone forget ever graced its vaults. Coming home and reading that Jolson's offstage interactions with black artists and entertainers were reliably, progressively friendly and supportive still doesn't incline me to a rewatch. At least I guess it answers the question of whether I want to seek out any more of Jolson's movies, except maybe The Jazz Singer eventually for its historical importance and Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! (1933) somewhat sooner for Harry Langdon.

The other Berkeley-staged number in the film is full of domino masks and mirrors and trees shedding silver foil in an endlessly reflective autumn or spring and it's actually quite nice, with a kind of carnival Cinderella motif to accompany the song "Don't Say Goodnight," but "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" goes on for so long and is placed so close to the end of the movie—thankfully we get out of it before the credits, which cannot be said of many musicals Berkeley worked on—that it ends up leaving the dominant impression, along with the part where Al Wonder cheerfully exploits a dude's suicidal depression to get his love object out of trouble. It's a very considerate movie that way. If the extended blackface didn't bounce your brain off the inside of your forehead, you'll still get tonal whiplash on the way out. I should mention here that it independently confuses me that the story is taking place in Paris, if for no other reason than that a nightclub named "Wonder Bar" should by all rights have existed in Weimar Berlin, but I expect that impression was partly formed by the HFA's print coming from Gosfilmofond by way of German elements, meaning that all onscreen writing was in either German or French and random reels had German subtitles stuck to the bottom of the screen. Seriously, the more I think about this, the more I kind of want the crossover with the Kit Kat Klub, only not, because Cabaret has got sufficient Nazis that it doesn't need blackface. I don't know what else I can say. I regret nothing about the experience of watching Wonder Bar because it happened in pre-Code Hollywood, for better and for worse, but eighty percent Menschen im Hotel and twenty percent Tambo and Bones is not my ideal ratio of entertainment. This artifact brought to you by my better-educated backers at Patreon.

1. Through pure coincidence of the kind that frequently attends interaction with Lady Mondegreen, on my way out the door to Harvard Square I discovered a package which turned out to be the copy she had sent me of Derek Sculthorpe's Van Heflin: A Life in Film (2016). On reading that Heflin ran away to sea at age fourteen (taking a camera on all his voyages so that he could take snapshots for his grandmother in southern California; she tracked his progress on her atlas) and loved the writing of Joseph Conrad, I realized instantly that the alternate universe which contains Wuthering Heights with Robert Newton and all those other contrafactual movies of my heart would have had the good sense to cast Van Heflin in a screen version of Lord Jim: I'm sure I'd have facepalmed my way through its Southeast Asian setting as hard as I did through the New Zealand of Green Dolphin Street (1947), but damn would he have knocked the character out of the park. I might even have preferred him to Peter O'Toole.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I am beginning to think I may have had the flu. Exhaustion, fever, headache, literally spent a day in bed, spent the next day out of bed and fell over before midnight, more fever, slept twelve hours at the end of which I am still hallucinatorily tired, I have to travel tomorrow (come hear me read classically-themed poems in Brooklyn!) and I'm having trouble with the concept of sitting upright. Nonetheless, I can type: I can talk about film.

I'd wanted to see The Moon Is Down (1943) since May, when I had a dream that made me wish the novel wasn't packed away with the rest of my books. All paperback fiction after G is still in storage, but the film did me the favor of turning up on TCM on Monday night. I had not planned in advance for my first movie of 2017 to be a story of resistance, but I don't mind.

When the idea of a novel on the themes of occupation and resistance first occurred to John Steinbeck in the fall of 1941, he was working for a variety of government agencies and his own country was neutral; by the time The Moon Is Down saw print in March of 1942, the U.S. had entered World War II and the prospects for the Allies looked grim. On publication, the novel met with commercial success, dramatic adaptation, and critical controversy. Steinbeck was careful to identify no nationalities in his short fable of a small mining town under military occupation by a belligerent foreign power—the characters are divided into "invaders" and "townspeople" with vaguely European names on both sides, the terrain is mostly defined by mountains and winter and the nearness of the sea, and external references to England, France, Belgium, and Russia still leave a lot of the globe unclaimed—but only so that it would have the widest possible range of identification for readers in Nazi-occupied Europe. In the U.S., it was criticized for its melodrama, its optimism, its naïveté, and especially its sympathetic portrayal of the invaders, including the war-weary veteran at the head of the occupying battalion who knows that "there are no peaceful people . . . no friendly people" in a nation taken and held by force. In Europe, where audiences understood that not every enemy comes with a cartoon mustache and an affidavit of recently eaten babies, the novel became a classic of the resistance. It was translated—clandestinely—into Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, even German; there were two serialized versions published in the USSR and another in China. After the war, Steinbeck was awarded the Haakon VII Freedom Cross by the king of Norway himself, for outstanding service to the country during the war. The lack of proper names had not prevented readers all across Europe from identifying the novel's invaded country as Norway. I was introduced to the novel by a friend whose father had grown up in Fredrikstad during the German occupation. It didn't matter that it was written by an American author who had known refugees and members of different resistance groups but never lived in an occupied country himself; to Norwegians, it rang true.

In any case, despite the critical flamewars, The Moon Is Down—its title taken from Macbeth, which never stops me from thinking δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα and inappropriately associating it with Sappho—was not so unpopular at home that it didn't get optioned by Twentieth Century-Fox, adapted and produced by Nunnally Johnson, and directed by Irving Pichel. On the whole it's a faithful version. The novel is quiet, omniscient, compassionate, and impossible to read without feeling a little cold; the deep, waiting winter closes around the reader as much as it does around the town and its inhabitants, and whether you find it a comfort or a horror depends on whose perspective you're in. The film is more exciting, which means that it feels more episodic and the stakes are raised on some of its significant events, although not so much that I think the point is lost. I would love to know its reception in Norway, because the national identity of the nameless little town is unambiguous from the opening image of Hitler's fist pounding on a map of Scandinavia while a harshly rising voice rants about Norwegen, Norwegen to the choral singing of "Ja, vi elsker dette landet" (Anglicized to "Yes, We Love This Land, Our Country") underneath the final scene. In between it is nowhere near as programmatic as these two examples make it sound, since the script is, despite Steinbeck's reassuring but specious distinction between the "free men" of democratic countries and the "herd men" of authoritarian regimes, as conscientiously complicated as the novel in its depiction of both sides of an occupation.

I don't just mean that the German characters are human, although it's important that they are, since it is one of the ways they can be defeated. But they are more interestingly human than the conventional sympathy for the villain; the townspeople resist them in ways that do not always look like recruiting posters. For us the war lasted exactly two hours. )

So that was a very interesting movie to see in the same week that Trump tweeted about his enemies and I am thinking about resistance in general, Nazis optional. It has its flaws—primarily I think its score is a little too dramatically on-the-nose and could have relied more on folk motifs like the Norwegian national anthem, as composer Alfred Newman had done successfully with his scores for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941)—but it preserves all the things I remember liking about the book and adds some I didn't know I was missing, like Henry Travers and occasional striking cinematography. Other films that may deserve a rewatch in the near future are Jean Renoir's This Land Is Mine (1943) and Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley's The Silver Fleet (1943). This course of study brought to you by my organized backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Default)
So the thing that becomes immediately obvious to me when I look at my year-end summary for 2016 is the degree to which the health issues which were identified in February and are only just now beginning to resolve affected almost every aspect of my writing. The second half of the year was scarily thin in new fiction and poetry; it was actually worse than 2006, the year my life up to then fell apart. Nonetheless, the way 2016 turned out, I think I am going to count anything published as an active victory over the forces of violence and entropy.

There was new fiction:

"Skerry-Bride" in Devilfish Review #16, February 2016.
"The Trinitite Golem" in Clockwork Phoenix #5 (ed. Mike and Anita Allen), April 2016.
"The Choices of Foxes" in Not One of Us #55 (ed. John Benson), April 2016.
"All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts" in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (ed. Lynne Jamneck), June 2016.
"Imperator Noster" in Genius Loci: Tales of the Spirit of Place (ed. Jaym Gates), July 2016.

There was new poetry:

"The Lost Aphrodite" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 6.1, January 2016.
"Anybody That Looked Like That" in Go Now (ed. John Benson), January 2016.
"The Parable of the Albatross" in Stone Telling #13: Hope, January 2016.
"For Saint Valentine, on the Occasion of His Martyrdom" in Goblin Fruit #36: Winter 2016, February 2016.
"Men Who Aren't Crazy" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 6.2, April 2016.
"In a Funny Kind of Way" in Polu Texni 4/25/16, April 2016.
"Sudden Death" in Through the Gate #10, May 2016.
"The Anniversary" in Through the Gate #10, May 2016.
"'Лондонский маленький призрак'" in Through the Gate #10, May 2016.
"Phliasian Investigations" in Spelling the Hours: Poetry Celebrating the Forgotten Others of Science and Technology (ed. Rose Lemberg), August 2016.
"A Gun and a Boy (Le Cercle Rouge)" in inkscrawl #10, August 2016.
"The Ghost Marriage" in Uncanny Magazine #12, September 2016.
"Ghost Ships of the Middlesex Canal" in Not One of Us #56, September 2016.
"At the Meyerhold Theatre" in Through the Gate #19, October 2016.
"A Death of Hippolytos" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 6.4, October 2016.
"The Other Lives" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 6.4, October 2016.
"Vocatio" first appeared in Twisted Moon #1, October 2016.
"About Building" in Through the Gate #23, December 2016.

There were even some reprints, of which I am very proud:

"Upon the Land, On the Sea" in Angels of the Meanwhile: Poetry and Prose in Support of Pope Lizbet (ed. Alexandra Erin), April 2016.
"Chez Vous Soon" in
Sirenia Digest #124 (ed. Caitlín R. Kiernan), June 2016.
"Exorcisms" in An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables (ed. Rose Lemberg), July 2016.
"The Clock House" in Spelling the Hours: Poetry Celebrating the Forgotten Others of Science and Technology (ed. Rose Lemberg), August 2016.
"And Black Unfathomable Lakes" in The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom (ed. Joanne Merriam), August 2016.
"When Can a Broken Glass Mend?" in Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year's Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction (ed. A.M. Dellamonica and Steve Berman), November 2016.

And a small quantity of fanfiction, none of which I was expecting to write:

"Not a Tame Lion" (Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis), September 2016.
"ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον" (Benjamin January, Barbara Hambly), December 2016.

I had no published interviews this year (I did one by phone, but it won't air until—I can still say this—next year), but Ghost Signs (2015) garnered some very fine reviews:

Rich Horton for Locus, January 2016.
Liz Bourke for Strange Horizons, January 2016.
Lev Mirov for Stone Telling, January 2016.

Honestly, I think my major intellectual achievement this year was the writing I did for my Patreon:

Too Late for Tears (1949), January 2016.
Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), January 2016.
Despicable Me (2010), January 2016.
Fast Workers (1933), January 2016.
Cain and Mabel (1936), February 2016.
Boston Sci-Fi Marathon 41 [Starman (1984), Himmelskibet (1918), Blade Runner (1982), High Treason (1929), Ex Machina (2015), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bride of Finklestein (2015), Pitch Black (2000), Big Ass Spider! (2013), Never Let Me Go (2010), Donovan's Brain (1953), They Live (1988), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)], February 2016.
Mr. Skeffington (1944), February 2016.
The Guns of Navarone (1961), Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), Hail, Caesar! (2016), February 2016.
Crack-Up (1946) and Act of Violence (1948), March 2016.
Moonrise (1948), March 2016.
Belladonna of Sadness (1973) and The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015), March 2016.
Gay Purr-ee (1962), March 2016.
Phaedra (1962), April 2016.
Johnny Eager (1942), April 2016.
The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015), May 2016.
Seven Sweethearts (1942), May 2016.
Fighting Men: Baptism of Fire (1943), May 2016.
Madame Bovary (1949), May 2016.
World for Ransom (1954), June 2016.
Macao (1952) and Green Dolphin Street (1947), June 2016.
The Prowler (1951), June 2016.
Santa Fe Trail (1940), June 2016.
Criss Cross (1949), July 2016.
thoughts on the femme fatale, July 2016.
thoughts on film noir, July 2016.
A Thousand Clowns (1965), August 2016.
Detour (1945), August 2016.
The Big Combo (1955), August 2016.
HFA Night Train Marathon [L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), Twentieth Century (1934), Night Mail (1936), Night Train to Munich (1940), The Little Train Robbery (1905), The Narrow Margin (1952), Nayak (1966), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)], September 2016.
The Killing (1956) and Born to Kill (1947), September 2016.
The Ten Commandments (1956), September 2016.
Demon (2015) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), October 2016.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962), October 2016.
Red Hot Tires (1935), October 2016.
My Son, the Hero (1943) and Lady with a Past (1932), October 2016.
Princess Caraboo (1994), November 2016.
The Gang's All Here (1943), December 2016.
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), December 2016.
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Dames (1934), December 2016.
Lady Be Good (1941), December 2016.
Possessed (1947), December 2016.
The Spy in Black (1939), December 2016.

And I will do what I can as soon as I can do it to make up for the associated obligations on which I fell behind. I feel in may ways as though I am just getting my brain back for the first time in months if not a year. It's just as well; I think I'm going to need it.

Happy New Year. Let's do what we can to make 2017 something we want to set slightly less on fire and shove off a skyscraper. Tonight [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I are going to hear the bells ring.

June 2017

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