sovay: (Default)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2008-03-17 01:33 pm

In a real death waltz between what's flesh and what's fantasy

Nota bene: this post was actually finished around five in the morning, but I was too fried to bother with putting it up until now. Have a slight anachronism. Also a happy Saint Patrick's Day, if there are serpents in your life that need disappearing. There may be more pertinent content later.

I am collapsibility tired. I realize this makes me sound like a relative of Capability Brown (or Bloody Stupid Johnson), but I have spent most of today looking after a five-year-old, who is of course my beautiful second cousin Tristen. We had an unexpected sending of relatives yesterday: I was making a North African recipe for dinner, literally up to my wrists in ground lamb, when the doorbell rang and kept ringing as though someone were leaning their weight on it. Most of my day up to that point had sucked considerably,* so it was not with enthusiasm that I opened the door. On the doorstep, more wild-haired and about six inches taller than the last time I had seen him, was Tristen. He grabbed me around the neck and started yelling my name; his grandparents were coming up the walk with my grandfather. They are staying through Tuesday, although I will leave before they do. So my cousin's presence has not lessened my stress levels, but certainly has improved my mood; this afternoon we walked around the reservoir and he explained how sometimes he was a mermaid, sometimes a dragon, sometimes a Siamese cat. At dinner, I found a pearl in my fried oyster. I'm not surprised.

Also last night I went with Bob and Anita to see Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927) at the Somerville Theatre, with a live score by the Alloy Orchestra** and now I have another film in my catalogue of strange loves. Because I could do so much else in the same amount of time, I try not to watch movies unless I think they're going to be worth it, but I'm still surprised by how good some of them are . . . I suppose there are people who feel this way about reading.

From the standpoint of film history, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Underworld is its license to take whatever twists it likes with the rules of its genre, because as yet there are none. It can be realist up to the point where it begins to bend gravitationally into expressionism, hurtling through cinematic strangeness until it has nowhere to go but back out into realism by way of mystery play; its cinematography can have the matter-of-fact detail of a dream, slanted between fear and desire, the story swing around from tragedy to late romance like a mad weathervane. More than the first gangster movie, it's a gorgeous piece of proto-noir, laying down the mythology that will fuel James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson and Robert de Niro and Al Pacino for generations—and it's also a prospect so unlikely that Paramount, predicting it would be a flop, allowed the film to open in only one theater in New York, after which it was such a smash that it even after national distribution, people were still queuing up to see it twice. In retrospect, it is at once instantly recognizable and off-kilter.

But this is a structural definition, and ignores elements like the wit of its intertitles and the surprising—I should not have been surprised; I know that not all silent films were played as broadly as stage melodramas—dimensions of its characters, who are simultaneously naturalistic and archetypal. The first thing that happens onscreen? A bank explodes. Out of the wreckage strides its robber, not so much fleeing the scene as strolling from it with a strongbox under his arm; a drunk in the street calls out, "The great Bull Weed, closing another bank account!" and is promptly collared and bundled into the getaway car. Is he important? This is a film without the markers of accumulated tradition to tell us who's a leading player and who's incidental detail; the mouthy witness might well be shot in a few seconds as a testament to Bull's toughness and the real story start only with the next scene. But what happens next turns out to be a characteristically sentimental, generous gesture from a top-of-the-heap gangster whose boisterous laugh doesn't need a soundtrack to fill the theater: he takes a liking to this bundle of dirty clothes who describes himself, with the swaying, satirical dignity of a man who has not yet pummeled his intellect into alcoholic submission, as a "Rolls-Royce for silence," and after observing him stand up to a rival hood's bullying in a speakeasy frequented by Bull Weed and his cool-eyed, inseparable moll, Feathers McCoy, slaps a thousand dollars into the newly-christened Rolls Royce's hand and sets him up as a sort of gangland consultant, with an apartment of his own and all the literature ("He's read every book in the case! He likes to read!") ill-gotten gains can buy. Meanwhile, the aforementioned rival, Buck Mulligan, whose tidy florist's business fronts for his more thuggish ambitions, is gunning both for Bull's position and Feathers' love, or at least her body; clothed always in her namesake, she drifts in a cloud of flapper frou-frou, both erotic and offputting, easy to spot, difficult to get close to. Not the climax, but the hinge of the story—remember what I said about leads and incidentals—will take place at the annual gangsters' ball, where champagne and confetti rain down on what the intertitles describe as "a devil's carnival," and because we are in full-blown German Expressionism by this point, it really is.

We are also in a sort of love story, although it's more about loyalties and senses of self and what happens to epic proportions when they hit the present day than it is about sex. Rolls Royce1 (Clive Brook) is what might have become of Sydney Carton if he had never found Lucie Manette to die for. Fresh off the streets, with a derelict's stubble, a seam-split jacket and shaky hands, he has no self-respect when it comes to cadging drinks, but an air of forbearance that has him refuse to pick up the ten-spot Buck Mulligan has flicked into the spittoon at his feet.2 Cleaned up, he's kindly, ironic, discreet, and not above urbane self-mockery, which suits the affection Bull Weed has for him, a little derisive of his erudition, his eloquence, his odd tastes—when he's not Rolls Royce, he's the Professor—but also the trust placed in him. He's a valued member of the gang now, the right-hand thinker. "A lawyer, sometimes," he replies, when asked what he used to be, "a drunkard, always . . . What does it matter?" The combination attracts Feathers (Evelyn Brent), whom Rolls Royce treats with the same faint courtesy as he might a woman of his own former class and education, and which she fears might be disdain. Asked in turn what she used to be, she does not answer. Her first moments onscreen find her adjusting her stockings in the doorway of the speakeasy, an unselfconscious gesture of seduction, but she is not the breathless bimbo her name implies; she may sigh over jewelry that even Bull dismisses as "too vulgar" (although he will gallantly shoot up the store to obtain some of it for her) and pick up a book the wrong way round, but she's easily the smarter of the lovers, both grateful and loyal to this man with the presence of a Mack truck and the impulsiveness of a small child, still wistful for someone more her match. Maybe that's Rolls Royce, who is more guarded and more vulnerable than anyone she has known.3 He's not interested in women, he tells her, but we know that he keeps a feather from her collar in a cigarette case like the memoir of an affair that will never take place; her initial presence signaled by its leaf-fall downward, unnoticed, into his hand. In a later film, they might connive toward Bull's death. Here, he only believes they would.

And what we believe is critically dependent on Bull Weed (George Bancroft) himself, who early in the film sights a neon insurance sign on the skyline—The City Is Yours—and turns expansively to Feathers, offering her the plattered world with a wave of his arm. "The city is yours, kid. What'll you have?" With admiration and his usual irony, Rolls Royce subtitles the scene, "Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome," and when Bull demands to know who he's talking about ("Who's Attila? The leader of some wop gang?"), the ex-lawyer's answer might be the film in epitome: "You were born two thousand years too late. You can't get away with your stuff nowadays." So our antihero is an outsize character, jovial, brutal, lavish with his friends and unremitting with his enemies, who charges like a knight errant or his totem animal to protect his lady from violence, but lowers his head, beaten and blindly murderous, when he thinks he has been double-crossed in love. He pulls into his orbit not only the other characters, but the film; he's his own best mythographer, and the cinematography alters itself around him as he lurches through the grotesquerie of the gangsters' ball to find Feathers, or staggers down false-dawn streets in pursuit of revenge. But he's more than the handsome brute with a soft spot, despite his scene with the kitten.4 He's aware there are dimensions he's missing. Some of them he tries to get at through Feathers, others through Rolls Royce. And so he will, if not in the way he expects; his choice matters finally because it is made by himself, stripped down to humanity, not some street-hailed Jupiter of crime.5

I should save the cinematography for an entire post of its own. Or the soundtrack. I should sleep and get ready to spend all of tomorrow packing, since we leave so early on Tuesday that it might as well be Monday for all the last-minute time it will afford me. But this is another film I want to own, when that brick of money finally falls from the sky. And I'll be looking out for Clive Brook.

1. As with Feathers, we never learn his real name. But for stray mentions, their lives before Bull Weed might as well have ceased to exist.

2. For his fastidiousness, he is socked in the chin—we see the wind-up and then the camera jolts ceilingward, a right hook to the audience's viewpoint; it's a simple trick and it's wonderful. And it has to predate the handheld aesthetic by at least half a century.

3. He can also be something of a bastard, which is not in the archetype: when Feathers tries to persuade him not to start drinking again, he replies coldly, "Aren't you Bull Weed's girl?" The wording points up not only his disinterest in her opinion, but its utter lack of relevance in the first place; it sets her squarely back in the role she has come to feel hopelessly trapped by—not a person with weight and consequence of her own, but an ornament to the boss, shut up and look sexy. It's the cruelest thing he could say to her, and he's too smart and too practiced an alcoholic for it to be a drunken slip of the tongue. These are the shadings of which film noir is made.

4. I'm curious to know if this is the first film appearance of the spring-loaded cat: a noise outside the door causes Bull to jerk it open, ready to fire, only to find a small, bedraggled kitten trying to get into a milk bottle. It's a classic bit of suspense, which von Sternberg turns into a character moment as the gangster quickly pulls kitten and bottle inside and feeds one with the other, absently, while waiting for Rolls Royce to come home so he can kill him.

5. And in the middle of all this fine-tuned character work, we have the character played by Larry Semon, who has wandered in from some other surrealist world entirely. The laws of mime and silent comedy apply to him, not social realism or even physics; he is debonair, dandyish, as white-faced and permanently surprised as a classic pierrot; he handles visible, tangible objects with the precision and delicacy of empty air, and he might be something like the chorus, because of the many scenes in which he is an onlooker and the few instances in which he interacts on behalf of other characters, as though transmuting their desires into the plot, but he's not like any chorus I've ever seen. (And yet, as I type these words, I wonder: were Kander and Ebb familiar with Underworld? Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome . . .) He is named "Slippy Lewis" in the cast list, but no one ever addresses him by name; his only spoken line is a stutter and a slur. He's extraordinary. And he is simply there, without explanation. Thank you, German Expressionism!

* What I had been hoping was a tenacious sunburn turned out to be a contact dermatitis that went systemic; I looked like a pox victim and was sent home from the doctor's with a steroid cream and instructions to buy, before departing for Florida, the strongest possible sunscreen and a hat. This I did not need. [ profile] schreibergasse, you shall still have the post I owe you.

** One-third of the Alloy Orchestra is Roger Miller, as in Mission of Burma, which I had not known when I saw their card at the Brattle Theatre. Eric and Bob had to enlighten me.

[identity profile] 2008-03-17 06:06 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm very sorry to hear about the suckage. I hope the steroid cream helps and that you're feeling better soon. Very glad you got to see your cousin and the other relations, and that the movie was worth the seeing of it.

Happy St. Patrick's Day to you as well. Enjoy Florida!

[identity profile] 2008-03-18 01:59 am (UTC)(link)
I would go to see many more movies if they all had keyboardists, accordion players, and percussionists armed with hubcaps.

Wild. I'd probably do so as well. (Unless, of course, I knew it was a bad ensemble. Around here, that's a possibility. I know a couple of truly dreadful accordion players. ;-)

Thank you! All that applies, the same to you!

Thank you! (As far as applying, did you see my post of today? ;-)

[identity profile] 2008-03-17 07:15 pm (UTC)(link)
As someone with chronic skin problems (that occasionally become acute skin problems), who is now having a fair amount of his time sucked by a small child, I think I can find it in my heart to be forgiving. ;)
Cead mille failte!
Why are you going to Florida, again?

[identity profile] 2008-03-17 09:48 pm (UTC)(link)
What's the Irish for "Same to you"?

no idea...

The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. >/i>

wow. rock.

[identity profile] 2008-03-18 01:57 am (UTC)(link)
What's the Irish for "Same to you"?

"Agus leatsa freisin" is what comes into my head, but I'm not sure if it's the right or not.
eredien: Dancing Dragon (Default)

[personal profile] eredien 2008-03-18 12:14 am (UTC)(link)
Have a good time in FL. What are you going to do with the pearl?

[identity profile] 2008-05-01 11:56 pm (UTC)(link)
I can't believe I never commented on this originally, but here's the hilarious part (for me): Even though I've never seen this film, it's the first movie I ever wrote slash for. I ran across a description of it in a film studies text about gangster movies, and it sent me off on this crazy tear which produced notes for a never-finished three-way bi romance...I think I was 16 or so. I transplanted it to New Orleans, of course. Oh, and looking at your description of Feathers, my initial reaction was still: "Riiight, THAT was Jiang-su's real name!" (Because I made her Chinese, too...the way you do.;))

[identity profile] 2010-08-19 02:07 pm (UTC)(link)
Did you know it's coming out on DVD, in a three-pack with two other early Sternbergs? Just found out about it today.