sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2011-05-28 03:40 pm

What in my domain is that?

The skullcrushing headache is back, but last night I made fiddleheads for dinner and tonight I am going to see Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) at the Coolidge Corner, so I am refusing to let it define the weekend.

Angel on My Shoulder (1946) is the evil twin of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). No, seriously. It's kind of wonderful that way.

The first time around, we had Robert Montgomery as the prizefighter accidentally taken to Heaven before his time and inventively sorted out by Claude Rains' benevolently mysterious Mr. Jordan, who might be the next archangel up from Edward Everett Horton and might just be God. Here were get Paul Muni as Eddie Kagle, a St. Louis racketeer shot by his former right-hand man on his first night out of jail and offered the diabolical chance to come back from Hell to Earth in the guise of one Frederick Parker, a very upright and honorable judge—and Claude Rains as a beautiful little Devil, silver-haired, silver-tongued, as much Mercury as Mefisto, posing as just another damned soul to gain Eddie's trust. They'll break out of Hell together, is the arrangement; if Eddie will do one favor for Nick, his new best friend will help him get revenge on his faithless old one.

         "How long you been down here?"
         "Since time immemorial."
         "The way you talk, you must had a good education."
         "The most liberal one."
         "I only went to third grade."
         "I went through the whole gamut of learning. I know everything."
         "Stuck on yourself, eh? What's your name?"
         "Well, I have a number of aliases. I have a long record under the name of Mephistopheles."
         "Greek, eh?"
         "Well, there are some who claim I'm more one nation than another, but that's not true, Eddie. I'm of all nations; I play no favorites."
         "You look like a con man. Look, Mefipopoulos—"
         "Call me Nick."
         "You married?"
         "Millions of women have adored me."
         "Quite a guy with the ladies, huh?"
         "I'm a fascinating fellow."

What follows is not a flawless, but a rather adorable mish-mash of film noir and afterlife fantasy and, refreshingly, it does not suffer from so much of the stupid that afflicts bodyswap/double stories.1 The judge's fiancée Barbara (Anne Baxter) doesn't fall in love with a new and exciting stranger in her noble but dull lover's body, only to be graciously given back to him in the end. As it turns out, straight-arrow Judge Parker came from exactly the same kind of slum-poor abusive background as gangster Eddie Kagle—a doctor looks at the situation and concludes that the strain of his job and the stress of his impending run for governor have triggered a kind of post-traumatic break in Parker, reverting him to the feral kid he used to be before he straightened out his life and became an activist lawyer who treats crime as a social problem rather than banging up juvenile delinquents for life.2 This last is precisely why Nick wants him gone: he's interfering with the Devil's future clientele. Eddie is supposed to reverse all the judge's good influences, possibly even get him killed. The catch is that while Eddie may have a third-grade education, he's not stupid; and he's not biddable, so when goons from the incumbent political machine bring rotten vegetables to the judge's rally, Eddie goes for them with both fists (making Parker a hero-for-life to the at-risk inner-city kids who were brought to hear his speech; it's a clear demonstration of the awesomeness of Lawful Good), and while at first he agrees to let a couple off a particularly gruesome insurance murder for the appropriate fee, he throws the money back in their faces (before witnesses, sealing Parker's incorruptible reputation) when he recognizes the woman as his former moll and this was what she planned with her new boyfriend when he wasn't around, and finally he won't even marry Barbara when he realizes it would be the wrong thing to do, under false pretences, with him in another man's body and her still thinking it's her lovely Fred in the middle of a nervous breakdown. And there's small, equable Nick, neat and unobtrusive in his false prisoner's black, always at the edges of the action ("What are you gumshoeing around for?") and never at a loss for suggestions, until the charm drops without even a blink and the bitter hatred—and still, after all the aeons, the pride and bewilderment and pain: why should these stupid, crawling creatures be God's favored, and he the first among angels confined to fire and eternal defeat?—is there instead. I wouldn't have minded seeing him as actual Mephistopheles, Marlowe's. He gets a few speeches that are close to it. But he also gets an ending right out of folklore, which I appreciated; the last shot is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it's pretty terrific all the same.

1. Also it's a much better hell than I would have expected from 1946: it has chains and furnaces, but it also has blasted volcanic landscapes seething with dry-sliding smoke and spattering rings of boiling rock. It loses a little of its power once the damned start talking, but until then, weird-lit, eerily wrecked and deserted, it wasn't like any depiction of the afterlife I'd seen on film at the time.

2. Which on the one hand is classic forties film psychobabble, but there's another level on which it's perfectly accurate. Eddie is not, as he imagined, taking over the privileged, thoughtless life of all the silver-spoon-born pillars of rectitude he ever despised. He's stepping into his own alternate history, the person he might have been if only some little thing had been different, and it is out of love for Barbara and sympathy for Parker that he makes his final decision. But I love that we are never told what that difference might have been; that's not the point, except that we know it's nothing to do with innate "good" or "bad." There is a telling, nicely understated detail: Eddie-as-Parker can't do what his current body isn't capable of, which means that his attempts to relax in the afternoon with a big cigar and a slug of whiskey are a hilarious malfunction; the judge is a nonsmoking teetotaler, so first he coughs himself blue and then he hits the floor. Brawling in the auditorium, however, is something he has the muscle memory for.

That I'll never have an audiobook of Claude Rains reading The Screwtape Letters (1942), basically, is a tragedy for humankind.

[identity profile] 2011-05-28 09:58 pm (UTC)(link)
And tonight **we** are having fiddleheads! And last night we saw Cloudburst, and I found it very thought provoking (though Sovay, we could do a good business if I could trade off my ability to sleep anywhere after 9 pm with your inability to sleep at all... I kept on drowsing, and it wasn't the fault of the movie at all; just my constitution...)

his new best friend will help him get revenge on his faithless old one. Nice line! I think we have our tonight's movie.

[identity profile] 2011-05-29 12:20 am (UTC)(link)
Oh it was definitely worth the watch.

Proposition: The tension might have been ratcheted up a notch if the people who had hit-and-run killed his wife had been just miscellaneous joyriders rather than criminals. Discuss.

I very much agreed with your assessment that she was more his Fury than his angel. He was very much trapped by destiny.

[identity profile] 2011-05-29 05:35 am (UTC)(link)
That sounds like some good hell. We ended up watching Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and The Secret of NIMH last night, the former, I thought, fell surprisingly flat and the latter held up quite well over the years.

[identity profile] 2011-05-29 07:01 pm (UTC)(link)
Sorry for the headache's return.
Hurrah for fiddleheads.
Glad you enjoyed the film.
I hope you've enjoyed the Herzog film. The interview with him on the subject in Archaeology was fascinating. I'm curious to hear your opinion.

[identity profile] 2011-05-30 04:40 am (UTC)(link)
I haven't read the interview; I quite liked the film.

I'm glad you liked the film.

I was thinking I'd posted you a link to the interview--I'll look and see if I can find the online version again for you. Any road, what I was most curious about was your opinion of the film. Sorry for not being clearer--I was in a bit of a hurry this afternoon.

It does sound fascinating, and I'd very much like to see it.

the one archaeologist who used to work in a circus and another who can play "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a Neolithic bone flute

Archaeologists tend to be strange people. (I used to be one, myself, so I think I can say so.) I don't think I ever ran into one who was a former circus performer; I wish I'd run into more who were musicians. Did the one who played the Neolithic bone flute* carry it round in a pocket?** And was it one of the Chinese ones, or...?

For some reason I didn't read The Clan of the Cave Bear as a kid, although I remember my mother reading (and making fun of) one of the later books in the series, which makes me assume she'd read the first one. I rather wish I had done--I suspect the narrative problems would stick out too much for me, now.

The shot of a pair of hunting cave lions was entirely worth the ticket price.


*A replica, I'm assuming.
**I'm always envious of wind instrument players, on account of the portability aspect--I can knock a scale out of a whistle, but I can't get a decent tune out of one. I did come close to buying a little bone whistle with a beeswax fipple once on Gotland, because I'd been travelling for a week without playing a note and was getting withdrawal symptoms, but I talked myself out of it on the grounds that I would've had to wait till I got to Norway to play it, on account of wanting to get the VAT back, that trying to learn to play it would've been more frustrating than relieving, not to mention difficult in a hotel room, and that I would probably end up wanting to spend the money on something else. (And, sure enough, in Stockholm I did find a coin of Queen Kristina Augusta, Gustav II Adolph's daughter, whom I've since become rather fascinated with, and which I didn't mind leaving sealed up in the bag till I left Sweden, so it's just as well.


[identity profile] 2011-05-30 04:46 am (UTC)(link)
Here is the Herzog interview from Archaeology.

There's also an audio version.

I also see that I bollixed the link to the second Chinese Neolithic flute article.

[identity profile] 2011-06-06 11:17 am (UTC)(link)
Everyone loved Angel on My Shoulder. All of us but [ profile] wakanomori saw it one day, leading the ninja girl to go around the rest of the evening snarling like Eddie. Even the tall one, who doesn't usually join us for movies, loved it. And then last night [ profile] wakanomori saw it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I loved all the characters so much! I *loved* the Paul Muni character, and I liked Barbara a whole lot too--and of course Claude Rains. I thought the scene with the kids was notable for including a black kid back in the 1940s. And Eddie was so noble at the end, without, of course, any mawkishness at all. My heart ached for him! Hope he gives Mephistopheles an eternal headache down under.

... and you know, your write-up captured everything about the film perfectly. Rereading it after having seen it, I just appreciate it all the more. You have a way with words that spotlights and intensifies the best points.

[identity profile] 2011-06-07 03:59 am (UTC)(link)
Yes, I do see what you mean by Screwtape!