sovay: (Default)
To the list of very great witch films in this world everyone should please add Nietzchka Keene's The Juniper Tree (1990), seen tonight at the Brattle Theatre by me and [personal profile] rushthatspeaks.

Lovingly restored by the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research and the Film Foundation, this first of only three features by the Boston-born academic and filmmaker is a luminous, numinous, black-and-white microbudget reworking of the Grimm fairy tale, shot on location in Iceland in the summer of 1986 and set centuries earlier in a medieval landscape of turf houses, wooden crosses, and witchcraft, all plain and real as black sand beaches and meadows star-burst with angelica, basalt cliffs and white-spuming waterfalls, the hollow roar of waves and overcast thunder, the northern lights streaming in the sky like the wordless voices of women singing. Through this richly elemental, sparsely human mise-en-scène wander Margit (Björk, pre-Sugarcubes and still credited as Guðmundsdóttir) and her older sister Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir), looking for a place "where . . . no one will know us," since where they came from their mother was stoned and burnt for a witch. The floating body of an unknown woman, hands bound behind her in the dark reflections of a reed-draggled river, tells them they haven't gone far enough. Katla nonetheless swears to find a husband by magic if she has to, to secure her sister's safety and her own; the blond-bearded young widower Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring) takes her home after no more enchantment than a tumble in a field, but she rides a triple circle around him just to be sure. Watching her suspiciously from his father's arms is motherless Jónas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar), towheaded and uncharmed; he breaks the circle, running away into the long, dim, low-beamed house where he will never eye his stepmother without resentment, increasingly accusing her of witchcraft less because he spied her murmuring over charms of burnt braided hair than because it is the easiest stone to throw at an interloper, an outsider, a woman who's "different." With his step-aunt, however, he forms an uneasy, mystical alliance borne out of their shared grief and Margit's visions, which reassure him that his mother remembers and protects him, watching from a raven's black-glass eye as he lays flower wreaths on her grave. "You look like our mother did when she saw," Katla observes wistfully, watching her sister's eyes darken with visions in the fire: a silhouette on the ridge, a wheeling bird. "She could tell everything by what she saw. But I can't see." The last figure in this small cast, as spare and concentrated as a murder ballad, is the mother herself (Guðrún Gísladóttir), glimpsed first as a seated shadow through the small blurred glass of a window, then as a saintlike apparition on the sea-stacks, finally as herself, a wry-smiling silent woman with a black void where her breastbone should be, into which Margit thrusts a hand as suddenly as a gasp. "She can't speak," she warns Jónas as they kneel before the mother he tries to but cannot see, either sitting on a stone or picking burrs from sheep's wool in a space of shared memory. "When people are dead, they can't speak anymore." They can still tell stories, though, and in this film, as in the original tale whose bones can still be seen shining and disarticulated beneath the earth-swept phantasmagoria of Keene's imagination, they do.

I had previously seen Björk as an actress only in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark (2000), which I hated so much that I have difficulty even in hindsight evaluating her performance; she's astonishing here. With her dark shag of hair and her long seal's eyes, she convincingly plays a grave, fey adolescent despite having just given birth to her own first child and there is nothing twee or crystally in her half-absent singing as she gathers driftwood at the crunching foot of the sea-cliffs or roams the black-cragged hillsides after her brother-in-law's cows, just as her visions, while often haloed by choral rises in Larry Lipkis' alternatingly folk-angular and modern-atonal score, are as clear as candles or carded wool or racks of stockfish drying, so that we must accept them all of a piece with the natural and inhabited world. Hers is the voice we hear most often on the densely layered soundtrack, musingly telling and retelling a story of stranger marriage and children turned to birds. Elsewhere we hear rhyming charms that blend Christian invocations with pagan correspondences, Bible readings with cautionary tales of wives stolen by trolls. (After hearing the latter, Margit imagines herself curled in a glass coffin as if sleeping, hauntingly touched by another story of violent stepmothers and sorcery.) There might be another world in that white-night sky of wings and seabirds' cries. The juniper tree that springs from a buried bone is as actual as the raven that roosts in its branches. I am reluctant even to describe the character of the mother as a ghost—we were told in the very first lines of the movie that her soul was bound to a bird's heart until the heart should break and that seems to be exactly what governs the duration of her appearance in the story. Perhaps all women's work in this world is witchcraft, spells, sight, and survival. Certainly we see no women who don't practice it, even Margit knotting a charm out of a raven's feather for Jónas to wear around his neck. When they lie under a black overhang of rock, playing a checkers-like game of shells on an outspread cloth and picking at her ambiguous origins ("But you can't change where you're from."–"But what if where you're from isn't there anymore?"), it takes only a small twist in the conversation before Jónas is angrily pelting his outlander stepmother's sister with the shells, drawing blood from her face like a mimicry of stones. "She's a witch," he chants vengefully, swashing the tasseled heads off child-high grasses, "she's a witch, she's a witch, she's a witch, she's a witch!" Katla grinds herbs for a spell of fertility with the same workaday motions with which she spins wool or sews pockets; when the time comes, she cuts fingers from hands and stitches lips as closed as Loki's with the same quiet practicality. I spent the second half of this movie waiting to see if someone would journey to the underworld and I'm not completely sure that they don't, disappearing over the rocky rim of the horizon like the sun winking out. It wouldn't make a difference to the narrative if not.

The Juniper Tree was written, produced, directed, and edited by Keene, who died in 2004 and left her archives to the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research and as near as damn it disappeared from the historical record. You could, if you felt like it, justly pair this movie with Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966), Pier Paolo Pasolini's Medea (1969), Neil Jordan and Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves (1984), or Aleksandr Rogozhkin's The Cuckoo (2002). I have never encountered it in discussion of any of them. I had never heard of it at all before last month. Even when I was agreeing to watch Dancer in the Dark with a college friend who was a major Björk fan, we didn't run across it, and it's not like I never read about cinematic adaptations of folktales. I am profoundly grateful it's in the wild again, even if I can't yet encourage everyone toward a home release; it reminded me of all the films mentioned above, but its images, its language, even its rhythms are deeply its own. The cinematography by Randy Sellars could be freeze-framed for icons, the uncanny effects by Pat O'Neill are as wrong and as familiar as dreams. It ends with a story where it began with a rhyme and it even fulfills its epigraph by T.S. Eliot. "And so they stayed behind and knew what the birds know," but if you want to know what that is, you'll have to let these ghosts of thread and feather and blood and 35 mm tell you. This spell brought to you by my seeing backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I couldn't remember the last time I'd watched a contemporary, mainstream, non-genre movie, so I decided to give one an experimental try. I picked Nicole Holofcener's The Land of Steady Habits (2018) because it was on Netflix and starred Ben Mendelsohn, whom I have liked ever since he strode across the rainy black sands of the planet Lah'mu in a dramatically unsuitable cape. I enjoyed it; I may even recommend it. I think I have much more of a framework for talking about film noir.

The title is a double-edged nickname for the state of Connecticut, in whose commuter-line suburbs the action, such as it is, of this astringent, empathic sort-of-comedy takes place. Metaphysically it is the plodding routine out of which our semi-hero imagined he would phoenix when he retired early from a high-flying finance job, divorced his wife of three decades, and moved out of their lovingly gardened five-bedroom into a cookie-cutter condo which he now decorates, quizzically and haphazardly, with retail-store knick-knacks and a superfluity of Christmas ornaments; actually all he did was blow up his life. The first time we catch sight of Anders Harris (Mendelsohn), he's staring with bemused determination at the rainbow-stacked walls of towels that dwarf his lanky, black-jacketed, basket-carrying figure at Bed, Bath & Beyond—a poetically dystopian shorthand for the combination of poshlost and decision freeze that now seems to govern Anders' life as he meanders through his aimless new routine of drinking too much and failing to satisfy the women he appears to meet exclusively while shopping, peering in at the windows of his old life as if not quite certain how he ended up on the outside of it, although his ex-wife Helene (Edie Falco) could tell him in so many words. "That's why we got divorced, right? We were all in the way of your happiness." Six months past her ex-husband's midlife implosion, she's the one blooming, her serious new relationship (Bill Camp) marred only by the disconnected incursions of Anders himself, loose end, loose cannon, loser in general. Did you hear about the time he drunkenly let himself into his old house and almost got conked with a golf club by his wife's new man? Or the time he did a hit off a bong with a bunch of high school kids and didn't even stop to ask if there was angel dust laced into that weed? He can't even summon the responsibility to co-parent his similarly floundering son Preston (Thomas Mann), instead falling into an awkwardly drug-fueled camaraderie with Charlie Ashford (Charlie Tahan), the sharp-spoken, artistically gifted, seriously troubled son of his former neighbors (Elizabeth Marvel and Michael Gaston). The Christmas season is coming on fast, one of those dry green winters we get so often nowadays. The two families chime and intertangle, slant-paralleled by their children whose flameouts are the visible symptoms of their parents' more successfully sublimated ills. Between them swings Anders in greying tardy adolescence, frequently absurd and never totally an asshole; what he is is what we don't know if he'll figure out before anyone else's life blows up to match.

In describing this film to [personal profile] spatch, I asked if it would be rude to liken it to American Beauty (1999) if that movie hadn't sucked on ice. I am afraid it is my major referent for white middle-class suburban angst on film; it is a genre I have consistently bounced off in literature, which means it intrigues me that I didn't hate The Land of Steady Habits. I think it helps that Anders, unlike Spacey's protagonist, does not signal his existential panic attack by setting his sexual sights on a teenager; he meets grotty-cute with fellow divorcée Barbara (Connie Britton) in the neon-pink men's room of a strip club where she groans, accepting the handful of wet paper towels that Anders chivalrously passes her over the top of the stall door, "I haven't thrown up in a club since I was twenty-two." With her, he can demonstrate a chagrined self-awareness that's better than self-deprecating charm, although he can still almost ruin a date just by opening his mouth at the end of it. (He manages to apologize for insulting her self-help book by admitting his own anomie, acknowledging that she does deserve her "best life." She accepts gracefully, settling into the bed behind him: "I know I do. That's why I bought the fucking book.") In terms of age-inappropriateness, it is messier and more interesting that he tries to treat like a rational age-mate an out-of-control adolescent desperately looking for a role model, and it is bracing that the film does not permit Charlie to find one in Anders. "You have the balls to live your life, dude!" the kid exhorts him, a two a.m. gate-crasher carrying a turtle in a blue cardboard Keds box, his wrists still braceleted with hospital ID plastic. "That's what sets you apart from the rest of these fucking zombies! You can't go halfway. You can't be you and stay in favor." Anders still full-body facepalming from the discovery that his idiot moment with the PCP has become the talk of their "really small town" is less than flattered by the proposition. I have seen Mendelsohn so often with violence simmering in his rangy frame, it's fascinating to see him play those same subcutaneous tensions for deadpan beats of comedy and a sympathy that the film never twists our arms to give. Nothing about the mess this character has made of his life valorizes or even emphasizes him past the fact that he's human and he's hurting: as with similar disaster zones played by Van Heflin, either that's enough or it isn't. Jurassic strata of cluelessness can flake off with a sudden glass-blue glance or a twitch of his long rueful mouth, or the density of his gaucherie can bring on its own pang of pity. Or just irritation. That is the other relevant difference from my memories of American Beauty, the possibility that Anders might be, in either the spiritual or the narratological senses, irredeemable, and if so the film would feel sorry for him but move on. We have the younger generation to worry about, so much more of their lives at the mercy of their mistakes. We have women like Barbara with her middle-aged curves and her gingery blonde mane of hair, apotropaically but sincerely worrying out loud that she's scared a date off by showing him photos of her adult kids. Turn the kaleidoscope and she could be the protagonist, or spiky Helene, or Sophie Ashford, gravely and piercingly taking care of the stray child within reach instead of her inaccessible own. In others of Holofcener's movies, I have the sense they would be.

As with Ida Lupino, I may have come into Holofcener's filmography at the least characteristic point: The Land of Steady Habits was her first movie with a male protagonist and her first time adapting and directing from another writer's material, in this case the same-named novel by Ted Thompson. I am not sure which of their faults it is that the film after an hour of gently drifting, colliding character study rather suddenly in the third act develops a plot, but while it's not a bad plot, it is signally less compelling to me than just watching these characters bounce around their lives in Westport, CT (played by Tarrytown, NY, which explains why I thought the downtown looked familiar). At its best it's as unpredictable as Anders and as impossible to look away from, whether trainwreck or grace; the cinematography by Alar Kivilo is mostly transparent prose, but every now and then it gifts the audience with a weird and lingering image like the opening shot of Anders vs. the towels or a boatyard of pleasure craft shrink-wrapped and dry-docked for winter like a flotilla of ghosts. Anders askew on a couch, his face illuminated blue-gold-green-pink by a multicolored tangle of Christmas lights. An open but untouched magnum of champagne being smashed, like a silent melodrama or a ship's christening, by the cowcatcher of an oncoming freight train. There are a couple of shots of salt marsh I'd swear I've seen from the Amtrak regional, the stiff tawny ripple of cordgrass and mirror-grey sea, gull-flecked seawalls, mirror-grey sky. Mendelsohn is wonderful, funny and heart-twisting and utterly natural once I got used to his American mumblecore accent; Britton is not in enough scenes, but she's brilliant in all the ones she gets. Tahan, Mann, Falco, even Gaston whose character is mostly defined by his cigar and his fondness for the word "irregardless" are all precise and recognizable people, types only insofar as the slice of affluent America to which they belong idiosyncratically exists. I'm all right with not living there, but I had a much better time with the parts that weren't salt marsh than I would have expected from a summary of prosperous ennui. This experiment brought to you by my steady backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
I went for a walk in the bright damp fragile sunlight in between sudden spates of downpour that we seemed to be getting this afternoon, all April in a day. It was cold and smelled like spring and I was thinking about Notre Dame, where eight days from now I will have been twenty years ago (it rained a lot on that trip, too), and so about cathedrals and loss and restoration and time and so about the movie on these themes that I have loved ever since it turned up like a coin in a field I hadn't known I'd been waiting to find and I have almost certainly written out more than strictly necessary to make clear a constellation that just fell into place in my head while I was looking at a wet blue strip of sky in a watercolor of clouds and the flat scrape of backhoe-cleared rubble where a warehouse that I was fond of used to stand, but I wanted a record of it, so you get one, too. Like everything else in that movie, it was there all along.

Twelve years ago when I first saw Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944), two years ago when I revisited it in context of the fantasy casting of Leslie Howard, like everyone else I associated it preferentially with Powell. Just about a week after that second post, I finally got the chance to read Kevin Macdonald's Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (1994) and learned I was totally wrong:

Emeric's vision was basically old-fashioned anglican Tory: a belief in the wisdom and beauty to be found in continuity and tradition. From his lips, of course, the message had a certain wistfulness, for it is the very continuity from which he was splintered in his own country long ago.

Although Emeric was not a practising Jew (he did, it seems, haphazardly observe the major Jewish festivals for a period later in life), nor Michael a practising Anglican, both had a mystical bent allied to a strong sense of morality, which was amplified by the war . . . [Emeric] proposed to set the film around Canterbury Cathedral and use Chaucer's
Canterbury Tales as a rough blueprint. In a press release he described his story as 'a tale of four modern pilgrims, of the old road that runs to Canterbury, and of the English countryside which is eternal.'

Michael, brought up in the shadow of the cathedral and the surrounding countryside, was understandably enthusiastic. But as he later admitted,
A Canterbury Tale was much less of a personal film for him than he had expected. He always said that it was the film which was most fully Emeric of all those they did together. Emeric went even further saying: 'This is the only one of them that is entirely mine.'

Along with all the critics I'd encountered to that point, I'd missed it: I'd been misled by the deep English geography combined with the fact that autochthonous Thomas Colpeper looked like a no-brainer analogue for Kent-born Powell while there was no emigré stand-in for Pressburger like Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). But if you look at this film with an eye to exile and continuity, then all four protagonists spring into focus as fragments of the author, each dispossessed and finding connection in their own ways. Macdonald sees the American character of Sergeant Bob Johnson as his grandfather's double, "the detached and intelligent eye, bemused by the quirkiness of British life," and I don't think he's wrong in this reading, I just think it's incomplete. I find it essential to the healing, inclusive quality of the film that while it opens with three strangers arriving in a close-knit community to find themselves in conflict with the figure who most seems to embody its values, as the story goes on it discards any interest in conventional oppositions like nationality, gender, class, or even the urban-rural divide, and definitions of in-group and out-group begin to parallax through one another as the American sergeant proves to be the one with the country know-how, the cynical cinema organist fits right into the cathedral, the London shopgirl loves the land and its archaeology, and the history-minded magistrate's right where he was born and he might be the most bewildered of them all. Everyone's out of joint and wounded. Everyone needs a blessing. Everyone gets one, however accidental or circuitous or misdirected their pilgrimage. Pressburger never got back what he himself had lost—more than one country, more than one language, more than one name, not to mention a career or two and an entire family to the Holocaust—but he wrote a world for his characters where everything is, if not quite where or what you left it, not gone after all. I find it an incredibly kind film, funny and endlessly rewatchable, simultaneously numinous and WTF. And even doing all this reappraisal two years ago I was still looking at Colpeper and not quite seeing him true.

I don't ever entirely expect to. He's a slippery character, no one's unproblematic avatar. It would be as much of a mistake to identify him uncomplicatedly with Pressburger as it was for me to call him an "apparent directorial stand-in" the first time I saw the film: Colpeper is defined as much by his ambiguity as he is by his devotion and I wouldn't want to call him any one thing beyond very well played by Eric Portman. He could be speaking for both halves of the Archers when he tells his audience of soldiers, "I was born here and my father was born here. You're here because there's a war on." But before I read Macdonald's biography of his grandfather, I figured it was mostly the director I was seeing in this ambivalent figure of authority who seems to be several different people by turns, magus and medium and troublingly nostalgic misfit, as easy with a scythe in his hand as Saturn of harvest and time, as petrified in himself as one of the cathedral statues he coolly resembles; now it feels important to me that Colpeper's the character who most desperately champions what I described even before reading Macdonald as "the continuity of human inhabitation and tradition" and the one who has to make the hardest and furthest leap to catch up to the present he lives in while still keeping faith with the past he loves. Passages from different chapters of Macdonald's book—

Imre grew up on the estate [managed by his father], with an intimate knowledge of the finer points of geese rearing, feeding and slaughtering cows and pigs, growing wheat and seasoning timber . . . Throughout his life he harked back to his idyllic rural childhood, and was forever aware of the continuity and values of rustic life.

Emeric began his methodical study of Britain right from the moment he stepped off the ferry from France. 'It is not easy being born at the age of 33,' he said, 'having to learn a language, a way of speaking, the history and background of a nation, even how to walk.' He read voraciously about British geography, etiquette and history. He was always fascinated and obsessed by reference books . . . His greatest find was a collection of about 300 slim, illustrated volumes, each of which dealt with the minutiae of a different aspect of British life, from Ascot to Zoology via Tea and the Monarchy.

—resonate on the slant, Colpeper's unquestioned roots in rural Chillingbourne mixed with an otherness so deep and lingering, it's all too easy to describe him as numen, genius, otherworldly: at home but unheimlich. The image of Pressburger obsessively studying his new nationality reminds me of Natasha Solomons' Mr Rosenblum's List (U.S. Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, 2010), another story where assimilation and outsiderness balance, albeit more explicitly, so perfectly that I couldn't tell you which gives rise to the plot. Therefore on some level I think it's funny that I spent so much time imagining Colpeper as Leslie Howard, because while Howard didn't come to his quintessential Englishness from as far out as Pressburger, he still came to it from the distance of identifiably Jewish parents and a childhood spent partly in his father's Austro-Hungarian Vienna. I feel like I triangulated through this connection in 2017 without really catching hold of it, even as I noted how often the actor's screen persona slid through not-one-of-us eccentricity and the irony-or-not of eulogizing the London-born, half-immigrant Howard né Steiner as "one of the few film-makers of quality whose thought and language were indigenous." It would have been the easiest link between actor and role, the outcomer who knows the land better than those who can take it for granted. Perhaps it was so close to home I couldn't see it. More likely I had just not read Macdonald and was still trying to read the film through Powell's Bekesbourne, not Pressburger's Miskolc. Still later that spring, I would discover that the writer assigned his own memories to a Holocaust victim in his novel The Glass Pearls (1966). Why should any other of his reflections have been straightforward?

In his introduction to A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969 (2019), which I just started reading last week, editor and translator Noam Sienna writes:

In collecting these texts I have been inspired by scholars like the medievalist Carolyn Dinshaw, who has argued that marginalized communities today can link themselves with the past through "shared contemporaneity," which involves imagining ourselves and our ancestors as participating in the same project, across time and space . . . The circular relationship to history that Dinshaw and [José Esteban] Muñoz propose, which constantly returns to the past as a "field of possibility" to reshape a new future, is not only characteristic of how queer communities might relate to time (what Muñoz calls "queer futurity") but also seems deeply Jewish. Many thinkers have suggested that Jewish history, too, can be understood as a non-linear, constantly recurring field of possibility, a sentiment articulated perhaps most famously by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi . . . [who] argues that the "enchanted circle" of Jewish tradition honors the emotional connections that link people and communities across time. All these frameworks—Yerushalmi's "eternal contemporaneity," Dinshaw's "shared contemporaneity," Muñoz' "field of possibility"—suggest that queer Jewish history must be constructed through an intertwining of past, present, and future.

Dinshaw would be important to this conversation no matter what because the epilogue to How Soon Is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (2012) contains some of the most perceptive and sympathetic criticism I've seen on Colpeper and A Canterbury Tale, but I can see that sense of shared contemporaneity she names in multiple films by the Archers, I can see it in more than one film starring Leslie Howard, I'm afraid I am never going to cease to find it funny that Lovecraft with all his horror of the stranger, the Other, got it from Howard via Berkeley Square (1933). I don't know who I got it from, but it's everywhere in the way I write about this city I live in, not to mention my fiction, my poetry, the ways I think about film. I am listening on repeat to some songs from an album that looks like an exercise in contemporaneity with Black ancestors. I've been seeing this kind of touching through time all night in the tributes of strangers and friends to Notre Dame. Which is where this whole chain of thought started, thinking about burnt cathedrals, bombed cathedrals, my first trip to Europe.

Anyway: of course A Canterbury Tale was Pressburger's. It's the one about strangers and belonging and holding fast and living here and now, just not in any of the expected configurations. Of course Howard's Jewishness rhymes with Portman's queerness, coming at their perfect Englishness from slightly different margins. No wonder there's a thread in this film that runs through Penda's Fen (1974) into Derek Jarman and now I'd say all the way into God's Own Country (2017). What I actually thought while walking was "entirely mine" and then of course Colpeper and then it took me this long to explain why outside my head. [personal profile] spatch tells me this is valid film criticism. I just think it's Tuesday. This time brought to you by my sharing backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
The first thing that happens to you, the viewer, when you watch Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss (1964), is that you get hit in the face with a handbag. It is being wielded by a furiously angry woman, her tousled bouffant suddenly snatched from her head by the man she's grimly beating to his knees, revealing a skull as naked as a mannequin's. Half-undressed, huge-eyed, with the insectile body of a fashionably starved model, she could be an alien fallen to earth among bad company; she's a prostitute on her way out the door with the seventy-five dollars her drunken pimp owed her, contemptuously leaving the rest of his cash scattered with the seltzer water over his unconscious face. Her last act is to rip up her own photograph like a bad contract while the air slings with brassy fast jazz. And after that tabloid splash of an introduction, we get a movie which is sometimes as stripped down as a parable by Bertolt Brecht and sometimes as poetically expressive as a Gothic fairy tale and occasionally resembles a collaboration between Friedrich Dürrenmatt and David Lynch, though really I think Lars von Trier may have spent entire stages of his career trying to make this movie. In fairness to Fuller and his no-budget, I believe you could in fact shoot this story on a black box soundstage with a lot of chalk marks on the floor, but only so long as you kept Constance Towers' powerhouse performance as Kelly, the hooker with a heart of wounds hoping for regeneration in the white picket dream of Grantville, U.S.A. She and Fuller not only got here first, they got here feminist. I hope Angela Carter approved.

[personal profile] asakiyume once referred to daylight in film noir as "the gaslighting sun" and while The Naked Kiss is emphatically not noir or even neo-noir despite its traffic in archetypes, it shares the genre's skeptical attitude toward the quotidian, the well-lit, and the respectable. Conventionally, we are primed to fear for the innocent in the dark wood, not the magdalene in suburbia. Pretend you can still be shocked by reversals of patriarchal morality and see our heroine as Fuller shoved her in the face of 1964. From the moment Kelly steps down off the interstate bus, silk-sheathed slim gams first like some ring-a-ding-ding fatale, she's not the snake in Paradise but the blamed Eve, an object of simultaneous lust and mistrust from the first man she meets, who just happens to be the law. She walks with the trim switch of a woman looking for trade, but the sight of a child temporarily unattended in a perambulator softens her not at all ironically. She has a sad wry mouth and a trick of smiling as if she doesn't quite believe it, especially at men; she loves to run her fingers through the short thick silky fair hair she was missing in that violent pre-credits introduction, shaved as punishment for bucking her pimp. Making time with her first and only john in Grantville, she maintains a cool come-on through obvious double-entendres ("I'm pretty good at popping the cork if the vintage is right") and a tantalizing elusiveness in the act itself, imagining a poem of night lakes and autumn leaves out of the "Moonlight Sonata" as her preoccupied pickup mumbles into her neck, "I'm tone-deaf." When she decides to change her life, she does so without sentiment or self-flagellation, merely a long look in the mirror, one hand tracing the hard beautiful bones of cheek and eye. Thereafter she can be found working at the Grantville Orthopaedic Medical Center, unfazed by cleft palates, quirked spines, or missing limbs; she's not ministering to the lepers, she likes kids and she's uncloyingly good with them, a godsend to the doctors and a den mother to the younger nurses, and we could be facing a quick cheery fadeout if she were not dogged, not so much by her past as by the last man to be part of it. It's a fact of this movie that even if I could picture it with production values exceeding pocket change, I have trouble imagining it better cast, and Anthony Eisley's Griff is no exception. Kelly's tone-deaf trick and Grantville's chief of police, he has a clever, narrow face, not really handsome; he looks best sexually rumpled, his tie loose and his hat knocked forward over his eyes—it feels more honest than his defender-of-the-peace act, especially once we learn he's the kind of all-American moralist who'll pay a woman for sex and then run her out of town for accepting his money. In fact he has a habit of forwarding troublesome girls—or girls he thinks'll be trouble—to "Candy à la Carte," the tawdry, glittery bordello just across the state line where he can be found regularly patronizing the "bonbons." We want him to be Kelly's ally, with his cynical kindness and the funny, easy rapport they share when he's not leaning on his shield. He's not even her knight in scuffed-up armor, tilting at exactly the wrong windmill with his relentless suspicions that might be nothing more than an unexamined case of the friend zone. The man of the hour instead looks like Michael Dante's J.L. Grant, playboy philanthropist scion of the town's founding family, Griff's best friend and the man who saved his life in Korea, "society's most eligible bachelor." To Kelly who can quote Goethe on active ignorance, he's the answer to a Byronic prayer, impossibly, intoxicatingly sophisticated. He has all the up-to-date accoutrements of reel-to-reel hi-fi and leopard-skin living room sets in a mansion of baroque and neoclassical bronzes; he courts her with a gift of Venetian glass, shows her home movies of gondoliers on the Grand Canal, murmurs in eerie, erudite echo of her own fancies that the "Moonlight Sonata" makes him think of autumn on Lake Lucerne. His kiss is somber, troubling, spellbinding. Griff in shadow looks like cheap noir, Grant like Gothic royalty. There's a kind of heavy, plastic beauty in his face that the film pushes right to the edge of repellence, decadent as his quotations from Baudelaire—and there's a secret, too, of course, because in what self-respecting Gothic, what American parable, what fairy tale, film noir, tabloid shock scoop isn't there? All these influences run together the moment Kelly enters a room and the world flips. It's no consolation if we saw it coming. We have to live in this country, too.

So far I suspect I have made this film sound myth-minded and socially conscious; now I have to explain how weird it is. It kites from exploitation to compassion without batting an eye, hip-checks its way through melodrama and new wave and poetic realism and a couple of genres that don't have names, just fevers. The dialogue can and often does reflect the psychology of its characters, but just as often it goes straight for the pulp ("That's enough to make a bulldog bust its chain," "I'll never strike at your past, not even with a flower," "Last week I realized the President was right and Charlie was dead and I'd never get married") and in any case it's spoken in a stylized vacuum of false-front streets and interiors so expediently redressed, they take on the unmoored here now nowhere of ritual or dream. Short scenes dissolve elliptically into one another, fading up the interchangeable passage of months or minutes until it feels like a waking jolt to see at last, as in our introduction to Grantville, an ordinary actual date on the banner hung out over Main Street. DP Stanley Cortez luckily had a knack for American dreamscapes and he photographs this one lyrically and angularly, crisp slants of shadow and the luminosity of white skin enhancing rather than papering over the theatricality of the staging. Only once does the film break into outright expressionism, when a 16 mm reverie of Venice launches a sofa like a gondola into a black soundstage void of falling leaves and a full-throated tenor aria of "Santa Lucia," but its smaller moments can be equally, boldly unreal, like the sight of a beaten madam with her mouth crammed full of money or a wedding veil settled like a shroud over a still profile. A seamstress lives with the dummy she named and decorated after her fiancé lost in WWII. A stragglingly sweet children's song curdles in the reprise. If the literary references of the screenplay hint at monsters of the Romantic imagination—vampires, Erlkönig—its pop culture is strictly from Fuller, with Shock Corridor (1963) on the local marquee and a paperback of The Dark Page (1944) Kelly's preferred park-bench reading. But this cracked hall of mirrors turns back on the protagonist, too: nearly every female role in this film refracts out somehow from Kelly's hopes, fears, and history, disparities in age, class, or sexual status immaterial. How often do you see a thirtysomething former sex worker as Everywoman? This seems a reasonable place to mention that while The Naked Kiss tells, with remarkable frankness, far more than it ever shows, it does assume an audience capable of thinking about sexual violence, toward adults and children, defined both precisely and pervasively. In its unsensationalized recognition of normative heterosexual behavior as something trivially, almost absently perverted into inequality and abuse, it's a worthy successor to Ida Lupino's Outrage (1950); I was reminded even more strongly of some pre-Codes, that being the last major era of Hollywood film when a prostitute could be the most emotionally mature and moral character onscreen. It feels important to me that the film sees nothing saintly or superheroic in Kelly's fierce solidarity with other women in trouble, whether she uses her savings or the heel of her shoe to help them out; she is merely treating them like people, which is more than their local police can be bothered to do. The real provocation is the assertion that as a conventionally "bad" woman she may be better equipped to detect the rottenness in Grantville to which its more innocently sheltered—or willfully ignorant—citizens are blind, not because she has an affinity for it, but because she's survived its like. "Once before, a man's kiss tasted like that . . ." The man she's telling the story to thinks it's so much eyewash, but any viewer who has ever met someone whose signals are all just slightly off will know better. Viewers inclined to doubt the word of a tall, hard, lanky ex-hooker on principle, well, there may be a reason this film started with someone getting smacked upside the head.

Last night when I was talking to [personal profile] rushthatspeaks, they mentioned the genre of horror where the monster is patriarchy, and how sometimes the movies seem to know it and sometimes they don't; this one knows it. In the fictional film series I keep at the back of my head, I am inclined to class it with Mervyn LeRoy's Heat Lightning (1934), Karyn Kusama's Jennifer's Body (2009), and even Noel Black's Pretty Poison (1968), another presciently Lynchian small-town genre-blender; regarding von Trier, all I'm going to say is that the second half of The Naked Kiss makes the contracting determinism of Dancer in the Dark (2000) even less interesting to me. I must thank [personal profile] gwynnega, who encouraged me to give Fuller's films a try: I can only hope the rest of them are as weird, wise, and unapologetic. The film is currently streaming on Kanopy and available on Blu-Ray/DVD from Criterion if you would like to test this claim for yourself, but I loved it. It's even got Patsy Kelly. The last shot is as exactly right as a sentence by Le Guin. This satisfaction brought to you by my strong backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I must warn you in advance that -30- (1959) has some of the worst scoring it has ever been my misfortune to encounter stuck to a film. Despite the presence of a composer's name in the credits, it sounds like a recycled collage of wackier, sappier library music and old TV cues: it's cartoonish where the film is sardonic, motivational where the film is matter-of-fact, and does its best to flood real emotion off the screen on a wave of syrup; in sum, it's like someone constantly elbowing you in the ribs to make sure you know this is the sad part and this is the funny part and this is the tense part and it's a shame, because the movie is otherwise a small gem in no need of assistance with its suspense, its humor, or its heartstrings.

Produced and directed by Jack Webb from an original screenplay by one-time reporter William Bowers, -30- is another kind of procedural, less crime-minded than Dragnet; it's an eight-hour slice of life on the evening shift of a city paper modeled so closely on the Los Angeles Examiner that the set with its water coolers and hanging fluorescents and pigeons milling about on the ledges outside was recreated from the real-life paper's offices. There's a big story and a lot of small ones and they are all satisfactorily, somewhat thematically resolved by the time the presses roll for the morning edition, but it's much more a portrait of a workplace and the people in it than any singular protagonist's progress from A to B. The danger of this ensemble approach is that a narrative can feel diffuse or abstract, all individuality subsumed into an equal-opportunity collective which is great for socialist realism but fatal where a profession as traditionally fast-paced and highly colored as the newspaper business is concerned. Even on a slow news night that begins with nothing but girlie pictures, a betting pool on an actress' pregnancy, and a likely front-page story about whooping cranes, -30- is humming like linotype with personality, tangily conveyed by one of the funniest scripts for a non-comedy I have run into since The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). So we get the forty-year rewrite veteran whose grandson is making a high-speed test flight from Honolulu to New York and the cigar-clipping city editor whose default register of interaction with everyone from the terrorized copy boys to the amused managing editor is an aria of sarcasm ("Oh, we're going to have a newspaper all right. Lots of pages with print on it, folded together just right, headlines in the right place—") and the beneficiary of nepotism champing at the bit for a real assignment and the press agent always trying to boost his latest property and the staff artist still morose over working his butt off at art school just to redraw maps of storm drains and the double-duty editor willing to wedge a third desk into his office for the chance to report on the weather ("Why, I'll bet I've known a cumulonimbus cloud from a cirrus since I was four years old!"–"And that's good?"–"It's just an indication") and the senior copyreader whose green eyeshade is just about as bilious as his view of human nature, his own included, and they don't feel like types or cogs, they feel like intelligent, hard-worked, cooped-up people being cranky and rhetorical and stack-blowing and supportive at one another and generally sounding like champions while they do it. I think it may have done these characters no favors in the '50's that when they talk about the important things, they do so with self-protective understatement or hyperliterate irony, but it's actually a style that ages very well. It is understood that they feel deeply, but rarely do they leave even a serious conversation without returning it wryly to earth. The plot can then encompass lost children and media frenzy and fears of commitment and futility and failure without feeling melodramatically heavy; for starters, no matter how down everyone gets, the daily paper still has to go out on time. I like when the ME finishes comforting one of his staff by noting, "Besides, what would be so tough about being a power that's greater than we are?" but I really love the copyreader steering a rapidly-revealing exchange back to safe expostulation with "Well, thanks! Getting a little gassed up on occasion's the only vice I've got left. Now you've gone and loused that up for me!"

-30-'s cast is mostly drawn from radio and TV and they are impeccable, from William Conrad as the Los Angeles Banner's answer to Orson Welles to Richard Deacon as the inexhaustibly unimpressed artist, James Bell as the seen-it-all copyreader, Joe Flynn as the newcomer wire editor, and various turns of eagerness, hard-sell, dreaminess, and frustration from actors like Richard Bakalyan, Dick Whittinghill, Jonathan Hole, and David Nelson, with Webb himself anchoring—but not crowding—the ensemble as the managing editor who comes to work every Thursday night from laying flowers on a grave. Knowing him mostly as stonefaced Sergeant Joe Friday, I really enjoyed seeing how warm, wry, and springy he is as Sam Gatlin, brushing off the PR flack with the folder full of glamour shots, "No, my wife gets real psychotic if I show any interest in naked female children," and then seriously to the suggestion that he just not tell his wife, "That isn't the answer, Fred." His wife is played by Whitney Blake and when she makes a rare visit to his office, they nuzzle and flirt so endearingly that we understand her picture on his desk is not a rote gesture. The glamour shots turn out to be of "Miss Arkansas of 1959" Donna Sue Needham, whose undoing of an overcoat in the newsroom occasions the only appropriate musical cue in the picture—a sudden whammy from the brass section—and a series of Tashlin-esque oomph gags, why not? On the other hand, this movie gives the traditional bonding of veteran and rookie to two women without a hint of gawking: Louise Lorimer's "Lady" Wilson has been the backbone of the Banner since 1917 and Nancy Valentine's Jan Price is just filing her first copy tonight, but they're damn good newspaperwomen and there are no exceptions about them. We see other women on staff, just as see all sorts of action in the background that the script does not concentrate on, typewriters clattering, proofs being checked, endless cups of coffee being carried back and forth. A newsroom is a busy place. And we get a good sense of it, as an ecosystem as well as an architectural space, with Edward Colman's cleanly lit cinematography ranging across open-plan desks and through glass doors and even around corners to the restrooms, where Conrad's Jim Bathgate is suspiciously trying to track down the incongruous sound of bongos. (The copy boys are lamenting their lot. The hungry i is in no danger of hearing from their agent any time soon.) The rain drips off the cranked-open jalousie windows in Sam's office, beaded with neon reflecting from the all-night diner across the street. The same rain is filling up the storm drains beneath the city, where a three-year-old girl went missing hours ago with her dog. That's the big story and none of these professionally hardboiled, scoop-chasing people wants to see it end badly, but it's their job to print the headlines either way. Even an overexcited squiggle of strings can't ruin the moment the crucial call comes in.

At the end of his paean to the newspaper—fish-wrap, dropcloth, puppy-training aid—Bathgate concludes, "It only costs ten cents, that's all. But if you only read the comic section or the want ads, it's still the best buy for your money in the world." I don't know if I would go so far as to make the same claim for -30-, but I watched it without expectations and was then very sorry to hear it was the last of only three feature films directed by Webb. He has a nice ear for the rhythms of breezy or difficult conversation and a nice eye for details that imply entire histories, like the pair of side-by-side swivel chairs with "HARVEY" and "JOE" respectively swiped across their backs in white paint. Every now and then the dialogue tilts expository or the plot turns too-precise and then it always catches itself. I truly wish to excise all non-diegetic music in this movie from my memory as well as from the film stock, but the good news is that most of it was sufficiently generic that I remember only how much it annoyed me. The title is the traditional journalist's sign-off and the film appropriately ends with it. I reviewed this movie by request of [personal profile] spatch, who likes newspaper stories; I hope I have done justice to its small but not insubstantial charms. It isn't noir at all. This edition brought to you by my literate backers at Patreon.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
Despite some marvelous outliers, March has not been the greatest of months. I spent too much time in too much pain and especially during the middle weeks of the month I did not write about any of the movies I watched from my couch because it was hard enough just to finish my day work on time. Most of them were film noir; it really is a comfort genre for me. Now that my critical faculties are beginning to return, I thought I might at least mention them in passing. Think of it as a very slow marathon.

The Tattooed Stranger (1950) boasts the rare pulp title that describes its premise exactly: when the shotgun-blasted body of a young woman is discovered by a dog-walker in Central Park, the only identifying mark on her is the eagle, globe, and anchor of the United States Marines Corps inked at her wrist. A streetwise homicide veteran and a science-minded rookie pursue their meager leads through the beaneries and tattoo parlors and overgrown vacant lots of low-budget location-shot New York. Alas, the execution can be judged by the fact that for the next two or three movies I watched, [personal profile] spatch had to listen to me saying, "Well, it can't be worse than The Tattooed Stranger." It's not an incompetent or an offensive movie. It's just an extremely routine programmer of a police procedural released by RKO during the profligate and inefficient tenure of Howard Hughes when it seemed that in order to get greenlit, a picture either had to star Jane Russell or cost chump change to make. The latter is the case here, with the plot built out by director Edward Montagne and producer Jay Bonafield from their documentary short Crime Lab (1948) but any human interest angle left to fend for itself—I like that an invaluable clue is provided by an invasive species of grass and that the brisk botanist who identifies it at the Museum of Natural History is female, but her ensuing romance with the rookie cop is less intelligible to me than the long string of insurance rackets the Jane Doe turns out to have been running. No one gets a charisma assist from the script. I found myself most compelled by the characters of the tattoo artists who practice on a decidedly gritty clientele in the Bowery and the Navy Yard ("Picturesque, painless, and permanent—$5 and up, depending on the size and artistry required") and otherwise the real star of this 64-minute B-filler is New York City incarnated in hospital basements and boarding-house walkups, skyscrapers eclipsed and traffic divided by the soot and shadows of the Third Avenue El. A suddenly chiaroscuro sequence with a knife-wielding bum is more out of place than scary, the rest of the film is so flatly documentary. Much better is a chase scene through the boards and weeds and laundry lines of tenement back gardens and best of all the climactic shootout among the whited sepulchres of a stonecutters' yard, its conclusion an ironic chime of more tattooed anonymity. I do like the skeptical veteran being reminded by his captain, "Grow up, Corrigan. This business has changed since we were chasing runaway beer wagons on Bleecker Street."

If the title of Scene of the Crime (1949) doesn't tell you it's a procedural, the pre-credits image of a sprawled dead body with a gun painstakingly retrieved from the sidewalk cement just beyond reach of its fingers should give a clue. Under the rest of the titles, we observe a ballistics test, the examination of bullets by comparison microscope, an investigation report filled out by the crime lab of the LAPD. It's an assurance of technical authenticity that the film itself will be only sort of interested in following up on, but at least it's never dull as it chases a cop-killing mixed with the unpredictable violence of two downstate hoods making trouble for the local bookmaking syndicate who might or might not have had the protagonist's former partner on their payroll. Roy Rowland's direction is unfussy, the majority of the low-lit atmosphere—the one day scene in this picture is reserved until the crime plot's been wound up—velvetily supplied by the cinematography of Paul Vogel. Charles Schnee's screenplay turns the true-crime source material into a ricochet game of hardboiled rhetorical figures, a delicious half-tone off from real human slang. "You're dealing in dirt with the dirtiest, but it's pay dirt." "Look at that eye. Belongs on a bun with relish." "A figure like champagne and a heart like the cork." "There's a crime on every page to fit me." It's A-noir from MGM, but it mitigates the gloss by casting all three of its stars against type: all-American boy-next-door Van Johnson as a tough-humored detective lieutenant, frequently fatale Arlene Dahl as his devoted wife, and ingenue Gloria DeHaven as a baby-doll stripper, a piece of blonde candy you could break your teeth on. Above all, the film is a showcase for character actors, from second billing to indelible bit players. My favorites among the latter include Tom Powers as a bookie-joint boss lining up his own suspects like a precinct captain of the underworld and Robert Gist as a dolefully rumpled shamus nursing his second shiner of the week and lamenting the deleterious effects of the movies: "Every schmegegg thinks he can beat up a private eye—and I'm no Humphrey Bogart. He gets slugged and he's ready for action. I get slugged and I'm ready for pickling." William Phipps and Jeff Corey can be glimpsed among the local color. Bespectacled and stogie-chewing, John McIntire desperately confused me by looking like a dead ringer for Christopher Lloyd, but the scene-stealer is Norman Lloyd as the "Sleeper," a bored-eyed stool pigeon with a noisy jacket and a quiet voice, always touched with the flick-knife of a smile. This movie ends with a car-ramming mid-street machine-gun battle still impressive by the action standards of today, but its real menace traces to bland-browed Lloyd, gently shaking his head in the back seat of our hero's car: "You know, I really could've killed you, huh? Yuck-yuck."

I started watching Violent Saturday (1955) for the title; then it turned out to be a noir in Eastmancolor and CinemaScope, which is not usually how the genre goes. It was shot in Bisbee, Arizona and if you ever wanted to see an open-pit copper mine look really good, this movie is it. By day, "Bradenville" looks baked bright as a mural; by night it shimmers somberly. I like the idea and even the effect of a noir that's anything but and it uses its horizon-line stretch and its alternately raw and carefully toned palette for some stunning shots, like a high-speed train streaming toward the camera out of a sky of far blue mountains, the long trees of telephone wires, and a clear early sun through white stacks of industrial smoke; it vanishes in a cloud-banded distance like turquoise. I just can't rhapsodize quite as much about the plot. Scripted by Sydney Boehm, it's an ambitious dovetailing of a Spoon River Anthology-like portrait of a small town with the ticking bomb of a bank robbery planned by outsiders who can bring in chaos but not corruption; we are already privy to too many of the seams and foibles of this community, of which infidelity, alcoholism, furtive theft, and blatant voyeurism are just a few of the flavors on offer. Only the Amish family on the outskirts of town appear to be free of dark secrets, which mostly means we fear all the more for their innocence. We have been promised the title; the characters in their self-absorbed, self-destructive orrery have no idea. The differing protocols of noir and melodrama make the fallout of their inevitable collision hard to predict. Unfortunately for me, I found myself responding to this model of tension-building as if it were a disaster movie, where the audience knows that any storyline, no matter how high-stakes, can be short-circuited by the sudden advent of earthquakes, volcanoes, meteors, icebergs, and I sort of checked out on the narrative momentum and ended up caring most about individual moments. However sticky an end I was guaranteed of him meeting, I really enjoyed Lee Marvin as a benzedrine-snorting hard case whose night-before nerves manifest not in edgy violence but in quiet reminiscence about his ex-wife and her winterlong colds. I am ambivalent about the ultimate payoff of the thread with Victor Mature, whose young son has become ashamed of him because his wartime job was stateside copper production, not punching Nazis, but I like that the mine manager himself has nothing to prove: "Things like that, it's better if they didn't happen to you at all." I could have watched even more of the minimal subplot concerning the librarian played by Sylvia Sidney and the bank manager by Tommy Noonan: he catches her stuffing a stolen and emptied purse into the garbage, but is stopped mid-condemnation by her contemptuous realization that he was only loitering in the alley because he was peeping through an uncurtained window at his crush object undressing; not knowing the explosive day they're in for, they part on the bad terms of mutual blackmail and make respectively triumphant and timorous eye contact in the bank the next morning. And it's all smashed to pieces when the third act hits, but director Richard Fleischer at least knows how to stage a hold-up, a chase, and a gunfight for maximum sweat and shock, even if his characters all spin around bloodlessly when shot. Allowing for these small niceties of the PCA, the violence levels in this picture point due Peckinpah.

Gerald Mayer's The Sellout (1952) is sometimes stiff and sometimes superfluous and I'm not sure its bait-and-switch of protagonists works as well as the similar trick in Psycho (1960), but I disagree with the contemporary review highlighted by TCM which dismissed it as an "Eastern . . . Instead of horses, the principals use late model autos, no wide brim Stetsons but snap brim soft hats, long barreled .44's are replaced by snub-nosed .38's to inter the squealer and incarcerate the crooks." Without getting into a critical appraisal of the Western and its relations with other genres, I really think this film's just noir. Really noir, philosophically-sociologically as well as stylistically. The puzzle-pieces of its plot are cops and criminals and newspapermen, but its big picture is the trivial ease with which it observes the systems of American law enforcement and criminal justice to be corrupted; if it hedges its bets a little by positioning its villain as an unusually bad apple, it's still playing for keeps when it points out how healthily he's anchored to the tree. After a speed-trapped traffic stop leads to a night of brutality—both witnessed and endured—in the cells of a county sheriff accustomed to running his jurisdiction like his own little for-profit prison (Thomas Gomez), the crusading editor of the St. Howard News-Intelligencer (Walter Pidgeon) devotes himself to a blistering exposé of the "Robber Baron of Route 54" only to disappear as sharply as a pulled story just as the state government gets involved. Now a state's attorney and a local police captain take up the thread of the investigation; they are played sympathetically and not infallibly by John Hodiak and Karl Malden, they hold idealistically opposed opinions on the editor's vanishing act, and they are enmeshed in the system they are trying to fight. Even without witness intimidation and evidence tampering, it's uphill work to get anything on Gomez's Burke. He may be abusing the law, but that's not necessarily the same as breaking it. What's not noir about that? I wish the film itself were as tight as its convictions; it has a tendency to lose focus and jump to catch up and none of the leads, despite their casting, are as vivid as the bit parts, like the sexily but criminally wasted Audrey Totter as a roadhouse B-girl or razor-straight little Frankie Darro as one of the goons of Burke's jail. I forgive it a lot, however, for giving the moral clarity to Whit Bissell as the only one of Burke's victims willing to say as much in court—an almost stereotypical little guy, especially early on in his flat cap with two bits and a bus token to his name, but his voice is just as deep and steady as his thin elfin face almost never looks and it doesn't falter, even when he tells the prosecutor how his wife's got the article about his arrest clipped out in the family scrapbook. The courtroom scene, for the record, is a preliminary hearing, not a trial. The ending is better than equivocal, but when the law goes up against its enforcers there are no guarantees.

The trouble with Scandal Sheet (1952) is that I liked it and I'm not sure what else I have to say. It was directed by Phil Karlson from a hardboiled novel by Samuel Fuller called The Dark Page (1944); its cinematographer was noir veteran Burnett Guffey, who starts the shadows rolling with the drums of the printing press that the five-cent title credits are hot off of; it stars Broderick Crawford as a tabloid editor on the brilliantly cynical hook of a crime he can't keep his newshounds from investigating because it's exactly the bread and butter of a sleaze-rag like the New York Express. His best ambulance chaser is John Derek, whose puppy-eyed ice-cream face camouflages his readiness to retraumatize a witness just so long as he gets all the gory details of a domestic slaying before the police run him off. His staff photographer is the sleazily cigar-sucking Harry Morgan, who evaluates corpses like pin-ups: "You know, that wasn't a bad-looking dame. Too bad the guy used an axe on her head. Spoiled some pretty pictures for me." The only person within shouting distance of the newsroom who seems to have a conscience is feature writer Donna Reed and she's an endangered, albeit tenacious holdover from the pre-Broderick days. But the real blast from the past is Rosemary DeCamp as an inconvenient abandoned wife—vicious and poignant, her scenes spill a long shadow across the rest of the story, black as printer's ink or gelatin silver blood. Once Morgan's snapping her picture, there's little doubt about the eventual endgame of this story, but getting there is a seamy, rackety, irony-rich ride and it looks and sounds just as acrid as it should, from a self-righteous shareholder denouncing Broderick's latest circulation-grabbing stunt as "A newspaper staging a cheap vulgar display in order to attract the stupid slobs of the city!" to Broderick himself grinning at the clichéd threat of needle and haystack: "A needle's nothing but a hunk of steel if you got nothing to sew." Most of its New York is studio and suggestion, but it opens with an airy pan of skyline that almost at once burrows down into matchsticked demolition sites and union suits flapping off fire escapes in the flat glare off the East River. A later nighttime sequence on Skid Row may discreetly employ rear projection, but it still leaves wind chill in your bones, the lateral lights of the elevated rattling by above the shuttered storefronts, as incandescent and out of reach as stars.

And the trouble with While the City Sleeps (1956) is that it deserves its own post, because it didn't totally work for me and I keep thinking about it. In the improbable alternate history where Fritz Lang and Casey Robinson would have taken my advice, I can tell you what I would have cut out: not only is the characterization of the leather-jacketed mama's boy "Lipstick Killer" lazily reliant on predigested pop-psych and Senator Estes Kefauver's feelings about comic books, it's utterly unnecessary for him to have any characterization at all. He's the MacGuffin. He strangles a woman with his motorcycle gloves on and leaves a tauntingly Freudian message lipstick-scrawled on her wall; after that his mortal particulars matter only insofar as an embarrassment of top-drawer talent—Dana Andrews, George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Howard Duff, Rhonda Fleming, Sally Forrest, Vincent Price, Ida Lupino for God's sake—are cutting one another's throats to catch him in exchange for a newly created right-hand position in the Kyne media empire. Never mind that the prize might be booby, dangled by a spoilt heir who just doesn't want to waste his jet-setting time running the business himself. It's sufficient excuse for enough conniving, backstabbing, and seduction to fuel a primetime soap; the sheer shamelessness of it is almost black comedy, except that women's bodies are piling up while the reporters, editors, and broadcasters of Kyne Enterprises are busy playing Diadochoi. All of this is scabrously great and doesn't even twitch my accidental misogyny tripwires, not least because the women of City scheme too actively to register as mere collateral benchmarks even when endangered by their machismo-distracted men. I can't think right now of another noir in which a woman seduces a man to compromise him—not to enthrall or distract him, just to dent his reputation and diminish his authority, a liaison dangereuse of the dark city. (The woman is Lupino and the man is Andrews and their brandied-up back-seat grappling is paired perfectly with a miserably hungover Andrews the next morning, insisting to about-to-be-ex-fiancée Forrest that nothing happened because he got sick while homicide detective Duff mercilessly and correctly reminds his old friend that failure to launch does not absolve him of intent to explode.) We're braced for one or more of the female characters to fall to the killer, especially after a brazen on-air callout offers up the nicest of them as bait, but not for their encounters to play more like final girl than damsel in distress. Combined with the careening amorality of the newsmen, their resilience gives the film some of the pleasingly pre-Code overtones that can be found in noir, encouraged further by the overstuffed pace and the occasional audience spit-take, as when wire chief Sanders mordantly eyes a mercenary slob of a reporter: "Well, then how can I be sure of him? Do I sleep with him?" And then at the last minute some kind of moral order appears to assert itself. Perhaps I should blame the source novel by Charles Einstein, but the film really earns its cynical ending which sees our antiheroes finishing last for not having sold out their principles enough, and then it all but reverses these downer deserts for an epilogue that owes less to established characterization than wishful thinking. I'd've cut that, too. All the same, the majority of the movie is fast, intricate, brassy late noir, lensed by Ernest Laszlo with a kind of sharp lack of affect until the subterranean finale, and everyone at least once in their lives should get the chance to hear Dana Andrews enunciating precisely, "The fact that I can say 'inimical' proves just how drunk I am." If I have to go around muttering the song by Saint Eve, now you do too.

I have to include Blackmail (1929) as a kind of bonus round because I can't by any stretch of linear time call it a film noir, but it is absolutely an ancestor. It has the abyss that opens in the midst of everyday life, the assumption of familiar objects into nightmare, a deeply ambivalent ending that calls into question the security of everything from justice to love. I had seen the silent version seven years ago, at that time thinking mostly about how it fit or didn't into its director's canon: supposedly shot with a stealthy ear to sound release, it was Alfred Hitchcock's last silent and first talkie. Perhaps because this time I could hear the rhythms of speech and silence in real time, I couldn't help but notice how persistently the heroine (played by Anny Ondra but voiced, eat your heart out, Singin' in the Rain, by Joan Barry live on set because the post-sync technology that would have made it possible to dub over Ondra's Czech accent didn't exist yet) is talked over, spoken for, and otherwise shushed up by the systems that are supposed to amplify and protect her, crystallized by the take-charge misapprehension of her policeman boyfriend (John Longden—good-looking but stolid, which is all the part needs). Like a forerunner of The Blue Gardenia (1953), Ondra's Alice goes home with a charming artist only to leave a most uncharming scene for the forensic services of Scotland Yard, but then on top of the guilt that conjures Shakespearean daggers from cocktail-shaker neon and repeatedly jabs the word knife out of a stream of breakfast-table gossip, she has to contend with the insinuations of an opportunistic "sponger," which is where Longden's Frank half-cluelessly steps in. Surely we can't be intended to imagine him a hero, with his grim satisfaction at railroading the man who threatened his girl. Dude is bringing a nightstick to a slapfight. Cyril Ritchard's Crewe was at least a smooth operator with his light comedy singing and his racy line drawings. Donald Calthrop's Tracy is a shabby little nobody, a petty ex-con who lounges ostentatiously with a cigar he hasn't paid for and tucks heartily into someone else's breakfast when he thinks he's got the upper hand; he has a clever character face and a trick of diffidence even at his slimiest, a stubbly, menacing shadow against a dead man's door by night and a much less impressive figure on the killer's doorstep the next morning, a nervous actor somewhat overplaying his big scene. All he's got is the glove in his pocket, his word against a woman's reputation. He's such small fry and the danger he poses to Alice so real that I was struck almost as much by his nonentity as by the way he collapses into sympathy when pinned for the crime he didn't commit, all his stolen swagger knocked out of him as physically as if he'd taken a punch in the ribs. You can make an audience feel for anyone when they're prey: he panics and he's hunted and it doesn't erase the savor he took in holding his evidence over a woman already daywalking through trauma, but it is hard to feel that his fate really is justice served. I got the title quote of this post from him. I might as easily have taken it from Alice herself: "Well, I don't think I want to go to the pictures." The chase scene through the British Museum is still great.

Normally at the end of a marathon I go for donuts or take a nap or something, but in this case I just attended rehearsals and saw doctors and slowly recovered from the medical whammy of this month. I watched six of these movies on TCM and one on Kanopy and I am sure most of them can be found on various home formats; I regret none of them, even if just for the scenery. Whatever else this genre is doing, at least it's trying to think. This lineup brought to you by my questioning backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
I'm not entirely sure where to start with Simon (1980). It's almost easier for me to describe it by the movies it's not. It resembles Network (1976) by way of Steven Wright; it recalls Being There (1979) with more cynical Jewish humor; it's sort of the whoopee cushion version of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Writer-director-producer Marshall Brickman co-wrote his first three movies with Woody Allen, but his solo debut, despite its chronic sarcasm, is notably lacking in the squirminess that made me want to tell everyone in Manhattan (1979) to get themselves an actually good therapist and stop bothering me. I had no idea it existed until it ran last week on TCM, after which I waited until the absolute last minute to watch it off the buffer because I was really afraid that if a sci-fi-tinged black comedy featuring Alan Arkin, Judy Graubart, Austin Pendleton, and Madeline Kahn failed to live up to its star power, it would just depress me. It did not depress me. If you can imagine what a satire looks like when it's simultaneously bleak and gentle and ambitiously indebted to the Algonquin Round Table, okay, that's where to start.

The trouble begins at the super-secret Institute for Advanced Concepts, a streamlined white block on a green hillside occupied by "five of the most brilliant—and twisted—geniuses in America." Originally assembled by the government to solve the standard think-tank problems of world hunger and renewable energy, then left to their own devices with infinite funding and zero oversight, the combined intellects of Dr. Carl Becker (Pendleton) and his colleagues Hundertwasser (Max Wright), Barundi (Jayant), Van Dongen (Wallace Shawn), and Fichandler (William Finley) have devolved into high-concept practical joking with the occasional outcropping of good old mad science, like single-handedly keeping the worst of American TV on the air by use of judicious Nielsen jamming or improving the fragile human genome by crossbreeding with the hardy cockroach. "The Nixon who entered China in 1972," we are nonchalantly informed, "was not the one we sent back." Their imaginations fired by an innocuous NYT item noting the rising belief in extraterrestrials, these Strangeloves of the Carter administration are fatefully inspired to give the public what it wants, if only to see what chaos will reign when they get it: a real live alien. "Find a little orphan, do a little job on him . . . A few changes here and there—blood, various fluids—I have a thought about a primal trauma!" Perfect for their purposes is Simon Mendelssohn (Arkin), a feverishly unsuccessful assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University; introduced bicycling across campus in a flapping camel-hair coat and a knit-browed expression of mental heavy weather, he's the kind of would-be iconoclast who invokes Heisenberg, Zen Buddhism, and Wittgenstein in the same barely attended lecture before declaring that the answer to global warming is to turn the Earth into a spaceship and "move to another solar system where there is food and water and air—it can happen!" The latest craze in his quest for self-actualization is sensory deprivation, which his semi-girlfriend Lisa (Graubart) views with unresigned skepticism: "Do you remember what happened last time with the peyote?" It takes exactly one ego-gratifying sentence from Becker to get him on a helicopter to the Institute, all too easily suckered into believing that his screwloose mediocrity has won him the grant of a lifetime when really he's just being studied for the best cracks into a psyche that already sees no issue with conversational icebreakers like "Do you know that if I hyperventilate for ten minutes, I really do some very interesting things, creatively?" One hundred and ninety-seven hours in a float tank and one Spielbergian false memory later, Simon is ready to make his first pronouncements to humanity—as an alien messiah from the Orion Nebula. Valentine Michael Smith, hang on to your hat.

The thing I really like about Simon is how relaxed it is in its weirdness. I can imagine a much faster, wackier version of this plot, but until the final wind-up it just sort of ambles along to its own off-beat, tongue firmly in cheek unless it's poking it out at some aspect of American pop culture. The Institute for Advanced Concepts looks like a Brutalist greenhouse and is lettered everywhere in trendily lowercase Helvetica. Its on-call supercomputer is voiced by Louise Lasser and resembles, proto-Siri, a gigantic touch-tone telephone. The script's almost reflexive condemnation of disco is a cheap shot even for 1979, but in this our era of hipster beards I feel the allegation that "mutton chops and a mustache look moronic and they give the country a very, very bad image" hasn't dated at all. When Simon unfurls his list of demands for the betterment of humanity, they are exactly the kind of pet peeve writ as the decline of civilization that will never go out of comedy style:

"One—All Muzak in elevators, airports, restaurants, and other public rooms will cease immediately. Two—No more children or animals may be used to sell products. Three—Lawyers who lose cases will go to jail with their clients. Four—No doctor may write a diet book. Any doctor who does will immediately lose his license and become a dentist. Five—I think we don't really need a House of Representatives and a Senate. The Romans didn't have one, so let's just have a Senate, okay? Which reminds me, I think it would be a very good idea from now on all politicians who appeared in public wore a cone-shaped party hat. Not bad, huh? Six—Pollution. Anybody who owns a factory that makes radioactive waste has to take it home at night with him to his house. Seven—Anybody who says, 'I'm trying to get centered,' 'You're invading my space,' or 'Far out' will be fined $50. Make that $100."

Whether giving hermetically sealed press conferences in a three-piece white suit or tramping across dry winter fields dressed like a Russian monk gone feral in New Jersey, Arkin is seamless as the luftmentsh turned starman; he has a bluntly grounded quality that the film plays for extra derangement, as when the Institute's mental meddling leaves Simon regressed "about five hundred million years" and the awestruck scientists plus the audience get to watch him mime-evolve his way from plankton through the Industrial Revolution, complete with ape-bone scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). When he weeps, "Oh, God! I'm a toaster!" it's horrifying, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at once. Even when he falls in with a TV cargo cult founded by a repentant ABC executive who patch him into the carrier wave and get him simultaneous coast-to-coast coverage for his fireside chats with America, the results are dryly close to his original half-baked class notes, now with more theology and kamashastra. You find yourself reacting to about half of them with right on and the other half with aaaagh. Personally, I approve his inclusion of Orange Julius among the great treasures of civilization unjustly withheld from the ordinary citizen ("The secret white powder that makes it a devilishly good drink—why is it a secret? I want that formula!"). This is a film that can afford almost to throw away Madeline Kahn on the part of a brilliant ringer who can do a thing with her tongue and then casually toss in Adolph Green as a cult leader who sermonizes from TV Guide and Fred Gwynne as a hawkish major-general who brightens on hearing that the Institute has invented a "stupid-making gas," albeit one that is now drifting in a cloud toward D.C. Best of all, it knows not to treat Graubart's Lisa as the scold or the straight woman, even though she's the only person in this picture with her head halfway screwed on. "Do you or do you not want me to win a Nobel Prize?" Simon demands early on, approaching his homebuilt sensory deprivation tank in a onesie the color of radioactive pea soup, trailing way too many wires from his shower cap. In the middle of an argument that comes down to him not killing himself in the name of scientific progress, she still doesn't miss a beat: "Yes, if you wear that to the ceremony!" She has a square brush of dark hair and a wonderful toothy grin under her rainbow knit cap and she's actually as clued in as the man she loves only sounds; it holds them together in a way I believe rather than merely accept. Her last look onscreen is like something by Andrew Wyeth.

The film unravels a little toward the end; it goes over a different top than I thought it was aiming for and it settles somewhere satisfyingly (and not too mean-spiritedly) ironic, but I blame the 1980's that NASA got involved. I don't expect all jokes in a movie to land equally, but there are a couple here where I'm not sure how they ever would. I happen to find it funny that the luminous flying saucer memory programmed into Simon by the Institute sounds like a Jewish mother routine by Fanny Brice, but I am not sure it was dramatically or artistically necessary for Becker to conceive a passion for Doris, the supercomputer, and then try to make it with a giant phone receiver. That said, I have loved Austin Pendleton ever since the original cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof and I was delighted to see him cast against type as a mad research director. Slight and boyishly greying in echt-'70's turtlenecks and leather blazers, "this Becker person" has a self-deprecatingly goofy grin, a natural bent toward smarm which he works very hard to channel into scientific authority, and generally looks like the worst he could do is corner you at a party and mansplain Philip Roth; then he says calmly of their latest experiment who is by now requesting a joint audience with the President, the Premier of China, Walter Cronkite, and the Pope, "I'd like to have him terminated." And, I mean, if you have always wanted to see Austin Pendleton make it with a giant phone receiver, this is your movie. I am just more charmed by the nefarious government conspiracy that escalates to a shuttle launch and is still mostly deadpan. I like the punctuation of scenes with classical music which is sometimes spoofing and sometimes not; I like the gags it has going on in the background, whether mad science or just immature scientists; I like that every now and then something real, wintry, and touching happens in it that a punch line can't break. The richly colored cinematography by Adam Holander keeps just as much of a poker face as the script. Even walk-ons like the gangly, Disney-sweatered grad student played by Keith Szarabajka get quotable lines: "Well, when he came out he was convinced he'd turned into a six-foot-tall penis named Bob. Other than that, he's perfectly normal." It lived up to its character actors, which was what I wanted it to do, and then some, in that now I have a few more to keep track of. I did not die of anti-intellectualism when it finished by thinking that philosophy is still important. I have no idea if I should watch anything else in Brickman's non-Allen filmography. Anyway, when I hear even a brainwashed pseudo-alien saying, "Save the world? I can't even get a regular checking account!" I sympathize. This visitation brought to you by my far out backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Good morning! I come to you from a double feature of Communism. It was not exactly planned. The Oscar-nominated A-picture left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I had to watch some Poverty Row B-pulp to cheer up.

I don't want to use the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger line on Mark Robson's Trial (1955) because the fact is I'm still pretty angry at it—it throws away a legitimate and unusual social justice premise, not to mention a fine cast and a script smoothly adapted by Don Mankiewicz from his Harper Prize-winning novel of the same name, on just the kind of Red-baiting this country was supposed to have started to move past with the Army–McCarthy hearings and Joseph N. Welch's still-resounding "At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" I feel like asking MGM the same. Trial starts off looking like your standard liberal message picture, courtroom drama edition. In a small California town where the beaches are still whites-only, seventeen-year-old Angel Chavez (Rafael Campos) is being charged with felony murder because during the annual festival of heavy petting known locally as "Bass Night," the girl with whom he was making out suddenly panicked, collapsed, and died. She was fifteen years old and white; the first of these factors permits their consensual fooling around to be prosecuted as statutory rape, the second explains the virulent desire to hang her partner for it. San Juno has a thriving Klan presence and it doesn't see much difference between brown and black when it comes to the color of hands on a white woman. Even her doctor's evidence that she had a bad heart from rheumatic fever is interpreted to mean that she was literally frightened to death in the course of an assault. Into this inflammatory atmosphere comes David Blake (Glenn Ford), a state law professor with a book-smart resume and a deficit of hands-on experience; instructed by his university to pick some up pronto if he wants to keep teaching, he has been directed toward the Chavez case by his funny, snaky, crusading boss, Barney Castle (Arthur Kennedy), who seems to see in Angel's plight an opportunity to blow the double standards of the American legal system wide open. He charms the boy's bewildered immigrant mother (Katy Jurado), assigns the inexperienced David the services of his own secretary (Dorothy McGuire), and cynically yet life-savingly talks a good ol' boy sheriff into discouraging the lynch mob that comes after Angel with assurances of a legal hanging. Outspoken bigots still manage to disrupt the girl's carefully private funeral with ugly grandstanding. It takes three weeks to select a jury because of tampering by racist cops. The stage is set for an explosive confrontation—a racebent re-run of the Scottsboro Boys, the still-raw recent outrage of Emmett Till. All the while it's drawing these familiar lines of heroes and villains, though, the film is introducing less reassuring notes of self-interest, shortsightedness, and doubt. Barney's slick, abrasive style lends itself well to fiery speechifying, but the audience may well wonder with David whether he's losing sight of their client's welfare in the optics of the trial, too easily eliding a frightened, marginalized kid into a poster-child prop. David himself has his own white liberal fault lines—he's distastefully quick to discount the agency of Judge Theodore Motley (the great Juano Hernández), actually accusing the older man of being played for a racial stooge: "I think you were selected so that after the conviction they'd be able to say, 'Of course the Mexican had a fair trial! Sure, he even had a Negro judge!'" The judge's response deservedly tears him a new one, but every time after that we see David raise a point of objection in the courtroom, we wonder whether he's acting on his academic instincts or just second-guessing a Black judge. I was fascinated to see a movie from the mid-'50's acknowledge that American racism isn't always a matter of slurs or jokes or violence; sometimes it just looks like a couple of sincere and progressive white guys to whom no one else is fully human or real. I couldn't predict the outcome of that. And then we hit the Communist rally and everything went to hell.

It's a beaut of a scene, if you can divorce it from any political context or conclusion. In a brass-band blast of paranoia worthy of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Barney Castle in his native habitat—New York, naturally—is revealed as a card-carrying amoral huckster, callously exploiting the high-profile inequality of the trial to sucker anyone with an ounce of social conscience into the Communist fold and their dough into the Party coffers. The rally to "Free Angel Chavez" is just a fundraiser for the so-called "All People's Party," a razzle-dazzle of left-wing gateway ideologies that end in faceless screaming crowds waving signs like "JOIN" and "STRUGGLE." Even when the shameless Castle rips off his audience with a theatrical hustle known as "the Sea of Green," they only applaud harder when he tells them the moral, his sharp face all one malevolent grin and his arms flung wide as a demagogue on campaign: "Don't trust anybody!" He hasn't gotten lost in his own idealism. He's sacrificing Angel, cruelly and deliberately, because a martyr stokes more liberal outrage than justice served. Sickened and betrayed, David flees the rally only to crash up against a case of Commie infiltration even closer to home: his now-beloved Abbe wasn't just Barney's secretary and lover, she was his fellow-traveler. Their lovers' quarrel is excruciatingly indistinguishable from a Senate subcommittee hearing. Ultimately the film will deem her a salvageable heroine because at heart she's a "hopeless bourgeois" whose tale of progressive disillusionment with American Communism just folds it even farther into Soviet totalitarianism ("They told you everything. Who to vote for, who to raise money for . . . I could never really accept the Party line, the way it kept changing. Monday's truth would be Tuesday's lie"), though that does not explain to me why it then requires its even less politically involved hero to recant even more self-flagellatingly. By now the racial complexities of the first act have been all but forgotten; an uncritical viewer could be forgiven for thinking that racism in America is largely an astroturf problem, disingenuously cried by two-faced virtue-signalers like Barney Castle. The trial itself has been sidelined just as damningly. Replicating the very sin it initially seemed to critique, Trial's emotional climax is not the life or death of Angel Chavez but the extraordinary confession made by our white protagonist at his client's sentencing, pleading as if he's the one on trial: "I was a fool and this boy suffered because of my foolishness . . . In my anxiety to help this boy, I permitted myself to be used as a Communist front." Dude, who called you before HUAC? Did Dore Schary ask you to fall on that sword? He's standing in an unnamed district courtroom in southern California, not the Cannon Building, but you start to feel that any second he's going to name names. Instead he leaves the courthouse with Abbe on his arm, having saved an innocent teen from "legal lynching" and had the satisfaction of seeing his double-crossing Red ex-boss hauled off for contempt of court when his habitual race-baiting presumed too much on the restraint of Judge Motley, and I suppose the movie epitomizes itself when I feel bait-and-switched by its politics, but I don't think it did it on purpose. I've been here before with The Quiet American (1958), okay? I paid my dues. It is actually more infuriating that Mankiewicz gestures faintly toward the real and hysterically fearful politics of the 1950's by having David threatened by subpoenas from a witch-hunting McCarthyist, since they come to nothing after his brave friendly testimony and in any case David himself defends the necessity of anti-Communist investigating committees, just not the particular one that's after him. At least it looks nice, thanks to noirish cinematography by Robert Surtees. I am bitterly disappointed that any film containing Whit Bissell and Elisha Cook Jr. could be such a waste of time.

I freely admit that I turned to Edward and Mildred Dein's Shack Out on 101 (1955) because I had heard of it years ago as the most nutbar of Red Scare B-movies; I thought it might serve as a kind of exorcism of its prestigiously insidious predecessor. That it turned out also to feature Bissell was just gravy. Produced by our old friend Allied Artists Productions and shot by Floyd Crosby as if it were an opened-out stage play, the film alternately meanders and rockets through such disparate sources of drama as nuclear espionage, unrequited love, deep-sea fishing, bodybuilding, seashells, and PTSD, almost all of it expressed with the screwball sigh of lines like "That's what I like about free enterprise. I got the enterprise and everybody's free to give me the business." The titular shack is a rickety diner on a remote loop of California coast, optimistically decorated with a welcome-sailor flotsam of fishing nets and glass floats and a wall-eyed stuffed marlin; it is the baby of cantankerous ex-GI George (Keenan Wynn) who runs the joint with the help of live-in waitress Kotty (Terry Moore) and short-order cook Leo (Lee Marvin), generally addressed as "Slob" for reasons of personality more than actual hygiene. One character accuses him of possessing "an eight-cylinder body and a two-cylinder mind." Another explains, "Even when you're clean, you look dirty," No argument from the viewer, seeing as this cut-rate Stanley Kowalski was introduced wrestling a sunbathing Kotty with the kind of sexual familiarity that blows right past horseplay and into workplace harassment. George at least has the decency to carry his middle-aged torch in grouchy silence, acknowledging to his old Army pal Eddie (Whit Bissell) that the pneumatic "tomato" only has eyes for Sam (Frank Lovejoy), the square-jawed nuclear physicist pursuing a top-secret project at the local research university when he could have been out at "Los Alamos with the rest of the atom-smashers." Rounding out this motley slow boil of a cast are a cocky fisherman (Len Lesser), a jumpy professor (Frank de Kova), and a couple of wolf-whistling truck drivers (Jess Barker and Donald Murphy), all of whom the viewer may eye with increasing suspicion as canisters of film change hands with the day's catch and a mutual interest in malacology conceals an even keener interest in "a new element that may obsolete the power of hydrogen force"—that's not just hormones and burnt hamburger flavoring the air at this greasy spoon, that's treason. Wasn't it an article of McCarthyist faith that Commies could be found lurking everywhere in American daily life, from the classroom to the silver screen to your own family? Well, if you want a cup of coffee, apple pie, don't spill any secrets of state while you're ordering it, because nowadays agents of a foreign power can sling hash with the best of them. Maybe you shouldn't trust those wisecracking deliverymen while you're at it. Or that shell-shocked traveling salesman, meek as he seems to be. Behind all this conspiracy stands the shadowy figure of "Mr. Gregory," at whose mere notice prominent scientists seem to disappear without a trace, and the possibilities for paranoia are endless. Also, don't shoot a stuffed marlin with a speargun. The sawdust gets absolutely everywhere.

I am reluctant to describe this movie as camp, but I am very comfortable rating it as gonzo. With only a few tweaks, the screenplay could have sufficed for a mainstream atomic noir—if not as apocalyptic as Split Second (1953) or Kiss Me Deadly (1955), then still serviceably twitchy about its characters' entangled allegiances and their intimations of a world behind the world. In practice it comes off more like a sitcom on ayahuasca. So we get clandestine meetings and late-night confessionals and tense confrontations with knife and gun, but we also get Slob and Perch staging a bizarre little holmgang in the kitchen, slugging the bare-knuckle bejeezus out of one another with their teeth clenched into opposing ends of the same dish towel. We get mysterious break-ins and tapped phone lines and then we get George and Slob making like Muscle Beach on their off-hour, pumping iron at the lunch counter while comparing calves and "pecs." We get the round-robin of misplaced love and we get George and Eddie flapping around like Z-movie spacemen in swim fins and scuba masks, getting in the mood for a snorkeling getaway to Acapulco. In a first for the aphrodisiac properties of the U.S. Constitution, Sam and Kotty make out while murmuring from the Bill of Rights. I don't want to call it a black comedy, either, but persons attempting to find a consistent tone in this narrative will be profoundly confused. Any serious-looking thread is just as likely to take a hard left into absurdity as vice versa. Eddie's PTSD is realistically presented; he got it on D-Day and it gives him enough trouble that his friends have been trying to get him to a therapist for years; but when the time comes for him to face his demons and defend the people he loves in perhaps the most classically masculine form of regeneration, I didn't ever expect to see Whit Bissell shoot a dude with a harpoon. (When I tried out the ayahuasca simile on [personal profile] spatch, he asked if it extended as far as vomiting. All I can tell you is that Bissell's exit line is "George, I'm going to be sick.") Blonde Kotty is so pert and breathy and reliably perved over by almost every man in the plot, it's a joy to discover she's also a tough smart cookie, initiating her own passive-aggressive brand of counter-espionage while the men around her are still futzing around with scuba gear and burgers. The indisputable king of the film's sliding weirdness, however, is shell-collecting, skirt-chasing Slob in his sweaty undershirt and his ratty windbreaker and his sexual sneer, and Marvin makes the most of his many-sided part—no spoilers that there's more to the short-order man than going full Neanderthal, but there's also a satisfyingly unknowable core beneath the blunt-force buffoonery, one of those lacunae of explanation where nationalities and even names run out. When another character spits at him, "The apes have taken over!" not even his voice rises to the bait, low and amused and deadly serious against the quintessentially American backdrop of the diner counter with its dried sea stars and its napkin dispensers and its signs reading "Pie 20¢" and "No Checks Cashed": "They are all apes, every last one of them. But you're so desperate for security that you'll take any promise that vaguely resembles it." I give the Deins credit for an enduring relevance there which is otherwise merrily missing from Shack Out on 101. The ending is as jaw-dropping in its own way as the opening scene.

Having pulled this double whammy on my brain, I am obviously considering why it is that the same narrative element which bit me so badly with the first film merely rendered the second such trash pulp fun: the concepts I keep coming back to are damage and belief. Whatever political convictions its makers individually held, Trial as a movie feels absolutely convinced of the realities of Communist conspiracies and their penetration into left-wing politics in ways that are still toxically hooked into our political landscape of 2019. Social reformers are all anti-American plants or dupes! Not railroading teenagers of color is the slippery slope to socialism! Racism wouldn't be a problem if people didn't keep pointing it out! I think so often of the current administration as fascist that it can be easy to overlook how much regular American conservatism loves its scapegoats and purges, too. I cannot warm to that kind of demonization, which destroyed so many lives and careers and still burns like radiation today, no matter how well Arthur Kennedy impersonates it onscreen. Shack Out on 101, by contrast, is so transparent and outrageous in its excuse for Cold War mayhem that not only do I have a hard time imagining that its makers really feared for the national security of audiences on their lunch break, its bargain-basement thrills almost serve as a satire of the Red Scare itself. I won't swear it was intended to go that far, but too much of this movie is legitimately, loosey-goosey funny (and on the character level as well as the strictly goofy: after a caring but slightly overdone pep talk from George, Eddie grumbles, "From your mouth into my ego") for me to rule the possibility out; in any case, I don't worry about its powers of persuasion. It has no pretensions to social importance. Its villains are written to come so far out of left field that they successfully conform to no particular stereotype of spies or subversives then or now. I wouldn't be shocked to be told it was an improv exercise accidentally captured on film, but you can watch it without moral injury, is where we end up, whereas Trial I don't recommend unless you are studying the Second Red Scare and/or in need of an emetic. The real problem is that now I want a milkshake and a Reuben and the only all-night diner in Boston is down by South Station, where I am not getting tonight in falling snow. This suspicion brought to you by my subversive backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
Who knew that the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) was not actually the weirdest of the brief crop of Ruritanian political comedies that flourished for some reason in pre-Code Hollywood?

Seriously, almost nothing I say about Million Dollar Legs (1932) is going to help. It was effectively commissioned by Paramount as a tie-in with the 1932 Summer Olympics, but the not yet Academy Award-winning brothers Herman J. and Joseph L. Mankiewicz forewent the expected sports clichés and rose past the occasion with a genially relentless gallimaufry of gags suggesting that one or more writers consumed the complete works of Tristan Tzara plus chaser and then spent the weekend with a typewriter at the Y; the resulting plot is attenuated to the point of vestigiality, but if the characters don't mind it, why should you? Ruritania this time around is the Balkan-ish backwater of Klopstokia ("Chief Exports . . . Goats and Nuts. Chief Imports . . . Goats and Nuts. Chief Inhabitants . . . Goats and Nuts") where all the men are named George, all the women are named Angela, and all the children, if the younger brother of the heroine is any guide, are Western-obsessed little hellions prone to shooting strangers in the ass. Everyone drinks a lot of goat's milk. With preposterous topicality, Klopstokian politics are the natural endpoint of the strongman craze then sweeping the globe: their health-nut President (W.C. Fields, delightfully against type) got his office by arm-wrestling for it and now faces a perpetual challenge in kind from his ambitious Secretary of the Treasury (Hugh Herbert, schemingly against type) and the rest of his treacherous cabinet (Billy Gilbert, Irving Bacon et alii veterans of Keystone) who recite their oaths of allegiance with their fingers crossed behind their backs. Meanwhile the streets are full of black-clad spies, the economy's in the red for $8 million, it's a bit of a crisis, really. Enter American Migg Tweeny (Jack Oakie, the original world's oldest freshman), a bright-eyed brush salesman whose eccentric boss has always dreamed of endowing a record-breaking Olympic team. If Klopstokian strength and orneriness can clean up in Los Angeles, the solvency problem is, er, solved—so long as the cabinet, overrunning the welfare of their country in their zeal to discredit the President, don't blow the works with their nefarious counterplot. Got it? All right, now forget it. Like I said, the characters do.

The glory of this movie is how cheerfully it strings together as many jokes of whatever register of comedy it can get to stick to the wall, like the romance between Tweeny and his particular Angela (Susan Fleming, future bride of Harpo Marx and straight-faced zany in her own right). They fall in love at first sight with brisk and literal absurdity, exchanging non sequiturs like vows: "What are you selling?"–"Yes."–"I love you, too." Half a dozen dewy-eyed repetitions of the phrase later, Angela offers that she knows "another way of saying that." Tweeny blinks: "In public?" Thereafter a running joke pertains to his successful performance of the Klopstokian national love song, both because his mastery of its tongue-twister lyrics "in the old Klopstokian language that we used to speak before we learned English" will constitute proof of love and because it shares a tune with the title theme of Paramount's One Hour with You (1932), last rendered in these parts by Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald; as a bonus, he keeps getting interrupted and having to start over. I feel my life has been materially improved by hearing Oakie soulfully croon, repeatedly, "Woof bloogle gik, mow gik bloogle woof." I have definitely benefited from seeing Fields juggle Indian clubs, punch out windows instead of opening them, and bench-press his long-suffering major-domo (Andy Clyde, spry). The clean-living embodiment of the cut direct, the President announces his entrance into a cabinet meeting with the fanfare of his own one-man band and does fantastic vaudeville comedy with his top hat, which he insists on retaining even through his Olympic event, but he's on the right side of a Depression-era audience, fretting over his country's debts ("We've got the zeroes. What's bothering me is the eight") and denouncing his government's indifference ("The country's starving and you with gold in your teeth!"). The script calls pre-Code attention to his habit of addressing Tweeny as "Sweetheart" and then he keeps on unembarrassedly doing it. I'm not sure we ever find out who cross-eyed Ben Turpin is actually spying for, or why a hydraulic palm tree marks the spot of the villains' hideout, but I don't care about that any more than I care why a nightmare fuel goat costume is the presidential courier's incognito of choice. There's a lopsided fairy-tale quality to the accumulation of characters—between the wiry little major-domo who can outrun speedboats, the goatskin-clad high jumper who bounces effortlessly between decks of a steamship, and the blusterous ruler who throws thousand-pound weights around like pillows when he loses his temper, not to mention marriage with the President's daughter awaiting our hero if he leads Klopstokia to corporate-sponsored glory and a broken neck if he fails, the story feels at times like The Fool of the World and His Flying Olympic Team. The government-by-wrestling also puts me in mind a little of Gilbert and Sullivan.

What Million Dollar Legs really makes me think of, however, is Mel Brooks. The cabinet's secret weapon is the film's, too: Lyda Roberti as "Mata Machree—The Woman No Man Can Resist." (It says so on her door, right above "Not Responsible for Men Left More Than Thirty Days.") Apparently conceived as a goof on Greta Garbo's Mata Hari (1931), the character registers now as a primal Lili von Shtupp, a super-seductress-for-hire with a cloud of Dietrich-platinum hair and an outrageously exotic accent that undoubtedly owes something to the actress' background as part of a Russian-Polish circus family fetched up in Shanghai but even more to her gifts as a comedienne; her fractured syntax ("Isn't somebody been going to say something?") is pure Tom Lehrer Lobachevsky. Introduced with her own diegetic snake-charmer theme, a personal spotlight operator, and a solemn butler who suddenly whips out a megaphone and barks, "Line up, suckers!" she elevates the movie from silliness to delirium with the simultaneously stupid and sizzling "It's Terrific (When I Get Hot)," lyrics contributed off the record by Lorenz Hart. "It's terrific when I get mean / I'm just a woman made of gelatin / I have a torso like a tambourine / Oy oy oy, when I get hot!" Her hips are basically doing their own specialty number throughout. The cabinet secretaries are stupefied; when she leans pensively on the base of Rodin's Thinker, he gives up philosophy. At last she permits the Secretary of the Treasury to kiss her hand; his face assumes a beatific expression as all the buttons fly off his waistcoat. Brooks once claimed that his movies rose below vulgarity and I don't know how better to describe the final showdown, which after all the macho measuring between the President and his chief rival turns Olympic weightlifting into a ludicrously extended literalization of getting it up. Though her efforts with the athletes of Klopstokia go for naught mostly thanks to Angela, who despite her delicate deadpan possesses her fair share of the national physique—and temper—Mata Machree sticks around the Games to support the Secretary of the Treasury in his independent bid to beat the President, "inspiring" him to raise a weight far above his class with the kind of dance you usually have to pay the carnival talker an extra dime to see. It's pretty sinuous stuff, but for the next round she calls in her musicians. With the final shimmy, the Secretary heaves the weight to regulation height and then topples backward onto the turf. "I hope he doesn't lift the other one," he pants, lying half under the equally collapsed Mata Machree. "I've done about all I can do." Breathing just as heavily, the vamp agrees, "Me too. I been done all I can do—in public." I wish she'd had a long career instead of a short life.

If you do not find this movie as funny as I do, at least it doesn't last longer than 59 minutes; with that runtime it may have been cut down, but honestly, with this plot how could you tell? It is as pure a piece of nonsense as I have seen from its era and if it is probably too narrative for Dada, it's too exploded for anything else. In addition to the sequences mentioned above, I am especially fond of the payoff of the Los Angeles Special as well as the line "Sorry, Madame is only resisted from two to four in the afternoon." I saw the film at the microcinema of the Somerville Theatre courtesy of Channel Zero, which screened The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933) to follow and at least one other Fields short which I did not see because [personal profile] spatch and I had to catch one of the ever more elusive buses of the MBTA; the title, for the record, makes the most sense referring to the sprinting major-domo, not either of the female leads. The opening credits play over a little cartoon of the Klopstokian national goat causing adorable havoc. I really have to track down Wheeler and Woolsey's Diplomaniacs (1933) now. This anarchy brought to you by my competitive backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Another Presidents' Day has come and gone and with it my eighth 'Thon with [personal profile] spatch. This year we watched about nineteen out of twenty-four hours of science fiction film, which considering how flattened we both were going into the weekend feels like no small achievement. (Then I had to recover enough to write it up.) The endurance is not the point with us, though. The movies are, and the movies are worth it.

We had to resort to a taxi because the buses of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority grow more theoretical by the day, but this year we made it to the Somerville in time to secure seats in the balcony, fill our pockets with Atomic Fireballs, and shout the noon countdown to the marathon's traditional kickoff, Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953). I have not yet reached the point of being able to recite the dialogue in time with Mel Blanc and a significant percentage of the audience, but I have also not gotten bored with its jetpack-jonesing mix of double-talk, technobabble, and sight gags that generally go boom, not to mention the wonderfully ingenuous line "Happy birthday, you thing from another world, you." I just wish the smithereening ending didn't feel like it was circling around to relevance again.

Joe Dante's Innerspace (1987) is at least three different movies in the same two-hour runtime, but I liked the majority of all of them. The plot is basically spy-fi, with miniaturization technology serving as both premise and MacGuffin: the interruption of a maiden fantastic voyage by industrial espionage leaves the teeny-tiny test pilot injected into, instead of a placid white lab rabbit, a high-anxiety supermarket clerk who was just trying to talk himself into a vacation, not dodge corporate assassins all over Silicon Valley. Emotionally, it works like a three-way buddy movie: the test pilot (Dennis Quaid) is a hotshot screw-up whose laid-back bravado covers badly for a broken heart, the clerk (Martin Short) is a dead-end milquetoast who has nightmares about register errors, and the woman they both love (Meg Ryan) is a Taser-toting reporter chasing a high-profile story until it starts chasing her in the form of a robot-handed henchman of a kinky mad scientist working for a megalomaniacal CEO who likes to monologue in refrigerator trucks. And in case it was not at all clear from the end of that last sentence, the execution is comedy, at points approaching live-action cartoon: Frank Tashlin would appreciate the commitment to zaniness that sees a self-sacrificing scientist respectfully remembered as "a good man who tried to save my ass by injecting me into yours." The supporting cast is such a rogue's gallery that while William Schallert, Henry Gibson, and Dick Miller—deservedly applauded for his one scene which he steals along with accidentally Quaid's towel—feel like no-brainers, even a random couple of doctor's patients are played by Andrea Martin and Joe Flaherty and Ryan's editor turned out to be Orson Bean. I have now seen Robert Picardo pop a bottle of champagne while wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and what looked for all the world like a genuine lizard codpiece. I have also seen Kevin McCarthy shrunk half-size trying to make a pay phone call. Plus a lot of the inside of the human body, squishily and Oscar-winningly represented by practical effects of fuming stomach acid and a sleeting maelstrom of red blood cells. The script does not often go for the gross-out, however, and it almost strictly eschews cringe comedy, and its characters retain recognizable human proportions even when one of them is microscopic and the other is panicking that he's possessed; that really counts with me, especially in a story so dedicated to mining its sci-fi tropes for screwball applications ("Congratulations, you just digested the bad guy"). I like the giddiness of the non-ending, which doesn't beg for a sequel so much as it invites noodle incident. I am beginning to feel the '80's are severely underrated as a decade for weird film.

It is not the fault of either Merian C. Cooper or Ernest B. Schoedsack that the placement of a character named Dr. Bullfinch in a story about shrinking made me wonder where my copy of Danny Dunn and the Smallifying Machine (1969) had got to, but no one in Dr. Cyclops (1940) gets small enough to scoop nectar out of the flower-spikes of clover, merely to be menaced in a rough-hewn laboratory high in the Andes by Albert Dekker's Dr. Thorkel, whose Coke-bottled vision provides the eponymous allusion. Plotwise, it's fairly standard-issue mad science, with radioactivity rhapsodized as "the cosmic force of creation itself" and our band of scientist-heroes pitted against the wrong 'un literally playing God with miniaturized pigs and horses and human beings; it was filmed in three-strip Technicolor and it looks like a million bucks of pulp comics, mottled with eerie blue-greens in the rays of the doctor's experiments, lush with ferns and lianas in the soundstage jungle, half-ruins shored up like a prospector's shack over a near-bottomless mine of uranium that would make any fortune twice over, so Dr. Thorkel decides to use it to shrink things. The special effects are still solid, both the oversized sets and the process shots and even some theatrically effective moments like a tiny horse seen as nothing more than a disturbance in the tall grass and a thrashing in a butterfly net. I cannot really say the same for the characters, each of whom has a scientific specialty and a personality trait. I do appreciate that the personality trait of Janice Logan's Dr. Mary Robinson is not screaming all the time but bravely decoying crocodiles and reminding her male comrades about basic principles of engineering, but I could have done without her inevitable romantic pairing with the only male character in her age bracket, since as far as I could tell the personality trait of Thomas Coley's Dr. Bill Stockton was lying around being a smart-ass. Both Rob and I felt strongly that it is unfair to demonize a black cat for hunting the prey it's given, even if that prey is technically the protagonists.

Half of Norman Jewison's Rollerball (1975) is a chilly, clever dystopia about professional sports and corporate government; the other half is future-shock swords-and-sandals so heavy-handed that triclinia have come back into fashion. Taken individually, each is a perfectly respectable mode of screen science fiction. They go together like Andes mints and béchamel sauce. I ended up feeling much more invested in discrete elements of the film than the overall experience. I like the cold open of the rollerball match between Houston and Madrid, dynamically filmed and vigorously edited and not so initially gruesome that a contemporary audience would reject it out of hand. The game itself recalls a bone-crunching combination of football, roller derby, and pinball, sufficiently worked out that the rules can be deduced beyond the necessities of the screenplay; it was apparently played on set by the cast and stunt crew in between scenes. I like the low-key early worldbuilding of "our corporate anthem" and the realization that when John Houseman's Mr. Bartholomew speaks of "executives," he doesn't mean men with particular jobs, he means the ruling social class. I like James Caan as Jonathan E, undisputed champion of a game designed to show how the tallest poppies are the soonest cut down—not a dissenter or a rebel by nature, but so baffled at being asked to relinquish the one thing he's good at that his mere pushback sets in motion a conspiracy whose full lineaments we never learn because Jonathan doesn't. I don't enjoy that the function of non-executive women in this world appears to be interchangeably sexual-ornamental, but I get the point it's making. And I appreciate the scenes of Jonathan and his trainer reclining at dinner served by his concubine and the party scenes where executive women eye the rollerball players like a stud service ("You can almost smell the lions") and the environmentally pointed scene in which a gang of drunken executives stumble out into a pre-dawn field with a plasma pistol and gigglingly waste a harmless copse of trees, but they're received images of decadent empire rather than extrapolations of the real ills of 1970's America and they don't match moments like Jonathan's prescient attempt to research his own society's history, only to be told that all his requested books have been digitized and classified, but the summaries are electronically available and what did he need them for, anyway? There is one splendid fusion of the two modes before the finale and it involves Ralph Richardson. He's a character actor and able to appear anywhere once seen, so I don't know why I didn't expect to find him as the distracted librarian of Zero, the great global supercomputer that either doesn't do its job or does it scarily well: on the morning that Jonathan visits Geneva, it's lost an entire century. "Poor old thirteenth century," Richardson mourns. "Just Dante and a few corrupt popes." He coaxes the computer to explain the Corporate Wars, but it just repeats buzzword tautologies until it bluescreens; the librarian kicks it annoyedly to no avail. It's funny and chilling, satirical and plausible. Why go to the drama of burning books when you can just warehouse history and make it disappear? The brutal victory of the ending seems deeply ambiguous; you worry about what happens after the freeze-frame. It is similarly not this movie's fault that I associate Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor so inextricably with A Canterbury Tale (1944) that when we were supposed to be watching the setup for a game, all I could hear was Sergeant John Sweet saying, "Well, that was a good job too."

We did not see any of this year's short films; their slot was our only chance at a dinner break before a movie we really wanted to see. We walked very quickly to Dakzen and got curry puffs, khao soi, and pad thai with enormous, delicate, head-on shrimp. They were out of kanom moh kang—a taro-thickened coconut custard I have been trying to eat for like two months now—but sold me a coconut-milk panna cotta topped with chopped fruits, which was delicious. We ate upstairs at the theater, since the mezzanine benches were not yet covered with sleeping bags and bodies. It would start to snow a few hours later.

I wrote extensively about Fritz Lang's Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon, 1929) when I saw it for the first time in 2014: I adored it. Watching the digital restoration with live music by Jeff Rapsis, my feelings hadn't changed. It's hard science fiction with a romantic heart; it flirts with science fantasy but really has a thing for cold equations; it solves them passionately, but it expects its audience to love the technical minutiae of a moon shot as much as the characters who work toward it. The accuracy of its foreshadowing of the Apollo program looks like precognition in 1929, but it's merely cause and effect of the history of rocketry. (Hermann Oberth and Willy Ley served as technical advisors on this movie, designing trajectories and models for manned and unmanned moon missions. The models were lost during World War II, confiscated by the Nazis—foreign prints of the film were suppressed—for fear they would give the secrets of the V-2 away. Cf. Tom Lehrer: "And what is it that put America in the forefront of the nuclear nations? And what is it that will make it possible to spend twenty billion dollars of your money to put some clown on the moon? Well, it was good old American know-how, that's what, as provided by good old Americans like Dr. Wernher von Braun.") Except that it runs almost three hours, it could be a proto-blockbuster with its high-concept effects and grounding love story, but it's not impersonal—it's full of small superfluous human details like one character nervously scissoring a Christmas cactus to confetti while trying to place a vital call or another sitting quietly alone, sick at heart, in the midst of brilliant excitement and expectation. I was delighted to hear the audience cheer just as loudly for Gerda Maurus' Friede when she refused to be left out of the crew of her namesake spaceship as they shouted for the launch countdown of the Friede herself. Fritz Rasp also received somewhat dubious applause when "the man currently calling himself Walter Turner" did his quick-change trick, going from sharkish operative to obsequious nonentity and back with little more than a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, some hair oil, and a discreet cut. I still feel for Gustav von Wangenheim's Windegger, who would have been just fine as mission control. I don't understand the criticisms of this movie as unemotional or laborious or unnecessarily plotty; it would be fairer to fault it for the sense of wonder coming out its ears. It's got great rocket science. It's got a great heroine. It's even got an only sort of love triangle that I don't want to shoot in the face. This time around, I didn't have to worry that something terrible was going to happen to the spacefaring mouse.

We went home to feed the cats during Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). It was supposed to be loud. The cats were very grateful. We made sure to be back by midnight and the buses almost complied.

I loved Alex Garland's Annihilation (2018) so much when I saw it last spring, I never figured out how to write about it. I still don't know that I have. The film is not a direct transfer of the award-winning novel by Jeff VanderMeer, although it retains the key elements of a biologist on an all-female expedition into an unknown region of recombinant horror and beauty; it remixes them aptly and lyrically into a dream-quest of self-destruction and self-discovery, all within an ever-changing alien environment that three years ago was just part of the Florida coast. Something fell from the sky, earthed itself within a lighthouse. Something blooms outward from the site, a slippery, prismatic phenomenon known as "the Shimmer" where the sky is filmed like a soap bubble, the sun is lost in a haze of rainbows, all water reflects a motor-oil sheen. Drones, animals, radio transmissions, people, nothing and no one has ever returned from within its steadily spreading bounds except for one man, lying now in critical condition in the government facility of Area X as his body tries to bleed itself apart. His name is Kane; he is played chiefly in flashback by Oscar Isaac and his wife is Lena, a soldier-scientist with the finely hardened face of Natalie Portman, carrying a movie as if she's carrying nothing more than the kind of grief that buries knives in its own heart if nothing else is closer to hand. Something went wrong between them. To understand what happened to her husband, to rescue him from it or revenge herself, to atone, to follow him down, Lena joins the next expedition being organized into the Shimmer. Her colleagues are played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson and they are as damaged, diverse, compelling, and unpredictable as women who don't have to take the weight of being the girl in the story; the screenplay like the novel whittles them away until, as forewarned by the quarantine frame-story, only Lena is left to face the heart of the Shimmer, but none of them are disposable and the emotional effect is far less the who's-next of survival horror than a general disorientation from narrative expectations as well as time, cardinal directions, and morphology. "It's a one-way trip." The alienness of the Shimmer is never confused with malevolence or mere fatality. The production design has a genius for Rilke-style beauty as just bearable terror—a soldier's cut-open corpse burst against a wall like a crystalline seed pod, an immense white alligator with its throat swirling away into tiny, grainy shark-teeth—but it doesn't make the mistake of thinking there's no other kind. Mitotic white deer with antlers of soft pink fungi do not suddenly split open predator's mouths; they bound away into the undergrowth, as easily spooked as the white-tailed deer that were their template. Leafy, human-Hox-gened silhouettes in a lichened-over neighborhood are not full of bones under their bark and branches; they are in bloom. The glassy trees that spike like fulgurites or neurons from a sunset strip of beach-sand never do anything but stand and eventually fall burning. Even the shaggy, skull-faced thing that might once have been a bear, that cries out in the degraded signal of a woman's dying voice, is curiously innocent in its assimilation of its kills into itself—it is not clear that the process is even conscious, much less a decoy. Despite a couple of legitimately stomach-jolting scenes, I have a hard time thinking of this movie as horror. One of its most beautiful images is a character's acceptance of her abandoning humanity, her scars keloiding into leaves, her skin blossoming. Another becomes mercury and white fire, a sibyl in a cave of fractal transformation. The film never sets itself as a puzzle for the viewer—nothing about the plot is difficult to follow—but I like how much it plays with resonance and juxtaposition, edging up against surrealism, teasing human pattern-finding in a space where human laws no longer apply. I do not think it is an accident that one of its most contagious symbols is the alchemical ouroboros. I also think it's important that you can enjoy it without knowing anything about alchemy. It teaches you to read itself as it goes along, like the writing on the walls of a lighthouse; it grows on you. I was very glad to see it in a theater where the exit lights were not shining on the screen. "You forgot the flag."

I was sufficiently punchy by the time of Robert Wise's The Andromeda Strain (1971) that when I realized one of the four protagonists was played by David Wayne, my reaction was straightforwardly "Dude! The last time I heard from you, you were a leprechaun!" (Since the leprechaun turns human at the end of that musical, obviously he went into the arts.) Beyond that and an instantly favorable reaction to Kate Reid's sharp-tongued, chain-smoking microbiologist, I'm not sure how I feel about the movie. The procedural aspect is clipped, taut, and creepy: if some extraterrestrial contagion brought back on a government satellite really killed an entire small town in New Mexico in virtually one blow, leaving only the mystifying survivors of one crying infant and one Sterno-tanked elder, can the team of scientists pre-selected for just this far-fetched extremity identify, isolate, and contain something so alien, they might not even recognize it as life, or is humanity about to go out with a whimper, dry red sand in our veins instead of blood? It's yet another variation on the Michael Crichton moral that science will fuck you up, but at least its heroes are scientists themselves and presented as neither eccentrically reckless nor clinically inhumane; they are intelligent people with a terrifying job which they go about with urgency, care, and fallibility. Like a Golden Age mystery, the screenplay by Nelson Gidding gives the characters no information not also available to the audience, so everyone has a fair chance of figuring it out. And then the movie seems to get lost in a fetish of containment levels and decontamination procedures and subterranean architecture of the school of smooth curving plastic interrupted at decorative intervals by geometric banks of lights and monitors, all seamlessly color-coded; it's like living in refrigerator coils. I like the late, dark accusation that the top-secret government facility of Wildfire was developed not as a fail-safe for Project Scoop but as a refinery for biological warfare in the guise of benign SETI, but it's dropped in the wake of an inconvenient seizure and forgotten in the ensuing race to disable the nuclear self-destruct. Which is the other problem I had after the first act. The stakes of this movie are high enough when all earthly life might be wiped out by a cluster of mutating crystals; we don't need anyone dodging lasers in a five-story airshaft. Rob just confirmed my suspicion that during this exciting climax I briefly fell asleep.

Previous iterations of the 'Thon have shown episodes of The Twilight Zone as early-morning shorts, so it feels only equitable that this year we got our horizontal and vertical controlled by The Outer Limits. "Soldier" (1964) was the first of two episodes Harlan Ellison wrote for the show, the other being "Demon with a Glass Hand" (1964). I had seen the latter but not the former; I knew mostly that Ellison sued James Cameron over the similarities between it and The Terminator (1984), which now that I've seen the episode seem mostly to consist of time travel from the future to the present day. In fact the time travel is the least important aspect of the story: Michael Ansara's Qarlo Clobregnny may have been knocked back through time from the laser-ridden forever war of the thirty-eighth century into the comparative or at least more complicated peace of mid-twentieth-century America, crèche-bred as cannon fodder by his all-powerful "State" and mechanically indoctrinated to have no purpose or desire but to kill "the Enemy," but we have child soldiers in this time and we have veterans dehumanized by their wars and except for his slangy future-speak ("I don't peep . . . Freddit! Think-speakable me") and his streamlined medieval armor this tall man with radiation burns on his face might pass for one of them, trying to adjust to even the concept of life outside the battlefield. He reacts violently to all confusions; he doesn't feel safe without a weapon; he keeps trying to parse family dynamics in context of command. He's treated like an animal and he's not stupid. There is little science fictional and a lot difficult in that. The ending is kind of a slingshot, but it makes its poignant, ambiguous point. Lloyd Nolan plays a compassionate philologist, Tim O'Connor a gum-chewing G-man. The idea of cats telepathically linked with troopers as reconnaissance units reminded me of Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon" (1954) and for all I know it was an homage; Ellison didn't get that pseudonym of "Cordwainer Bird" from nowhere.

The problem with Destination Moon (1950) is that it can be devastatingly and accurately summarized as the stupid American version of Frau im Mond. I wanted to see it; it was produced by George Pal, directed by Irving Pichel, and co-written by Robert Heinlein partly from his novel Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) and novella "The Man Who Sold the Moon" (1950). I couldn't do it. I got through the first act on the strength of curiosity and a genuinely charming introduction to spaceflight by Woody Woodpecker and then even the iconic space paintings of Chesley Bonestell couldn't keep me watching. The rocketry was single-stage-to-orbit atomic, the motive was rah-rah-America militarism, and the launch was rushed ahead of schedule to get out of answering to the authorities for nuclear safety. The four male protagonists were interchangeable except for the comic relief. No one had thought of handholds inside the Luna; instead they relied on dramatically clanking—and totally impractical if you want working navcom—magnetic boots. It is possible that my mood would have improved if I had stuck it out to the heroic engineering, but the marathon program had already given away that the third-act crisis involved the cold equations of the trip home and I don't want to get near either of their politics, really, but screenplay-wise it's Thea von Harbou by yards. Rob was experiencing similar difficulties. With all due to respect to its Oscar for special effects, we bailed.

The time was nearing seven in the morning; we had hit a scheduling impasse. Rob was interested in Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007), I was interested in John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981), and in order to watch either we had to figure out what to do for the ninety minutes occupied by Duncan Jones' Source Code (2011), a film which my husband saw once in theaters and is never, ever seeing again. We were pretty sure that if we went home we'd stay there. Waiting for the donut-and-bagel shop to open late for the holiday so that we could camp out in it was not an incredibly appealing option. It was snowing beautifully but briskly. Plus my lower back was starting to threaten me where I had pulled a muscle coughing last week and the buses, as previously mentioned, were running on a schedule composed of pure nope. We tried to stick our heads back into Destination Moon and confirmed that we just didn't care whether any of the characters made it back to Earth or explosively decompressed. We waited for a bus which came unsurprisingly late and went home. The cats rejoiced. No regrets, except about the donuts. This observance brought to you by my technical backers at Patreon.
sovay: (What the hell ass balls?!)
With so many pre-Code movies, it can be difficult not to feel that they come to us from some alternate history than the one we were transmitted by Code-compliant Hollywood, so much more progressive and politically engaged that the trick is remembering it's our own hidden history, as real and important as the censorship that squashed all that bracing skepticism and representation into ticky-tacky halfway through 1934.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933) also comes from our own hidden history, unfortunately. It would be much more comfortable to blame it on the Mirror Universe.

In short and without exaggeration, Gabriel Over the White House is the single most fascist film I have seen from a Hollywood studio. Co-produced at MGM by Walter Wanger and especially William Randolph Hearst, it refined a near-future British political melodrama into a ripped-from-the-headlines call for an American strongman, as authoritarian as anything out of Europe and anointed in the line of Lincoln. The fantasy begins with the inauguration of President Judson "Jud" Hammond (Walter Huston), a tall stern-profiled man quickly revealed as the kind of fatuous glad-hander who gives lame ducks a bad name. Jovially reassured by one of the senators who gerrymandered his path to the White House that "by the time they"—the American people—"realize you're not going to keep them"—his campaign promises—"your term'll be over," he wastes no time installing his longtime mistress as his "confidential secretary," distributing ambassadorships and cabinet appointments among his cronies, and reeling off optimistic platitudes to the press corps while simultaneously dismissing nationwide unemployment and organized crime as "local problems." He signs whatever bills his party passes across his desk and looks set to embarrass America on the world stage with such piercing questions as "Say, where is Siam?" The respect he holds for his office can be gauged by the jokey glee with which he uses the very quill with which Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation to sign off on a job of infrastructure graft in Puerto Rico. And then this booby-in-chief gets into a joy-riding road accident and is left in a coma, sinking fast while the White House frantically stalls; the doctors somberly declare the end "merely a matter of hours . . . he's beyond any human help," but as they leave the room a mysterious breeze troubles the curtain, a light from nowhere brightens on the vacant form, and President Hammond rises from his deathbed a messianic visionary, no longer as corrupt as Warren G. Harding, as ineffectual as Herbert Hoover, or as incapacitated as Woodrow Wilson but "a gaunt grey ghost with burning eyes that seem to see right down into you" who swings into nation-saving action as decisively as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Or Hitler. About two-thirds Hitler and one-third FDR if you ask me. I'm all for financial relief and reform, but nativist star chambers give me cold feet.

To a certain degree, the ideological disorder of Gabriel Over the White House offers a litmus test for the viewer's own politics: which of Hammond's extraordinary actions seem humane and justified and which start you wondering if William Dudley Pelley had a hand in the script? Allowing for a certain steely-eyed rigidity of affect, the newly inspired president's initial clash with his administration is downright sympathetic. In the summer of 1932, Hoover had disastrously mobilized the U.S. Army against the "Bonus Army," a thousands-strong shanty town of disenfranchised veterans and their families peacefully protesting in Anacostia Park. Encouraged by his cabinet of hacks to dispense similar treatment to an "Army of the Unemployed," Hammond instead declares his newfound allegiance to country over party, "Gentlemen, I refuse to call out the Army against the people of the United States," before visiting the protesters' camp in Baltimore to offer each man his personal assurance of "necessary work waiting to be done" with an "Army of Construction" that sounds remarkably like the Works Projects Administration. When Congress balks at supplying the $4 billion budget, the unstoppable Hammond proposes to dissolve Congress with a declaration of national emergency; when Congress resists being dissolved, he invokes martial law. A stunned edition of the Washington Herald reveals the fate of the legislative branch: "Adjourns by Overwhelming Vote – – – Hammond Dictator!" Now, with all that pusillanimous bureaucratic deadweight out of the way, the great man can really get things done. It is no small factor in the film's mirror-queasiness that several of them are things which an American president, scant weeks after production wrapped on Gabriel, would actually do. Though Hammond's radio presence is a little more stentorian than a fireside chat, the emergency initiatives he announces to the "overwhelming support" of the American public fall right in line with the radical common sense of the New Deal, prioritizing the stabilizing of banks and the protection of homes and farms from foreclosure; he just includes the repeal of Prohibition within his first hundred days where FDR would leave it till the end of the year. It's his next few directives that take his dictatorship from turbo-charged president-elect to something more consistent with other totalitarian regimes rising around the world in the spring of 1933. The film expects us to cheer it all alike.

Whether through careful study or parallel evolution, the fascist rhetoric of this film is spot-on. It's got the bits of truth that make the lies go down like velvet, the condemnation of broken-down society and the powerful nostalgic appeal to some lost integrity reclaimable in the right hands. "A plant cannot be made to grow by watering the top alone and letting the roots go dry," Hammond warns Congress in a timely condemnation of trickle-down economics before turning the metaphor on his audience. "The people of this country are the roots of the nation and the sturdy trunk and the branches too . . . You've closed your ears to the appeals of the people. You've been traitors to the concepts of democracy on which this government was founded. I believe in democracy as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln believed in democracy, and if what I plan to do in the name of the people makes me a dictator, then it is a dictatorship based on Jefferson's definition of democracy—a government for the greatest good of the greatest number!" That's American authoritarianism as good as anything I've heard in the last few years. By his appeals to the unassailable patriotism of the Founding Fathers, his populist reverence and his denunciation of the nation's lawmakers as traitorous parasites, we are encouraged to view Hammond's seizure of power as an exercise in real democracy, a return to the honest, direct truth of America over the self-serving shell game of big government that merely bamboozles American citizens out of their rights. It's familiar, inflammatory, and seductive. What audience exhausted by the ever-deepening Depression and fed up with the incompetent indifference of the Hoover administration wouldn't agree? The plot feels like the same kind of persuasive buy-in. Hammond handled the Bonus Army better than Hoover, so we trust him; he's handling the Depression just as well as FDR, so we trust him again; and therefore when he decides to junk the judiciary along with the legislature and turn over the powers of judge, jury, and executioner to his paramilitary secret police, shouldn't we trust him still? He's only doing what's best for America. Who gets to be part of America, of course, is especially important in times like these—all fascist ideologies must have a scapegoat and foreigners are the best you can get. Hammond finds his in the racketeers flourishing under Prohibition. Forget all-American Cagney; built up by Hammond's speeches as "the greatest enemy of law and order America has ever known . . . a malignant cancerous growth eating at the spiritual health of the American people . . . arch-enemies of these United States . . . the enemies of every honest citizen, the enemies of our nation," the gangsters of Gabriel Over the White House are an explicitly foreign body headed and personified by C. Henry Gordon's Nick Diamond, a sallow-eyed, smarmily dapper, still-accented "immigrant boy who became the most famous man in America," as if organized crime is never homegrown, as if there's no other kind of crime in America. Advised by the President to deport himself and leave the liquor trade to the U.S. government, Diamond retaliates with a drive-by shooting of the White House and Hammond immediately calls out the newly created "Federal Police." At this point I confess the film starts to assume a slightly farcical quality for me, except it's so humorlessly earnest it's scary. The criminals have Tommy guns; the Federal Police have tank-mounted rocket launchers. Diamond and his organization never see the inside of a courtroom which they know how to buy their way out of; they are dragged off to a dramatically lit bunker and court-martialed by a military tribunal presided over by the young chief of the Federal Police. "We have in the White House a man who has enabled us to cut the red tape of legal procedures and get back to first principles—an eye for an eye, Nick Diamond," he pronounces with satisfaction, "a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life." The gangsters are summarily executed by firing squad as the shadow of the Statue of Liberty looks on. By the time the President is threatening to unleash an air war of "invisible poison gases, inconceivably devastating explosives, annihilating death rays" on the other nations of the world unless they pay America's debts and sign the "Washington Covenant" of universal disarmament and peace, I can see the biplanes and the tall silk hats perfectly well, but I still have the anachronistic feeling I'm watching some kind of balls-out Reaganite fantasia of American totalitarianism, under God. Or, you know, Fox News.

You were wondering about the title? It's the insight of Pendie Molloy (Karen Morley), the President's former mistress, now chaste helpmeet; seeing him wake so suddenly full of vital and resolute purpose and yet strangely remote from sentiment or desire, she becomes convinced that he's inhabited by some presence beyond his own will, "a simple, honest . . . divine madness." Eventually she puts a name to it. "I'm not a very religious person, Beek, but does it seem too fanciful to believe that God might have sent the Angel Gabriel to do for Jud Hammond what he did for Daniel?" Her interlocutor is Hartley Beekman (Franchot Tone), the amiable, slightly crooked presidential secretary who in keeping with the salvation tone of this whole project will reform into Hammond's incorruptible right-hand enforcer, not to mention Pendie's lawfully wedded husband; at the moment he's just a staffer not up on his Bible. "Gabriel? I thought he was a messenger of wrath." Poetically grave as a magdalene, Pendie corrects him, "Not always. To some, he was the angel of revelations, sent as a messenger from God to men." Now we know the identity of the breeze, the light. Now I try not to fall down a hole of eschatology, because the allusion automatically figures America as the new Jerusalem, decreed seventy weeks to mend her transgressions and bring in everlasting righteousness. In concert with the politics described above, it means that this film asserts that God has sent America a fascist savior against whose smashing of democratic idols only the foolish and the wicked would stand—I'm astonished it has not been reclaimed and celebrated by the Evangelical right, unless the left-wing whiff of FDR is scaring them off. In fairness to the filmmakers, I feel this assertion may have dovetailed accidentally from the source mythologies of Christianity and American exceptionalism, but at this particular world-historical moment it still jumps out at me a mile. There's a lot in this story that suggests its authors, whether credited screenwriter Carey Wilson or Hearst himself, did not think maybe as much as they should have about their premises. As soon as Hammond finishes signing the Washington Covenant with Chekhov's Lincoln quill, he collapses insensible—he's dying again, the spirit of Gabriel departing now that its work is done. He regains consciousness just long enough to be assured by Pendie that he's "proved himself one of the greatest men who ever lived" before he expires as peacefully as he should have all those car-crashed weeks ago, the light fading from his face as the divine afflatus ruffles the curtain one last time. I don't know how you feel about the reveal that instead of a wastrel soul redeemed and energized by divine inspiration, we have been watching a comatose body with an angel of wrath and revelation inside it, but I normally look to horror fiction for that sort of thing. I have similar reservations about the way the camera returns meaningfully to a marble bust of Lincoln and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" rises over the soundtrack at spiritual moments; I fear they are intended not just to confer the legitimacy of our sixteenth president on his fictional thirty-second successor but to imply that Lincoln himself was a vessel of divine possession. That just seems like an insult to Lincoln. Lastly, while I understand that the U.S. was a lot more naïve about authoritarian regimes in 1933, I am amazed at the film's apparent confidence that the institutions of American government will just pick up where Hammond-Gabriel left them—I think it must have envisioned its dictatorship on the idealized Roman model of extraordinary powers of limited scope and duration, whereas I want to know if Beek will inherit the one-man rule of America and if we're going to have proscriptions by Christmas.

If, out of civic-mindedness or curiosity, you are thinking of throwing yourself on the grenade of this movie, I should warn you that in addition to being probably evil, it's kind of bad. I've been fascinated by it ever since I caught it last spring on TCM, but that's an intellectual reaction with inclusions of emotional revulsion: I don't actually recommend it as art. It suffers from the common propaganda problem of resembling a set text more than an entertainment; its characters are strawmen and its tone suggests a black comedy whose sense of irony has been laparoscopically removed. Walter Huston actually gives a committed and flexible performance as both the good-time party hack and the sacred monster who replaces him, but Franchot Tone and Karen Morley could be replaced with lobby cards of themselves at no cost to the production and I have to look at IMDb to remember that there are any other human actors in it at all. Nonetheless, it exists and we might as well acknowledge it. It's an incredible document and a shivery reminder of just how plausible and attractive fascism could look to a disillusioned, frightened America. Well, we figured it out again. Have a nice Presidents' Day! This regime brought to you by my inspirational backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
You know how it is. You're watching a movie and it's not a romance, but there are a couple of young lovers in it because the angle's as old as New Comedy, and meanwhile off to the side a couple of middle-aged weirdos are stealing all their scenes. In a musical or an operetta, they may be the secondary couple with some songs and a subplot of their own, but they are otherwise unlikely to take precedence in the plot, much less romantic center stage. Love is for the birds and pretty faces. Enter George Archainbaud's Penguin Pool Murder (1932).

I don't want to mislead anyone. There are some young lovers in this movie; they even have exclusive rights to its first eight minutes. It just happens that they are mostly larcenous and/or murderous airheads who photograph nicely—they're played by Mae Clarke, Donald Cook, and eventually Robert Armstrong—and once the script has established their relevance to the wife-slapping, fortune-squandering stockbroker found stone dead in the penguin tank of the New York Aquarium, it promptly forgets about them as anything but MacGuffins. It can afford to. At the eight-minute mark, a purse-snatcher comes bolting around the curve of a seal pool and takes a flying faceplant into the damp concrete, an immovable object having been deftly inserted into his stride. Splendidly tart as ever, Edna May Oliver's Miss Hildegarde Withers gives the object a tidy dust-off and observes the lesson for her eagerly jostling young class: "There, you see? Never try to evade the law with an umbrella between your legs." An already exciting field trip becomes a real day out when Teacher's garnet-headed hatpin goes missing and a corpse intrudes on its recovery and a modest programmer gears up to real charm as the redoubtable Miss Withers meets her match in James Gleason's Inspector Oscar Piper, world-wearily introducing himself at the aquarium's door with the slight misapprehension "Some kid called up and said there was a dead man in swimming with the ducks." The two of them spark off one another at once; they have the crackling, competitive chemistry traditionally assigned to younger, more conventionally attractive leads and their double-act is such a pleasure to watch that while I have to work to remember the mechanics of the actual mystery, I suspect I will retain forever the flirtatious reprimand in Oliver's voice as the schoolteacher takes her leave of the inspector who "can't quite make [her] out": "This is a busy day for you, Inspector. Now you have two mysteries to solve!" Their eventual team-up feels luxuriously inevitable, like watching a partner dance come together from a couple of hummed phrases and a restless foot. He's shortish for a man, she's tallish for a woman; her vowels could out-Brahmin Boston and he sounds like all Brooklyn in a day; he fumes and rumples like a sawed-off stogie while she in her prim elongation suggests an egret incompletely metamorphosed into a hatrack; if it wasn't obvious already, they're adorable. Pleasingly, their romance is a meeting of minds as well as physiognomies, her amateur detective's disdain for the police gradually tempered by appreciation of his individual smarts—Hildegarde's faster with deductions, but Oscar correctly susses out emotional terrain—just as his blue-collar dismissal of the teaching life one-eighties once he realizes the brains and the character it takes. If anything, the film slyly suggests that the spinster schoolteacher may be better prepared to pursue justice than the NYPD. "I've taught school long enough, Inspector, to know when someone is telling the truth or not . . . If I can handle a classroom of children, one district attorney ought to be easy!" Watching his dorky, fearless partner stride doughtily off to crack the case single-handed if she has to, Oscar pays her equal tribute as both sleuth and woman: "Boy—and she can cook, too!"

Loving couples are not always reunited in the last chapter. )

It's a nice reminder that noir is not the only documentary genre, too. As one would hope from the title, Penguin Pool Murder is a showcase for the New York Aquarium in its original location at Castle Garden, before Robert Moses uprooted it in 1941 for the sake of the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel and the grudge of a never-built bridge; scenes appear to have been shot not just in the exhibit hall but all over the aquarium, showing the catwalks above and behind the tanks, the staff offices behind frosted glass doors, and even the inside of a men's washroom. We are treated to a panoply of marine life, dogfish, parrotfish, angelfish, an octopus eating a crab. As for the diversity of human characters, Hildegarde's students are a believably mixed, metropolitan group, visibly including Black and Asian children as well as the expected assortment of first-generation Europeans—there's a questionable crack at the expense of Sidney Miller's Isadore Marks, habitual kibitzer and the most obviously Jewish kid onscreen, but the small nerdy kid disappointed to learn that his prize for finding Teacher's hatpin is a free pass on the homework he already did two days in advance is, refreshingly, Black. (Hildegarde promises to think up a new prize for him.) The deaf-mute pickpocket is played by deaf-mute actor Joe Hermano and he cusses out the cop who arrests him in sign. Other supporting cast members include a personable and attractive little penguin who provides an important clue and an excuse for a character to cry, "Get away, you meddling fool! I'm trying to save a penguin's life!" and, as part of the script's cute habit of tracking the progress of the case via newspapers left randomly lying about, a black cat licking spilled milk beside an important headline. I don't have a ton to say about Henry W. Gerrard's cinematography, but it does nice work with water and wavering shadows in the after-hours aquarium. And it is a pre-Code movie, after all, so when a gum-chewing secretary being quizzed about an anonymous phone call sasses Hildegarde that "it ain't likely that a woman'd be calling me 'baby,' is it?" the schoolteacher can display an informal familiarity with Depression-era Manhattan's lesbian scene by agreeing placidly, "No, not so far downtown as this."

I do not know how closely Penguin Pool Murder resembles its source material, the 1931 novel of the same name by Stuart Palmer; I know that Palmer wrote fourteen novels and two collections of short stories starring Hildegarde Withers and RKO produced six films ditto, although for reasons as yet unknown to me future entries retconned her relationship with Oscar Piper and Oliver returned for only the first two sequels, after which she was replaced first by Helen Broderick and finally by ZaSu Pitts. I can't imagine anyone else in the role, honestly. She's the best reason to see this movie; she had a face that typecast her for comedy, the iliac crest to play Gormenghast's Irma Prunesquallor, and Penguin Pool Murder treats her as a real heroine. I like movies that show me things I don't often get to see, and I don't often get to see a prickly middle-aged couple granted the same kind of crime-solving romantic arc as Glenda Farrell and Frank McHugh in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) or Marsha Hunt and Van Heflin in Kid Glove Killer (1942). Not to mention a penguin. This prize brought to you by my meddling backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Reunion in France (1942) is not a great movie. I'm not even sure it's a good movie. It was directed by Jules Dassin and it's not his fault; I don't think even Michael Curtiz could have saved Joan Crawford as France. The conceit of a frivolously apolitical socialite awakened to her strength of patriotism after the fall of France makes for an unusually ambivalent version of the heroine as national symbol, but the American production draws most of the bite and risks condescension instead while the love triangle takes on cheesily allegorical overtones when it requires Crawford to decide between sticking safely with sophisticated fiancé Philip Dorn, his industrial designs now indispensable to the Nazis, and risking her life to aid aw-shucks American John Wayne of the Eagle Squadron of the RAF. "You told me once I reminded you of France because I was selfish and spoiled. I'm not anymore and neither is she. Whatever she is now, I am too." I think this sort of thing works better in opera. I'm skeptical about the swastika-shaped dinner arrangements in any genre beyond Mel Brooks. The actually quite nice supporting cast includes John Carradine, Howard Da Silva, and Ava Gardner and they all do their best to distract the audience from the total absence of chemistry between Crawford and her co-stars, but it was with entirely unironic relief that I finally texted [personal profile] spatch, "Oh, thank God, Ernst Deutsch had a drunken breakdown and got punched, elevating the dramatic quality of this movie on the spot."

I wasn't expecting to see him again so soon, but since his scenes are the reason I do not regret having watched this movie, I'm not complaining. I was happy to see him even when it was not obvious that his German captain would be a character as opposed to a sigil of occupied Paris, like the swastika flag flying over the train station as Crawford's Michele de la Becque returns wearily but still haughtily from what was intended to be a carefree summer in Biarritz. He's the officer in charge of the coal-allotment bureau that used to be her townhouse, a crisply characterless type—silvering hair brushed straight back, uniform as neat as if it were pressed on him—who allows that she has the right to one room for her personal use with exactly the same dry precision with which he reprimanded his subordinate for not shooting her when she burst into his office; he gets one clipped deadpan line about his war wound being a bite from a Belgian sheepdog ("We found them infinitely better equipped than the soldiers") and otherwise seems like background color, field-grey. He's credited only as "Captain." I was not surprised that Deutsch, like so many German-accented refugees in wartime Hollywood, had found himself playing the people he had fled from; I was just a little sorry the film hadn't given him more to do. And then he barged back into the third act in an electrifying state of inebriation and I almost forgave Reunion in France for trying to make me believe such pieces of whimsy from Wayne's Pat Talbot as "I fly very low and very slow, like a duck." The captain wants to talk to Michele, though he's drunk to the point where you aren't confident he'd remember if he did; he hardly resembles the featureless martinet of his earlier scene with his swaying gestures and his stickily tousled hair, sweating in his half-buttoned uniform. The smile we'd never seen before fell off his face as soon as he registered the tall young stranger in the Frenchwoman's room. His Nazi insignia isn't what makes him look dangerous; it's his vulnerability, because if sufficiently humiliated he might have someone shot over it. It's a near thing after he insults the American "student" and Pat lays him out like Captain America Comics #1. Michele diplomatically steers the captain outside; he steers her into a corner of the gatehouse. "If it's air you want, you can breathe it here just as well—and I can stand and look at you." There's something in his dry voice that's not just the expected play of power. He might actually, awkwardly be trying to seduce her when he insists that she's "not the enemy, you never were, you and your kind. You know what it means to be the masters . . . Everything you've had, you'll have again." She dares him to be magnanimous; he pulls her roughly close, as if calling her bluff. He kisses her. Boom.

At first it looks like ordinary drunken belligerence—when Michele asked what he'd come to see her about, he escalated in defensiveness at once. "Why must it be about something? It's not an unusual request. People talk to each other all over the world!" Actually the captain is having a one-man The Moon Is Down, cracking up over his inability to be treated as a person rather than part of a genocidal machine, and it breaks out of him with all the intensity of the actor's Expressionist years. "You let me kiss you as if it were some sort of penance," he recognizes, harshly grinding the words out; he doesn't sound drunk at all, except that he wouldn't be saying any of these things sober. "I've met others like you before. They looked at me as you did just now . . . As if I were something to be suffered through, like a disease—patient, knowing that someday I would pass and that they would be well again. As if I were an animal. As if I were anything but a human being like themselves!" It is a wrenching honesty and all he wants is for it to be answered in kind and Michele won't give him even that much, double-speaking with one eye on the street where her underground contact was supposed to appear: "Isn't it my first duty to do as I'm told?" He's not a fool, this captain, for all that at the moment he's a mess. He knows—not about Pat's mission or Michele's plan to get him out of Paris, but that she's only let an officer of the German army walk her outside and stand her up against a wall and put his hands on her because she's buying someone else's safety; even when she murmurs his own words back at him, echoing too her ex-lover's conscience-soothing fascist soft sell, he knows he can't trust her to mean it. But she's the one making the forceful first move this time, she kisses him fiercely and he takes it, accepting for just a moment the illusion of human desire, and behind his back Pat and the young man from the underground get away safe down the street. Michele turns the captain loose, doesn't take her eyes off him. Low-voiced to her enemy, she says, "Don't let anyone ever tell you you're not human."

It might be the best line in the picture; it's certainly Crawford's best delivery. It's as honest as her kiss. It's the right form of words to encourage a man and she says it as if she's cursing him, even a little triumphantly. Be human, because you can be lonely. Be human, because you can be weak. Be human, because you can fool yourself; be human, because you can be defeated. For his moment off guard, the captain's caught in his compromising state by a superior officer, dressed down in untranslated German, left to listen to Michele's laughter as she moves on to a "bigger tiger." His last gesture onscreen is rebuttoning his tunic, putting himself back in order, his mouth pulled dryly down. He got nothing from her and she made him give everything away. And the movie had forty minutes to go of increasingly convoluted plot and counterplot, the mounting interest of the Gestapo, the late-breaking uncertainty as to the motives of Dorn's Robert Cortot, and I couldn't care as much as I did for those five minutes with Ernst Deutsch. There's nothing else like it in Reunion in France—nothing as realpolitik, nothing, I'm sorry, as sexy. It's not just the unibrow. Crawford has chemistry with Deutsch. It's the sort of twisty power differential there are entire tags for on AO3, but it's more fun to watch than Crawford repeating softly to Wayne, "I told you I wasn't mad" or protesting to Dorn, "But I'm not at war with anyone—I'm in love!" It's the only time the film remembers that life in an occupied country means more than vulgar Nazi wives taking over the fashion houses of Paris. I have no idea if at any point in its production the script had more grit to it or whether it was always high-gloss propaganda, but despite the importance of a third-act departure for Lisbon, let's just say it's no Casablanca (1942), all right?

Being made in 1942 but set in 1940, this film barely qualifies as a historical, but I'll accept it under January rules. If nothing else, it provided further support for my theory that noticing character actors promptly summons them. I appreciate that when it happens. Even when they're not the best thing in their film. This tribute brought to you by my human backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
I have never seen The Jazz Singer (1927). Periodically I remember that it's a landmark of cinema and then I remember that I still haven't recovered from Wonder Bar (1934). Fortunately, if you're looking for a movie about the negotiation of traditional observance with secular art, the complicated relationship of a religious father and a rebellious son, and the question of what it means to be a Jew on the bimah or onstage, I can now recommend you E.A. Dupont's The Ancient Law (Das alte Gesetz, 1923), recently and exquisitely restored by Deutsche Kinemathek. I saw it last week before Arisia; I loved it. It's timely, heartfelt, intelligently scripted and richly staged, and there's not a mammy number in sight.

It is also historical fiction, continuing this month's accidental theme. Partly inspired by the life of actor Bogumil Dawison and the memoirs of impresario Heinrich Laube, The Ancient Law is subtitled "Ein Film aus den sechziger Jahren"—"A Film from the Sixties." That would be the 1860's, a notable period of Jewish emigration and emancipation within the Austrian Empire; through the parallels of the past, the screenplay by Paul Reno can speak directly to Weimar anxieties about immigration, assimilation, and anti-Semitism, none of which have become exactly irrelevant today. There are always people moving across borders, between definitions. Baruch Mayer (Ernst Deutsch) looks the old-country picture of a rabbi's son, soulful and scholarly, properly frum, already engaged in the formal moves of parentally approved romance with Esther (Margarete Schlegel), the gabbai's daughter who watches him with a kind of bold shyness over the mechitzah of the women's balcony in shul, but when the tall youth impulsively takes a turn in the carnival of a door-to-door Purimspiel, the tin crown and false beard of King Ahauserus reveal something that isn't so heymish: a flair for theater that can't be realized within the rural streets and ritual bounds of his Galician shtetl. "In the world outside," the tinker-like wanderer Ruben Pick (Robert Garrison) attempts to impress on an outraged Rabbi Mayer (Abraham Morewski), "actors are highly esteemed people!" but the rabbi is having none of it. His heir is to keep his eyes on the Talmud, not the infectious nonsense of Shakespeare. They fight bitterly, escalatingly; it ends when Baruch runs away with the clothes on his back, the grieving blessing of his mother (Grete Berger), and a promise to return for Esther once he's made his fortune. The viewer may expect the next few acts to trace his rise from ostjüdisch nobody to darling of the Burgtheater and the romantically generous Archduchess Elisabeth Theresia (Henny Porten), at each step leaving behind a little more of his old, unassimilated life, but one of the beauties of this film is how much this process is neither a binary nor a one-way street. It makes the audience hopeful of Baruch's reconciliation with his family, which he is increasingly shown to desire as much as his glittering Viennese career; it's sufficiently realistic that we don't feel guaranteed of anything. I saw this movie with my parents and we were breathless in the final scene, not knowing which way it would tip off the fine edge of emotion that comedy and tragedy both share.

Deutsch is almost certainly best known nowadays for The Third Man (1949), where he embodied the ambiguity of Reed's postwar Vienna as much as the deep noir cinematography or the nervy zither score; I last saw him as the rabbi's antiheroic assistant in The Golem, How He Came into the World (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, 1920). With his dark-winged unibrow, his steadily burning eyes, and his sharply cut yet full-mouthed face, he made an ideal young hero of Expressionist stage and screen; he could look both pensive and piercing, dreamy and dangerous, and he sometimes gives the impression, like Conrad Veidt, of hailing from a planet where everyone has better cheekbones and doesn't blink. He's spellbinding and adorable as Baruch, effortlessly graduating from stage-struck yeshiva bokher to his generation's Hamlet. I think it's only sensible of the camera to consider him just as beautiful in his Hasid's yarmulke and black silk bekishe as in the sack coats and checked trousers of a Viennese man-about-town, but it matches the film's approach to assimilation as a spectrum, not a switch. That said, nothing here glosses over the forces that encourage it, ambition included but also anti-Semitism. Baruch's first experience of the theatrical life is the seediest and most satirical sequence in the film, as he falls in with a traveling family who perform what it is probably generous to call provincial theater. Penniless as he is, he's used as groom and gofer instead of actually apprenticed, but he studies his Shakespeare in between harnessing and mucking out and finally gets the chance to show it off when a picnic of Habsburg aristocrats summons the troupe for an evening's entertainment. It's the mechanicals at the court of Theseus: the actors are keyed up for success and patronage, but the audience is hoping for an MST3K-grade travesty and they get it, from a buffoonish middle-aged Mercutio to a canvas balcony that wobbles precariously with every moue of its smirking Juliet, but there's something about this back-country Romeo, acting his heart out as if he's not in a barn with kerosene footlights and an audience half composed of slumming courtiers and flirting peasants, that has the ladies intrigued behind their lorgnettes even as the gentlemen exchange side-eyes. He's even got the Archduchess quietly sobbing as he approaches the climactic love-suicide—and then, in an inspired improvisation of distracted grief, he pulls off the embroidered cap of his costume and his curly dark peyes come springing out. They might as well be horns. "Ein Romeo mit Judenlocken!" The crowd goes up in a guffaw, as if the very concept of Jewish romance is a burlesque. The curtain is hastily rung down. Two swells applaud the fuming director for his innovative casting of the "ghetto Jew" who can turn any drama he touches to comedy gold; a humiliated Baruch, stripped of Montague finery and back in his unmistakably Jewish street clothes, is mockingly saluted as "the Romeo from the Tribe of Asra!" His fortunes change for the better that very night, but it is impossible for the viewer not to recall that laughter and its scalding assumptions when we see him arrive at the Burgtheater in gentile dress, his unruly hair carefully ringleted to camouflage the tell-tale sidecurls. Following his barnstorming audition, they're the only wrong note in the reflection of a new-minted fellow of the Royal and Imperial Court Theater. Now the action reverts to the shtetl, where Esther's father (Fritz Richard) is encouraging her to accept the match he's arranged for her; as they speak, she's polishing the Shabbes candlesticks and he's knotting tzitzis. "Who are you waiting for?" he presses gently. "Baruch? He is lost to us . . ." Her small defiant face and her father's hands on the fringes of the tallis dissolve into Baruch squaring himself before the mirror, the scissors in his hands. The shear of the blades is shocking even without sound. He pulls one severed lock free, then the other; they drop from his fingers like dead things. As we watch him slick and comb his no longer so obviously Jewish frizz into a smart side-parting, we're not sure that her father isn't right after all.

Of course it's not that simple, because people's lives are not that simple, but movies often are, so I love that this one is not. It feels important, for example, that as high as Baruch's star rises in Viennese society, he never changes his name, a more Jewish moniker than which is hard to imagine. I know it's important that he's presented with a direct conflict between his religion and his profession, but I was not expecting the way it resolved. Having impressed an initially unreceptive Laube (Hermann Vallentin) on his own merits and received a further boost in the company's pecking order through the discreet interference of the Archduchess, Baruch is to open a new production of Hamlet in the title role; it's an ambitious but clever match for his intensity, his lyricism, and his gift for irony, not to mention his still unresolved issues with his father, whom we glimpse from time to time with the rest of the shtetl in cutaway vignettes. The catch? Opening night is Erev Yom Kippur. Genuinely distressed, Baruch protests that he can't act on the most important night of the Jewish year, only to be told by the exacting director that there's no more important night in an actor's year than an opening: "If you don't perform the day after tomorrow, you won't perform at all! Adieu!" Evening comes and with it the shtetl's preparations for the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Mayer presiding over a tish before the fast begins, his son's place at the table still conspicuous in its emptiness. The candles are lit in the synagogue with its murals and the white embroidered paroches of the High Holidays, as they are in the great chandelier of the theater with its stalls and draped boxes; the stormy, melancholy look on the star's face as he places the prince's royal chain around his neck is not all Hamlet's, nor merely first-night nerves. As the orchestra tunes up and the spear-carriers take their places, the agitated Baruch retrieves a small book from the pocket of his hung-up coat. He clears a space at his dressing table, closes his eyes, bends over the parted pages. Is he conning his lines last-minute? He's davening, the only observant Jew in the K.K. Hofburgtheater and he will not miss Yom Kippur. The two worlds of the film don't collapse so much as they are shown to exist in superposition all along. The theater audience and the synagogue congregation fill their chosen spaces with the same mix of serious attention and community bustle, dark-striped prayer shawls no stranger to the camera's eye than white-tie evening dress, and the prompter who knocks at Hamlet's door finds him rocking over his book as if in the beys-medrish, utterly heedless of his call time. Whatever the man makes of the visible Hebrew, all he does is, matter-of-factly, his job: "Come on! You're on stage . . ." Startled but not shamed, Baruch with not a minute to lose slips the prayer book inside his fur-trimmed doublet, furls himself in Hamlet's black cloak, and plays one of the greatest roles of Western theater with a machzor over his heart. The cantor is reciting Kol Nidre, the Aramaic formula that preemptively forgives all pledges and promises broken by accident or inability. Without irony on either side, the staging shows a congregation moved to tears by prayer just as strongly as an audience by poetry, the hazzan's voice, the actor's body. Baruch afterward is totally wrung out, absolutely glowing, and the night is crowned when Laube at last shakes the hand of his firebrand Jewish Hamlet. When a note arrives from the Archduchess, inviting him to a ball at the Grand Redoute, he tucks it between the pages of the machzor. The answer to the question he asked Ruben Pick all those months ago is a resounding yes, and he didn't have to stop being a Jew to do it.

The same smart sensitivity characterizes the resolutions of the film's other subplots, chiefly Baruch's relationships with the Archduchess and with his family. It is the spirit of the other world. ) At this point I stop caring whether the optimism of the ending was impelled by the pressures of the times or whether its call for empathy should be considered a failed project in light of the Nazi future through which it is almost impossible not to view a Weimar German Jewish film: with my mixed parentage and my mixed relationships and my marriage which was formalized under a chuppah with a line from American musical theater translated into Hebrew, it is important to me to see stories where the negotiation of identities is not either/or.

And this film looks fantastic doing it. The Ancient Law runs 135 minutes in seven acts and was never technically lost, having existed in various international versions and a black-and-white reconstruction of the German version since 1984, but the original camera negative had long since gone the way of most nitrate and it was not until the film's censorship card surfaced in the '90's that curators could even be confident about the original wording of the intertitles or the rightful order of some of the scenes. Completed in 2017, the current digital restoration incorporates material from five different international prints and I can tell because it was mentioned in the introductory notes, not because there are visible seams. Every now and then a fracture of damage washes across the screen and the rest of the time it looks crisp as a ghost, tinted amber, rose, or blue as the mise-en-scène requires. I should have guessed that cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl would eventually wind up in America, contributing his painterly photography to the nascent noir style, but in the meantime his Purim kreplach are as mouthwatering as his backstage shots of Hamlet are technical and thrilling. When Ruben Pick takes his leave of Baruch at the edge of the shtetl, he disappears down the dust-track of the road into endless grasslands and a wind that seems to fold him away into itself. Baruch and Esther embracing at last are a cameo of pure romance, an oval-masked rebuke to the idea that Jewish love can't take your breath away. Backgrounds as disparate as a rabbi's book-stacked study or a candle-blazing grand salon are all handled by Alfred Junge, without whose later production design for Powell and Pressburger I can't imagine their time-slipped Kent, myth-misted Hebrides, or hothouse artificial India. This film is, incidentally, an extremely #ownvoices production—Dupont and Reno were both Jewish, as was the majority of their cast. I have exactly one complaint about the subtitling and it's the intertitles' own fault for using Osterfest for Pesach in the first place. Since Morewski doubled as the film's technical advisor on matters of Yiddishkeit, that line about "Easter" being celebrated in the ghetto is on him.

I saw this movie at Temple Israel; it was a co-presentation of the Jewish Arts Collective and Boston Jewish Film with live accompaniment by Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin which would, frankly, have been worth the price as a concert. Both the program and discussion afterward pointed out that while Samson Raphaelson's short story "The Day of Atonement" (1922) predates The Ancient Law, the Hollywood talkie it was eventually adapted into—The Jazz Singer—owes an appreciable debt to the German silent, apparently right down to specific scenes. If you'd like to make the comparison for yourself, you can get the Blu-Ray/DVD from Flicker Alley. Svigals and Sosin's nign-like, waltz-time, violin-twined score is included. No jazz, but I'm still sticking with Deutsch, for whom Shakespeare supplements but does not supplant the Talmud. This heart brought to you by my esteemed backers at Patreon.
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Anthony Mann's The Black Book (1949) is one of the best arguments I know for noir as a mode, not a genre. I doubt I recognized it as such in 2011 when I caught the first ten minutes on TCM, but I knew I'd seen something special; eventually I tracked down the other seventy-nine minutes on YouTube and jumped at the chance to watch a less jittery, fuzzy version when it came back around on TCM this week. I love this movie and I don't think beyond its deserts. It is sometimes shown under the alternate title Reign of Terror. It's French Revolution noir.

It's not that I haven't seen noir hybrids before, but very few are as fearlessly full-tilt with their conceit as The Black Book. While its plot retells the Thermidorian Reaction as zestily as any costume drama, everything from its dark, dramatic lighting to its hard-boiled dialogue to its cynical nerve is noir, right down to the damaged hero and his ambiguously faithful old flame. Give him a century and a half and he might be a G-man among gangsters, but on July 26, 1794, Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings) is a Lafayette loyalist gone undercover as a notoriously bloodthirsty prosecutor in order to get close to Robespierre (Richard Basehart), who has just denounced Danton and stands ready to declare himself dictator of France. Charged with recovering the missing "black book" of the title—Robespierre's private hit list, fatally incriminating if its contents were known—D'Aubigny hopes instead to turn it over to Robespierre's rivals, but his only contact with the underground is the scornfully patriotic Madelon (Arlene Dahl) from whom he parted some years previously under mutually embittering circumstances and in any case, in the last paranoid thrashings of the Terror, trust can get you killed faster than actual treachery. Please make no attempt to anticipate the twists and double-crosses of the forty-eight-hour roller coaster; you'll put yourself in a neck brace. All you need to know is that the results are darkly funny, pulpily violent, and compulsively watchable, if only to see what sometimes literally cloak-and-dagger craziness this mashup of contemporary style and historical subject will throw at the national mythos next.

Like most B-noirs and especially Mann's, The Black Book turns its lack of budget into an occasion for atmosphere: William Cameron Menzies' production design and John Alton's cinematography have to create their revolutionary Paris mostly through small rooms and shadows and they succeed with baroque claustrophobia. Close-ups are lit every way but directly, angled to fragmentation or tight enough to choke. Characters are framed by quills, doorways, muskets, stalls, draperies, rain-slicked, torch-lit cobbled streets receding like blind alleys. Real prison bars are almost honest enough to be refreshing. Someone is always looking over the characters' shoulders, even if it's just the audience. You never know who's listening and you never know what they'll do with the information. [personal profile] handful_ofdust once memorably described this aesthetic as "Stalinist Russia with hoop-skirts"; the McCarthy echoes are unavoidable, but the film's more interested in thrills than a treatise. There are horse chases, coach chases, a murder conducted like spirit photography in a darkened mirror which moments later holds in its depths an even more unwelcome recognition scene. People burst out of bakery windows, swim like microbes in the Convention's engorging eye. When wine seeps from underneath a bookcase to give a secret room away, it pools and glistens like blood, a leftover crime. All mounted riders race against the same dawn-streaked cyclotron sky. I'd love to see it on film, velvety and baleful. Co-scripted by Aeneas MacKenzie and Philip Yordan, the screenplay does its Black Mask best to keep up. "Anarchy—misery—murder—arson—fear—these are the weapons of dictatorship!" a newsreel narrator barks before running us through a quick rogue's gallery of relevant parties from Robespierre to Tallien; then we're flung among the revolutionaries and conspirators themselves, some of whom say things like "We didn't storm the Bastille to make any man dictator" and others "Don't call me Max!" It's tough, cagey, demotic without overcooking into gumshoe parody. Estranged lovers and uncertain allies flirt with the same fencing dares. The heroes appeal to liberty like the God the Revolution is supposed to have abolished—the villains wield it like a protection racket. Best of all, at no point is the slightest effort made by the all-American cast to sound French or even English, Hollywood's cachet of historical class. I happen to prefer this approach in general, but it adds an especially anti-prestige kick to the liberty caps and powdered wigs. Lots of cities have a Brooklyn.

I have a better idea of what the movie is doing with D'Aubigny now that I've seen more of Mann's noir; as in T-Men (1947) and Border Incident (1949), the director is interested in the moral wear of undercover work, especially when it involves convincing as the kind of sadistic ideologue who only burnishes his laurels when he confesses deprecatingly, "The real pleasure of my work went out with the guillotine. It's all over too fast now . . . What this country needs is an elegant slow death. Give a man four hours to die. It's worth watching." I still feel Cummings could give us a better sense of D'Aubigny himself, the secret agent heartbroken into bitter recklessness; he adopts the role of the "Terror of Strasbourg" almost as soon as he appears, but there's still room for nuance in between the faces he shows the men whose confidence he must gain, the woman he won't admit never lost his heart. With her beauty mark and her muff pistol, Dahl is very good in her early, mistrustful, provocative scenes, but her Madelon fades into the plot the more it aligns her romantically with D'Aubigny. She may be one of the few female characters where I don't feel it's cheap of the narrative to have her arrested and even tortured, however: it's the risk all her cell agreed to run when they allied themselves with the impersonator of Citizen Duval, who they knew might have to blow a fellow-agent or two in order not to blow his cover ("A few lives won't matter, but Robespierre must never become dictator"), and she neither breaks nor betrays anyone. Norman Lloyd has a nice turn as trigger-happy Tallien, who almost shoots D'Aubigny just for talking to a member of the Committee of Public Safety; Richard Hart's Barras is a tricky crusader; Beulah Bondi makes an indomitable peasant grandmother. Charles McGraw even shows up as a brutal sergeant, albeit with his rocky charisma somewhat muted by facial hair. The film still really belongs to its villains. They're world-historical; they're the ones everyone from Stanisława Przybyszewska through Hilary Mantel and Tanith Lee has a different angle on. Basehart's Robespierre is an icy fanatic with ambitions of despotism who styles himself the incarnation of the people's will and genuinely seems to believe it, which makes him scarier than Jess Barker's smoothly sinister and unusually heterosexual Saint-Just. "We're living in a perpetual state of violence," he observes to a disguised D'Aubigny, without judgment or regret. "Each day this monster must drink its quota. There's only one man who can control this beast and that man must be dictator of France." Incorruptible to the last, he doesn't even attempt suicide; he's shot in the mouth—a startling gore-spatter—to silence his unadorned, spellbinding words, seconds away from regaining control of the violent crowd. Arnold Moss as Citizen Fouché enters the picture at the six-minute mark and steals every scene he's in, one of those reprehensible charmers whose eye for the main chance is as genial as it is ruthless. I love his deep, amused voice; it's as confiding and trustworthy as his character is not. You'd think he was a hero if you heard him in the dark. Instead he sits in Robespierre's own chair with his feet on Directoire marble, a saturnine man with an ironic smile and contemptuous cat-eyes, and ticks off his secret policeman's virtues on his fingertips with a dancing quill: "Where in all Paris would you find anybody as disloyal, unscrupulous, scheming, treacherous, cunning, or deceitful as I? Oh, you'd have to do some tall looking, Max." He gets the last word, a deliberate historical stinger. It's much more ambiguous than the celebratory fireworks suggest.

I recognize that in our current golden age of remix culture, historical noir is a no-brainer—it's hard to avoid, even, in some eras of history—but I have difficulty thinking of other first-generation examples beyond the previously identified subgenre of the noir Western and Mann's The Tall Target (1951), a nineteenth-century American assassination thriller that's less gonzo than The Black Book but just as visually and thematically noir. It works so well, I wish it hadn't taken the rest of the moviemaking world decades to catch up to him. At least we got this eighteenth-century dark city. I regret only that no one in it plays Camille Desmoulins. This state brought to you by my elegant backers at Patreon.
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I spent about twenty-five years in the fifteenth century last night: I saw Andrei Rublev (1966) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

At the moment I am having difficulty thinking of a movie it would make less sense to write about, but I loved this one, so let's dance about architecture. Andrei Rublev was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, co-written with Andrei Konchalovsky, and its current 183-minute version comes to us courtesy of a complicated history of cuts, censorship, and director's oft-elided preference; in its brief first life it was titled The Passion According to Andrei, but I like the plainer title partly because it forces the audience to think about why a movie that behaves so little like a conventional biography is named after a figure who is not even always onscreen. Beyond his paintings and a handful of names and dates, not much is known about the historical Rublev. Even less may be required for this film: it's not an explanation or an interrogation of the great icon painter so much as an exploration of the interaction between an artist and their world, staged like a cross between a documentary and a dream and shot almost perversely in an elemental black and white that renders milk and smoke the same pale swirl, the same dark spillage lead and blood. Time is seen to pass like a succession of icons, each scene given a title and a year—"The Jester, 1400," "The Holiday, 1408," "The Bell, 1423"—and then permitted to run anywhere from the length of a conversation to most of the wheel of a year. Some of the events we witness are conventionally dramatic, recognizably life-changing; some are just the record of time in a place of birch forests and wild ducks, monks chopping wood and pagans lighting fires for St. John's Eve, artisans blinded before they can make better work for their employer's rival and cities sacked out of brotherly envy. A traveling joker with a drum entertains a stableful of peasants with a scurrilous satire on boyars and priests and the next minute soldiers are dragging him away. The artist refuses to terrify the faithful with an iconostasis of the Last Judgment, but the invading Tatars—by invitation of a Russian ally—burn the feast of peace and love he paints instead. He takes a vow of silence, forswears his art, and it changes precisely nothing. What is the use of making art in such a world of brutal, uncontrollable violence and cruelty, the film sometimes seems to be asking, and then, at other times, what is the use in such a world of not making art? The medieval aeronaut of the mysterious prologue crashes to earth once his hot-air balloon of ropes and animal skins runs out of lift, but does that mean he was wrong to take that leap of faith from the church tower, that sickening, soaring swing out above a landscape seen for one vertiginous moment as completely as a frieze before we too fall and can't escape the world? We never see anything in this story with such clear distance again, not the politics, the geography, or the people. Why should we? We don't live in the big picture. We're the ploughman in that Bruegel painting, not God.

Andrei Rublev isn't God, either, although the movie almost incidentally makes a good case for him as a saint. As played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky's discovery and muse until his untimely death between Stalker (1979) and Nostalghia (1983), he could be a martyr in the old sense of a witness—a dreamily beautiful monk with eyes so deep-set and luminous they seem made for drawing in the world, absorbing the texture of wet twigs or the tint of a mad girl's hair like the tools of gold leaf or drying oil. Even with his soft beard scruff, he looks more than a little like one of the androgynous messengers of his own tradition, and he has a habit of appearing in the lives of others with the same seemingly quiet happenstance. But a recording angel would stand apart from this earth and all its frailties and calamities and Andrei the first time we meet him is ankle-deep in mud; later we'll see him scratched by branches, splashed with milk, eventually stained with his own and others' blood. As a young man, he argues a heresy of the Crucifixion so passionately that it unfolds before our eyes in the clothes and the snow and the worn, earthen faces of a peasant's book of hours. A pagan girl confounds him with her nakedness and her calm assertion of the holiness of sensual love, like the leap-fire he stumbled into that sets him briefly, non-metaphorically aflame; he loses one friend to jealousy and almost loses another through his own self-centered mistake; the capricious savagery of his land's rulers angers him to a silly, bitter, blasphemous act. The silence of his vow would make him even more otherworldly except that what he has to offer in the end is not an angel's-eye view. He's not some capital-A Artist, generic, archetypal. For all he's our lens on his century, he's not transparent prose. Nothing in this movie is transparent, except maybe the camera; it's a sticky, tactile, trampled world, like a surface of paint up close. You are always aware of the sweat of summer heat, the fog of winter frost, the ceaseless back-breaking work of pre-industrial daily life—the swarm of it, too, not just architecture and armies but the natural world that is always spilling into the most human-centered of scenes, Tarkovsky's horses rolling in spring grass or flicking their tails in the rain, a decomposing swan's wing prodded by a bored apprentice, the enameled ripple of a snake in a forest stream or the black fur of a cat crying its way among corpses in a burnt-out cathedral. "Nothing is more terrible than snow falling in a temple," Andrei murmurs after the sack of Vladimir, but we have seen stranger sights already in this movie whose cinematography seems to draw no distinction between horror and folly and beauty, all clear-eyed and unjudging. Not impersonal. If Andrei Rublev is a spiritual movie, and I think it is, it's not because it deals with religious art and dedication to God: it's because it's alive in every image, as if a field of flowers and an underpainted wall and the hands of a holy fool on a dead woman's braid are all equally essential, equally immanent. You can't get bored watching this movie unless you get bored with being in the world. If it asserts anything about the biographical Andrei Rublev, it must be that he too knew and lived in the world; he could not otherwise have painted images so out of it.

We do not, for the record, see him paint any of them. I'm not sure we see anyone in this movie engaged in the act of painting, even the preparatory kind that might precede the aesthetic decisions. Mostly we don't even see icons onscreen; they exist but are given no more emphasis than candlelight or river mist or the thick stiff pages of a book. When the film does decide to turn its attention to the work rather than the business of creation, it does so almost on the slant: the last scene before the epilogue is a self-contained narrative starring Nikolai Burlyaev with a high-strung swagger as Boriska, youngest son of a famous bellfounder who bargains his way out of his plague-destroyed village by claiming that he can, using the secret techniques his father passed to him before dying, cast a new bronze bell for the Grand Prince. He has a hill in sight of the city dug up for a casting-pit, spends months searching for the right kind of clay, browbeats the prince's emissaries over the right weight of silver, a slight, fever-spry figure in a tattered sheepskin coat, half the age of the men he's ordering around. It is a miniature epic of engineering and it pays off in astonishing shots like the firing of the mold or the pouring of the metal, a white-hot thunder of hand-built brick furnaces, channels suddenly streaming with scabbed molten light. Andrei watches whenever his errands take him outside the monastery, greying and silent, still witnessing. Only to Andrei will be revealed the secret behind the great bell now booming out across the fields with a somber, shimmering chime, like a cosmic punch line or the mystery of grace, and it will inspire him once again to change his life: "Come on. Let's go together, you and I. You'll cast bells; I'll paint icons." And only then do we see them, in the jewellike colors we have been withheld all film, the real, timeworn, wood-and-tempera articles, at first focused so closely that the screen fills with fragile abstracts of gilding and craquelure, gradually widening to show the faces and the figures, the halos and the feet and the wings, the animals, the robes, the angels sharing one cup like travelers at a table, the luminous face of the Redeemer finally, vast as vision, imperishable. It could have been terribly pretentious and instead it feels ecstatic, transcendent, alien. Tarkovsky is good at alienness; see Stalker, Solaris (1972). Andrei Rublev never makes the mistake of behaving as though its characters are modern, but neither does it behave as though it's looking back at them. They are not museum pieces, these people and their material culture and their habits of mind. They come to us from another time and through no time at all. Whatever we see of them, we can at least see true.

I don't know if Andrei Rublev will be my favorite movie by Tarkovsky. Oddly, it's the one that most reminded me of other things I've seen—Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), Derek Jarman's Sebastiane (1976). It's somebody's life which doesn't make a moral. It's time out of joint and it's gorgeous. I was given a DVD of a previous version some years ago, but I'm glad I waited to see the movie on a big screen, because even in digital restoration the cinematography by Vadim Yusov and the faces of Solonitsyn, Burlyaev, Nikolai Grinko, Irma Raush, Rolan Bykov, Bolot Beyshenaliyev deserve to be appreciated in as widescreen and wandering a format as originally intended. I don't know how it would scale down. It might end up like a poster of Hieronymus Bosch. Thanks to [personal profile] a_reasonable_man who got me the ticket, I got to fall through a couple of decades instead. This life brought to you by my dedicated backers at Patreon.
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I can't believe 2018 is almost over. It seemed to last twice the length of a normal year and spend most of it on fire. I have this website now where you can find my complete bibliography, not to mention the account I opened on AO3. But I care about traditions and I've kept this one since the earliest years of this journal, so here is my year-end summary for 2018.

Numerically, it was not a banner year for me. I published one piece of new fiction, albeit one that meant a lot to me:

"The Face of the Waters" in Forget the Sleepless Shores, Lethe Press, August 2018.

There was somewhat more new poetry, in a year in which more than one of my mainstay markets disappeared:

"кот древнее и неприкосновенное животное" in Animal Day II (ed. John Benson), January 2018.
"Shadow-Song" in Uncanny Magazine #20, February 2018.
"די ירושה" in Uncanny Magazine #20, April 2018.
"The Great Fire" in Not One of Us #59, April 2018.
"The Women Around Achilles" in Not One of Us #59, April 2018.
"The River Delivers Its Commission" in Not One of Us #60, October 2018.
"Nostalgia/Νέκυια" in Not One of Us #60, October 2018.
"ἄρκτος ἦ Βραυρωνίοις" in Sycorax Journal #1, October 2018.
"Acceptable Documentation" in Sycorax Journal #1, October 2018.
"Ariadne in Queens" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 8.4, November 2018.
"A Vixen When She Went to School" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 8.4, November 2018.

There was even a reprint:

"Like Milkweed" in Broad Knowledge: 35 Women Up to No Good (ed. Joanne Merriam), November 2018.

And a couple pieces of of fic:

"Assignment Null" (Sapphire & Steel), February 2018.
"Assignment 96" (Sapphire & Steel), July 2018.

And one delightful interview:

"An Interview with Sonya Taaffe, Author, Editor, Durian-Lover" at Jeannelle Writes, August 2018.

Mostly there was Patreon:

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), January 2018.
The Shape of Water (2017), January 2018.
Gun Crazy (1950), January 2018.
Side Street (1949), January 2018.
Small Town Crime (2017), January 2018.
Private Hell 36 (1954), January 2018.
Black Sea (2014), February 2018.
The Heart of New York (1932), February 2018.
Boston Sci-Fi Marathon 43 [Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Time Machine (1960), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Lost World (1925), Marjorie Prime (2017), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dark City (1998), Night of the Living Dead (1968), "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (1963), World Without End (1956), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Yellow Submarine (1968), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Looper (2012)], February 2018.
K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), February 2018.
WarGames (1983), March 2018.
Crossfire (1947), March 2018.
Clash by Night (1952), March 2018.
Suddenly (1954), April 2018.
Manhatta (1921), April 2018.
Hell's Angels (1930), April 2018.
Out of the Fog (1941), April 2018.
Whiplash (1948), May 2018.
A Letter for Evie (1946), May 2018.
Crime Wave (1954), May 2018.
The Clay Pigeon (1949), May 2018.
Victim (1961), June 2018.
Sebastiane (1976), June 2018.
God's Own Country (2017), June 2018.
The Eternal (1998), July 2018.
Mohawk (2017), August 2018.
Persuasion (1995), August 2018.
In the Family (2011), September 2018.
I Don't Want to Be a Man (Ich möchte kein Mann sein, 1918), September 2018.
The Big Heat (1953), September 2018.
Panic in the Streets (1950) and The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), September 2018.
The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), September 2018.
Jennifer's Body (2009), October 2018.
The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1950), October 2018.
Raw Deal (1948) and He Walked by Night (1948), October 2018.
The Hunted (1948), October 2018.
Angel on My Shoulder (1946), October 2018.
Follow Me Quietly (1949), November 2018.
Heat Lightning (1934), November 2018.
Outrage (1950), November 2018.
Kentucky Kernels (1934), November 2018.
The Divorce of Lady X (1938), December 2018.
Peach-O-Reno (1931), December 2018.
Talk About a Stranger (1952), December 2018.
The Holly and the Ivy (1952), December 2018.

But most of all there was my book, my first fiction collection in thirteen years, which I did not set out to make an assertion of queer Jewish (sea-haunted, sometimes dead) identity in this our chaos of 5778/5779, but here we are:

Forget the Sleepless Shores, Lethe Press, August 2018.

And I traveled for it and gave readings and talked about it on the radio and it got some pretty nice reviews. It is the reason I am most glad to have lived to this year.

I don't know what to say about the rest of it. Every year it feels like we wish for a better one and every year it feels like we observe with anger how much higher the tongues of a trash fire can reach. Every year feels more tiring. I see too much of what I didn't do. But I saw and made and read art this year and so did many other people and we will just have to keep it up in 2019, that it may be that better year. Besides, I want to read all of it.

Happy New Year.
sovay: (Sydney Carton)
Most Christmas stories are stories of regeneration: the sun returning, the green boughs in the snow. In this sense George More O'Ferrall's The Holly and the Ivy (1952) is no different from the rest of its genre, but I really appreciate how much holiday stress, awkwardness, and downright dysfunction it packs into its three acts all the while looking like exactly the kind of well-spoken, well-photographed, well-made play the British New Wave was supposed to explode. Instead of a drama of exquisite repression, it's ultimately a story of misrule: how the genteel codes of keeping calm and carrying on can trap a family each in their own separate ice like the ninth circle of Dante and sometimes things need to shatter; someone needs to scream. Christmas is the most inconvenient and the most appropriate time of year for it. Cue the hangover, heartache, and mistletoe.

The film is not ironic about Christmas; it's not out to spike the eggnog of anyone who sincerely enjoys the carols, decorations, crèches, and nativity plays observed over the course of the movie, especially in the prologue—opened out from the original stage play by Wynyard Browne—which seems to promise a sentimental reunion as various members of the far-flung Gregory clan are summoned home in the winter of 1948 for Christmas at the old vicarage in Wyndenham, Norfolk. The widowed aunt on the English side of the family (Margaret Halstan) jubilantly leaves her residential hotel, the spinster aunt on the Irish side (Maureen Delany) reluctantly leaves her cat, the middle-aged cousin (Hugh Williams) leaves his army buddies at the club with the provoking thought that he almost went into the church himself. All are genuinely invested in the homely routine of family Christmas and the screenplay by producer Anatole de Grunwald does not belittle their anticipation; at the same time it is clear-eyed in its recognition that coming home for the holidays can be the least relaxing thing on earth, especially for adult children whose lives have diverged wildly from the tinsel innocence of bygone years. Scapegrace Mick (Denholm Elliott) wangles himself a leave from his national service on compassionate grounds, all demurely transparent apology for his recently widowed father and his sister bravely bearing the weight of the season all alone, but once home and hugged and roped into holly-decorating, he candidly confides, "I can't bear Christmas. I used to like it as a child, but now it's—well, as you say, it's depressing." Perhaps his older sister Margaret (Margaret Leighton) feels the same way, because no one's seen her at family gatherings for years; she exists in a glamorous, distant whirl of London fashion journalism, conspicuous by her disappearing act whenever anyone tries to get hold of her at her office, the shows she covers, or her expensive, untidy flat. And eldest sister Jenny (Celia Johnson) isn't coming home for Christmas because she's always home—the passive, collective weight of family opinion fixed her as the domestic type long ago, so despite her own restlessness and her engineer boyfriend (John Gregson)'s job offer in South America she is keeping house for their father who never remembers where he left his socks or his sermon, looking ever more luminously frayed and enduring almost without a flinch his expressions of grateful reliance, "Oh, Jenny, Jenny, what would I do without you?" They keep their secrets with long practice, individually resigned to the "perpetual pretense" whenever they have to interact with the rest of the family. But when an unexpected Margaret crashes Christmas Eve like the Ghost of Christmas Never, it's too much reality for the holiday to bear; the air that should be full of the hush of snowfall and the pure harmony of carols thickens instead with nerves and resentments and griefs held down too long to be anything but volcanic when they come out. The action adheres to the classical unities, meaning we're spending Christmas with the Gregorys whether we like it or not. Just our luck it's the one where someone passes out on the drawing-room floor.

Since stories where people don't talk to one another tend to drive me to headdesk, I appreciate that The Holly and the Ivy's is not an idiot plot. The Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson, with snow-white hair standing in for the twenty years the role's got on him) is not a monster, not a fundamentalist or a fanatic or even just one of those Victorian patres familias that hung on after the war—with his gentle sense of humor, his academic eccentricity, and the half-lilt of his still-Irish accent, his parishioners might well describe him as a saint or at least a holy fool. He is preparing a sermon on the pagan antecedents of Christmas and shocks his romantic sister-in-law by casually declaring that he hates the modern, commercialized holiday. He may charm the viewer just as readily, interrupting his own research to read out a passage that tickled him: "In the Middle Ages, they had a Feast of Fools at Christmas. It seems they got a bit rowdy at times and in 1444, the cathedral chapter of Saens laid down a regulation that not more than three buckets of water could be thrown over a curate at Vespers." But he has dedicated himself so seriously to his vocation that he's left his family out in the cold, assuming that they would come to him with their problems without ever inviting them to; unsurprisingly they have grown up assuming they can't. It's hard to call it selfishness outright, but it is a kind of complacency, a self-imposed insulation. Martin frets that the great fourteenth-century church that so overawed him when he first came to Wyndenham means less to his flock than "that little tinpot shack of a cinema they've gone to tonight" and can't see until it hits him across the face three times in the same day how his own children have drawn back from him, afraid to find him too unworldly or too uncompromising to sympathize with their ordinary human fuck-ups and tragedies. "A fine caricature I've made of religion if that's how it seems to me own children," he mourns more to himself than to Margaret, with whom he has the most honest, therefore the most wounding conversation of the movie; she is his favorite child, after all, the bitterest and the most elusive, and her mistrust can pierce him where Mick's trembling explosions of temper might be dismissed as mere childishness. As if he's the one receiving the Christmas wake-up, the lightning-strike: "Should be because of religion I have more sympathy and understanding for people. But I have, Margaret, I have! Do I seem like the type of man that'd turn away from the sorrows of his own children?" By his distress, plainly not, but how should she have known? It was never put to the test.

With all their katabasis and catharsis, the other thing Christmas stories tend to be is mythological and The Holly and the Ivy is no exception here either; both plot and dialogue play consciously but never pretentiously with metaphors of winter and Yule, the dark and icy as well as the candlelit. Jenny's love for David is inseparable from her despair over its futility—literally fruitless, kisses stolen in the cloakroom of the vicarage as she sinks against his shoulder in a moment of respite equated with death. "I suppose people who fall asleep in the snow feel like this. They know they've got to keep awake, but just for a moment they give up the struggle because the snow's so warm and so cozy." If she freezes for love of David, though, she might find herself in the same position as her sister, of whose brittle flamboyance she demands, "Why must you always crackle like ice? What's happened to make you seem all frozen over inside? You're like someone out of a Hans Andersen story—the frozen queen who went down to the gardens of the dead," as if Demeter harrowed hell for Persephone. But Margaret never will regain her lost child, born to an incorporeal father in dreadful parody of the Nativity; she is not Madonna but Magdalene of the Snows as she confronts her family, pale and stinging in her armor of white furs and reckless indifference, much the worse for drink. "Your gardens of the dead are here tonight with a vengeance, Jenny. It's like walking over the surface of the moon. The snow's too pale—" Considering as I do the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities an essential Christmas movie, I am glad to see a seasonal narrative star a cynical, drunken woman who is not yet beyond all hope and even gladder that self-sacrifice is not what's asked of her. Very little has really changed by the end of this story. Two sisters trade places at the hinge of the year; a brother for once tells the truth; a father for the first time hears it. Nothing is solved overnight. Nothing is even guaranteed. And yet it feels momentous enough to justify Mick's giddy report to a bemused David, who went home early and missed all the anagnorisis: "There's been an atomic explosion since last night. The whole of our lives has been split open, exposed . . . the place is radioactive. I must go"—to meet his family for services, impertinent atheist that he is, having skimmed sixpence for the collection off his future brother-in-law who still doesn't know what hit him. Back in a discussion of the topsy-turvy days around Christmas and the New Year, Martin recalled that the ancients thought of them as "queer sort of days that didn't really exist—days on which anything might happen." Well, look at that. Anything did.

I believe I first read of this movie exactly ten years ago, when Denholm Elliott was suddenly everywhere, and then it got back on my radar four or five years after that, when Ralph Richardson was suddenly everywhere, and then it took until this Christmas to make its debut on TCM where I could see it. It does give very good Elliott and Richardson; the former is as young as I've ever seen him and so slipperily beautiful, he looks one moment like he could do you mischief in the wood and the next like he'd panic, while the latter draws quietly on his knack for the workaday numinous, so that you believe his parson both as a force for absolute good in the world and a parent who really needs to get his act together. Johnson and Leighton share some of the best scenes as sisters who simultaneously covet and can't make sense of each other's lives; doing the washing-up at the sink together, they look like a white owl and a lioness somehow sprung from the same stock. Gregson is playing more of a romantic object than an active character, but he makes an attractive object, Halstan, Delany, and Williams all turn in familiar types who are still not totally predictable people, and an additional handful of character actors turn welcomely up—Roland Culver, Robert Flemyng, William Hartnell in an awful mustache. The cinematography by Edward Scaife is not fancy, but there's one eloquent shot through a Christmas tree that summarizes everything wrong with a relationship. I rather like the music by Malcolm Arnold, since it's all variations on carols I enjoy. In a year in which I felt relatively ambivalent about Christmas, The Holly and the Ivy worked for me: it is thorny without cruelty, hopeful without schmaltz, and contains a bravura monologue about guano. Show me the Hallmark movie that has one of those. This crown brought to you by my sweet backers at Patreon.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
A few nights ago I dreamed of watching a film noir I still have trouble believing doesn't exist, about a refugee who moves to a small American town post-war only for his new neighbors to take him for a war criminal in hiding. When I saw that the latest offering from TCM's Noir Alley was called Talk About a Stranger (1952) and co-starred Kurt Kasznar, I knew I had a duty to my subconscious. It was not the movie I dreamed, of course. But it was something just as neat and maybe even rarer: a kid-sized noir that grants its pre-teen protagonist the same vertiginous shadows and unreliable light as his adult counterparts, the same cinematographic power to make the world over in the expressionist image of his fears and convictions, always remembering that his world is not exactly the adult world; it merely overlaps in unpredictable places. Noir has always thrived in the liminal spaces. Why shouldn't adolescence be among them?

The story itself can be sketched simply; like much children's fiction and much noir, it has the vocabulary of a fairy tale. There's a child, there's a beast in the wood, there's a death, there's a lie: there is nearly a disaster, because it's dangerous to be the hero of a story when you might be wrong about the kind of story you're in. The child is Bud Fontaine (Billy Gray), a cocky daydreamer with the all-American sheaf of fair hair that goes along with his paper route, his toy rifle, and the dog he wants more than anything in the world. The wood is his father's orange groves in southern California, homely and Hesperidal when sunlit, a wilderness of fog and whirling leaves after dark. The death belongs to Boy, the tail-wagging stray who came trotting down the sidewalks of Citrus City like the answer to Bud's fervent, nightly prayers. And the beast is the man he believes did it (Kasznar), the mysterious and unsociable stranger recently moved into the long-deserted property next door. He gave his name curtly as "Matlock," the night Bud's father (George Murphy) cheerily took him for "Dr. Mahler," the equally long-absentee owner of the rather Addams-looking house and its surrounding, neglected groves. Then he all but slammed the door in his good neighbors' face. From such abrasive details Bud gathers a dislike of the newcomer, who hardly ever comes into town and makes no friends when he does, until he becomes convinced that the man is not just capable but culpable of murder, human as well as canine. Really he wants vengeance for Boy and he will stop at little to achieve it, hellbent as any refrigerator widower or double-crossed hood. It is frightening to watch his face harden in adult invention and ruthlessness and also because we don't know for sure that he's wrong—in so many stories, only the child recognizes the monster the adults miss. And in so many others, the child fatally misconstrues what an adult would have understood at a glance. And all the while the mise-en-scène is making itself strange, shadowy, and unstable to match Bud's thoughts, carefree afternoons of autumn sun contracting into bitter winter nights, so that we can't tell whether the darkness is inside or out or whether it matters at all.

The film plays fair with its point-of-view. It doesn't condescend to its audience and it doesn't undercut its young hero by making his nemesis too conspicuously a scapegoat or a villain: Matlock is more surly than sinister to an adult eye, but that doesn't mean he didn't kill Dr. Paul Mahler of San Sala and steal his house and his orange groves and his 1947 DeSoto Custom with the original owner's registration still wrapped around the steering column. "Kid's the best judge of character there are," the butcher in town sagely opines, "kids and dogs—it's an instinct." On the other hand, an astute viewer may notice that the very first time Bud mentions the stranger to his parents, he's already lying: "We were kind of fooling around, you know? And this guy comes out and starts—well, I kind of thought you'd like to know!" A twelve-year-old can leave a lot of nasty implications in the lacuna of things a parent should know about their new neighbor, especially a twelve-year-old trying not to feel guilty about breaking windows in a house that turned out to be occupied after all. You watch the action under the credits of this movie with puzzlement, trying to figure out what on earth you're seeing humping through overgrown gardens toward a house-front with the Gothic decrepitude of the Bates Motel—it's a gang of trick-or-treaters masked and bed-sheeted in mid-century nightmare fuel, ready to storm the local spook house when the lights inside flick on. The kids freak and scatter, but it fascinates me how neutral the first appearance of Matlock actually is. He's not Boo Radley or even Miss Havisham. He's youngish, dark and heavyset—Kasznar played the first Pozzo on Broadway and the first Nero Wolfe on TV—his round face defined by his peaked emphatic eyebrows, as solid as greasepaint. The wildness with which he flings open the door and stares around at the retreating trick-or-treaters, the intensity of his gaze caught by a petrified, unmasked Bud suggest startlement, even fear, more than meanness or rage; Bud's father may not be far from the truth when he jokes to his agitated offspring, "What'd you do, scare somebody to death or something?" No words are exchanged, so the slight, distinct not one of us of Kasznar's Austrian accent is not even in play. But the man is fixed in Bud's mind as a monster from that moment forthwith, so that even when he thinks the stranger might be Dr. Mahler, his automatic response is, "Gee, I sure wouldn't want a doctor around that looked like that, would you?" and at night he sits up watching the one lighted window in the Matlock house, aiming his toy rifle and chattering Tommy-gun sounds until the light goes out.

I love details like the Tommy gun because they remind the viewer that for all his hard-boiled investigating, Bud really is twelve years old, with all the intensity of an age when the Q.E.D. line between I don't like this person and someone killed my dog and this person killed my dog feels as obvious as the cold-snap temperatures that have the farmers of Citrus City nursing their trees through the nights with smudge pots and thermometers. One minute he's formidably composed, the next doubled over sobbing. Frustrated in his efforts to obtain justice for Boy—for his father to beat a confession out of Matlock, the police arrest him, the editor of the Citrus City Independent print that he's a dog-poisoner—he turns detective in miniature to prove his case, gleaning information from gossip at the grocery and the sale records of the hardware store, breaking into Matlock's garage, eventually even hitching a ride to coastal San Sala, where the boarded-up house that belonged to the missing Dr. Mahler stands cavernously above the kelp-swirling surf and the desolate cries of seagulls. The mailbox is choked with bills and papers, the sunroom windows smashed. A boy his own age (Teddy Infuhr) is loitering on the stony beach, a barefoot gamin with salt-tousled hair and the sleeves of his white T-shirt rolled up tough; he offers a pint-size of the noir hero's underworld as he dares Bud into the derelict house with its empty birdcages and dust-webbed photographs and gives him both a fright and a real lead. "That was October and this is January. Nobody's seen him since. Cops came to all the houses around here, asking questions. They dragged all this piece of ocean with nets. Nobody was allowed to go in swimming in case his corpse was floating around out there. It wasn't, though." His parents' consternation tips in a note of domestic comedy, but he's really lying to them now, keeping secrets, including about the damage he's done in his fury at not being able to reach Matlock directly. His inquiries have left a corrosive wake of suspicion, the honest citizens of Citrus City suddenly comparing notes on the stranger in their midst and finding him exactly the sort of man who would poison a boy's dog, with his reclusive habits and his disheveled appearance and his meager purchases that don't match his solid gold watch and his murderer's thumbs. I am not sure it's an accident that the only person we hear defend him is the Italian grocer, the other visible immigrant in town. Even Bud's father won't say he believes in Matlock's innocence, just that "hitting him wouldn't settle anything . . . Grown-ups don't do things that way. They can't. And they shouldn't . . ." Bud's face is closed, hearing the loophole his father doesn't mean to leave: that doesn't dictate what a kid can do.

Talk About a Stranger was shot by past master of shadows John Alton and he marshals them brilliantly for the climax, which finds Bud facing off against the people he didn't mean to hurt: his father and the rest of the orange growers, the community he thought Matlock was so far outside that no action taken to wound him could ever affect them. There's smudge-smoke, the sky fanned with dull light through the trees, oranges torn and rolling, an irrigation canal rippling with water as silky and ghostly as the river of The Night of the Hunter (1955). It's a frost-fogged nightmare, the fairy-tale forest that will catch you if you stray from the path. It's the world that shifts its shape. Then it's all right, isn't it? ) I didn't even notice this film runs only 65 minutes, it packs so much emotion and atmosphere into its slight narrative. Margaret Fitts adapted the screenplay from the 1951 short story "The Enemy" by Charlotte Armstrong, meaning I can count it toward my unofficial catalogue of women in noir; I don't know what to tell you about the director, since David Bradley appears otherwise most famous for a 16 mm Julius Caesar (1950) starring Charlton Heston and for The Madmen of Mandoras (1963), better known under its TV title of They Saved Hitler's Brain (1968). A third-act mention of Santa Lisa made me wonder if all of MGM's noirs take place in the same semi-fictional California-verse. Oh, and the future Nancy Reagan plays Bud's mother, but she has almost nothing to do in the story beyond being discreetly pregnant, so I did not find that she interfered. This fooling around brought to you by my serious backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
This cold has left me feeling like death on toast points, so I won't mince words: William A. Seiter's Peach-O-Reno (1931) is a gem. About five minutes in, [personal profile] spatch said in wonder, "Hays must have had a heart attack when he saw this movie." About five minutes from the end, he corrected himself: "He must've had an apoplexy." Seeing as how the intervening fifty minutes include a price war between quickie divorce lawyers, a respect for the American legal system that rivals Kander and Ebb's Chicago, and the greatest screen drag act until Jack Lemmon's Daphne, I cannot bring myself to disagree.

Unlike some of our previous forays into the whack-a-ding-hoy world of Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey, Peach-O-Reno has an actual, trackable plot and it's funny from the premise: after a molehill misunderstanding escalates into a mountainous grudgematch in the middle of their silver anniversary dinner, Joe and Aggie Bruno (Joseph Cawthorn and Cora Witherspoon, respectively as round and choleric and tall and astringent as a misalliance by Mervyn Peake) race one another to Reno to get unshackled while their daughters Prudence and Pansy (Dorothy Lee and Zelma O'Neal, one fair, one dark, both smarter than their parents by miles) race after them to throw a spanner in the divorce by any means necessary; all parties collide at the opulent offices of shysters extraordinaire Wattles and Swift (Wheeler and Woolsey), who run a legal practice by day and a casino by night, because Reno. They even have their own heavily advertised shuttle service to ferry their dual clientele straight from the train station and right under the noses of their competitors, the more reputable, i.e. less successful firm of Jackson, Jackson, Jackson, and Jackson (only the last of these is important; he's played by Sam Hardy). Let no one say their work lacks the personal touch, though—representing both sides of the Bruno divorce, our antiheroes are cheerful to act as their own co-respondents and provide the obligatory grounds. Complicating their efforts is not only burgeoning romance with the young lady Brunos, but the necessity of dodging Ace Crosby (Mitchell Harris), a bad man straight out of a B-Western with the simple heart's desire of shooting the skunk who got his wife her well-deserved divorce. That skunk is Wattles, who's already committed to spending the evening as "the Widow Hanover, Professional Co-Respondent. Graduated head of her class from Co-Respondence School." So what's one more man to vamp? "Don't worry," Wattles assures his partner, adjusting his platinum-blonde marcel wave with one hand as the other snaps open his sequined fan, "I'll fascinate him." She swivels off in a swirl of black satin and silver fox, and does.

The best thing about Wheeler's drag is that it is perfectly convincing right up until the minute his wig catches fire. Neither of his marks is the sharpest spoon in the drawer, but the Widow Hanover succeeds on her own merits of outrageous man-hungry innocence and a voice whose natural femininity is more a matter of inflection than pitch. She has eyes like Clara Bow, a moue like Betty Boop, and she covers any suspicion of inauthenticity with a hip-check that would dislocate the rest of us. "Oh, man, what a woman," Wheeler's Swift whistles, watching her work on the besotted paterfamilias and the swell-headed desperado. Called upon to perform a floor show for the casino, she follows Swift a few courteous turns around the ballroom until the skinny little know-it-all can't heave her off the floor for a lift and, exasperated, she boosts him ballet-style and proceeds to fling him like a ragdoll through some soft-shoe, an Apache dance, a buck-and-wing that turns into a death spiral; I think only not actually being a Muppet saves him from going through the bass drum at the end. She gets two of the deepest-cut gags, too. "Oh, that's our college football pin," she airily tells Pa Bruno when he pokes at the incongruous enameled glint on her bodice, cueing some back-and-forth over whether it's really hers until he finally blurts, "But you can't wear one of these till you make the team—" at which the widow gives him a mercury-vaporizing grin. The wig-scorching that reveals her imposture is lampshaded by Crosby, who sniffs the smoke in the air and growls, in a multiple entendre worthy of Greer Gilman, "I smell punk." And the action promptly converts itself into a scrambling chase with some bulletproof nonsense without a moment lost to gay panic. I appreciate it.

But the whole movie is full of things turning into other things as fast as you can pay for them, which is the American way. At close of business, one of the employees of the law office—which is already furnished like a cross between a department store and a resort hotel, with bellhops and floorwalkers—blows a jazzy reveille and Swift throws the mad science lever marked "Casino Switch" and the big neon sign above the building that's been flashing "Wattles & Swift—Divorce Attorneys" among a mess of hearts and rings blinks back on as "Wattles & Swift—Casino," with dice, cards, and a girl in her scanties doing the high kick. The bellhops strip off to become cigarette girls in the living end of lingerie, bars unfold out of bookcases and desks flip-top into roulette wheels, clerks reemerge as croupiers, waiters, and the house band, "The 10 Alimony Jumpers." This is a movie that's so irreverent about marriage that the love duet between Wheeler and Lee is a merry little shimmy about the ease of divorce nowadays—

From Niagara Falls to Reno
Used to be far away
Niagara Falls to Reno
Is only a step today
Many a peachorino
Made up her mind too soon
Now you can reach old Reno
Fresh from the honeymoon


—in the course of which Lee's Prudence whips off the skirt of her pearly white dress so as to tap more freely, also gams. And it's so committed to the irreverence that the courtroom sequence which caps the film exceeds all previously established expectations for pandemonium, combining the best elements of pro wrestling, a day at the races, a night at the circus, if it's Tuesday it must be Bedlam. I am especially fond of the peanut vendor vying for the jury's attention with the commentator from "Station GIN—the Breath of Reno," obviously a kindred spirit of Hoople's WTWP: "Mr. Wattles is wearing a high-hat herringbone two-pants suit and Mr. Swift's clothes are getting louder and funnier." It runs 63 minutes because RKO cranked out its movies nineteen to the dozen, but I think it ends where it does because once the jury's turned into a jazz band swinging the hot version of Wagner's "Bridal Chorus," where's left to go?

So that's a movie you couldn't re-release in the Code era. I was sorry to read that the wrestling courtship of Swift and Pansy was deleted from existing prints, but the rest of the script by Tim Whelan, Ralph Spence, and Eddie Welch seems to have come down to us with its innuendos and double-talk intact, which is good because otherwise there wouldn't be much of it. I have a lot of context-free affection for the progression of "Mrs. Doubleday-Doubleday . . . Mrs. Two-a-Day . . . Mrs. Two-Timer" and for Wattles' heartfelt sob, "Has anybody got a revolver?" but in terms of establishing jokes, I couldn't help thinking of Mel Brooks as a beautiful client inquired, "Are you looking at these?" as she crossed her elegant calves and Swift objected with dignified precision, "I beg your pardon, ma'am, I'm above that." We watched this mishegos off a library DVD, but there's a not too badly ripped copy on YouTube and I guarantee it won't be morally improving. I wish I knew whether anyone involved in Some Like It Hot (1959) could actually have seen it. This step brought to you by my fresh backers at Patreon.

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