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.
sovay: (Rotwang)
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.
sovay: (Default)
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.
sovay: (Default)
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—it is 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.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
The demise of FilmStruck made the national news this morning. My mother heard it discussed on the radio; she texted to let me know about the "praise and regret." I am experiencing whatever you call grief when it's more than half grievance, because there was no good reason to shut the service down. I've signed up for the Criterion Channel, of course, but I would have preferred WarnerMedia to get its head out of its portfolio and keep its original, niche, incalculable service alive. In any case, tonight when I looked at the TCM buffer for the first time all week, I saw one film which had been on my watchlist at FilmStruck and which I had never gotten around to, being distracted by early Ernst Lubitsch and wartime Ealing and a whole lot of film noir I never reviewed. I watched it, obviously. I know a sendoff when I see one.

Tim Whelan's The Divorce of Lady X (1938) is a British screwball comedy filmed in Technicolor and starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. Any of these factors would make it weird enough to be worthy of note; it's like lagniappe that it's actually good. London's the setting, on a night so acridly fog-bound that a traveler returning from abroad is forced to ditch his cab and check into the nearest hotel where the attendees of a fancy dress ball for charity are just receiving the same bad news about their travel plans. Not that you could convince Olivier's Logan that it's any of his concern. A brisk and glossy young barrister, he's as beautiful as a blackbird and much more insufferable, refusing the hotel manager's request to open the outer room of his newly nabbed suite to his stranded fellow guests with eloquent relish: "I've been traveling for two days, I've had an extremely filthy crossing, my train was two hours late at Victoria Station . . . What I need really very badly is a good night's sleep, and I shall have that though every lady in London thinks me a cad, a brute, and a beast. Good night!" His specialty in court is divorces, but that's really no excuse for his reaction to the gate-crashing of Oberon's Leslie, as he deduces with the patronizing assurance of those whom the comedy gods are about to destroy that his unwelcome visitor must be an unfaithful wife caught out on an adventure, così fan tutte. "I've met too many women like you before—conceited, sure of yourself, and sure of your power over men!" Of course he's attracted to her, dark-haired, petite, and cheerfully take-charge in the blue-and-white crinoline of the Second Empire; of course it just makes him more judgmental and it's worse the next morning when the particulars of his latest client's petition—tallying so neatly with his topsy-turvy night at the Royal Parks Hotel—convince him that he's just become the co-respondent in his next case. Eager to disclaim male culpability, he delivers himself of a courtroom denunciation of the frailties of woman that would well become an MRA ("Modern woman has disowned womanhood, but refuses man's obligations. She demands freedom, but won't accept responsibility. She insists upon time to develop her personality and she spends it in cogitating on which part of her body to paint next. By independence, she means idleness. By equality, she means carrying on like Catherine the Great!") and it is just his luck that his audience includes the very single, very incensed Leslie. Last night she listened to his blithering chauvinism with a grave, wide-eyed sincerity before conning him out of first his pajamas and then his bed; now she sets her sights on his heart. He hasn't got a chance. She's a screwball heroine. She's nobody's fool, and the world is hers.

I don't know why Olivier didn't do more comedy. Removed from a leading man's protected status of serious business, his improbable good looks are revealed as an invitation to all the subversion the screenwriters can throw his way—anything that flawless is asking to get messed up. His Shakespearean voice flies up half an octave, cracks in helpless temper or despairing adoration; he loses fights with his own assumptions and inanimate objects; he tries to pretend he isn't doing nervous things with his hands. He's enough of a flustered romantic under his slim stuffed shirt that we understand what Leslie might see in him beyond the satisfaction of the game, but we won't be sorry to see him taken down a few pegs, or even a few more after that. For her part, Oberon is perfectly in key with the sexiness and the recklessness of her genre. Her Leslie is a delicate trickster with no time for disapproval: when Logan shakes a reproving finger at her, she catches it. "You do like talking about yourself, don't you?" She understands there are risks to playing with affections, especially when some of them are her own. But he's so crashingly confident, how can she resist playing up to his smitten anxieties about the oft-married and equally oft-divorced Lady Mere, flaunting her supposedly scandalous reputation while he ties himself in knots about his own—nobody but nobody is ever going to believe that they passed a night as innocent as any alibi he's ever demolished in court. "Four marriages in five years and two—episodes," he groans. "You don't seem to appreciate my frankness," she sighs. I note that she's a Leslie before it was a popular female name; his first name is the embarrassing Everard, which she makes a point of signing across his mirror in rose-pink lipstick before she leaves. More than once, the camera catches him holding her discarded fancy dress against himself as if trying to slip inside the truth of "Lady X," the serial gold digger all his professional evidence adds up to or the sweetly confounding stranger of the Royal Parks Hotel. It's not all parody, even when the screenplay by Lajos Biró, Ian Dalrymple, and Arthur Wimperis sets its most romantically melodramatic conversation to the overheated zither of a Russian nightclub. Screwball stands or falls by fast talk and chemistry and The Divorce of Lady X has both:

"But then I didn't like you in your office. I much preferred you in your bedroom."
"Our bedroom."
"My bedroom."
"Surely that's the proper place to judge your future husband?"


It has a well-assembled supporting cast, too, most notably Morton Selten as Leslie's cynical but kindly grandfather, J.H. Roberts as Logan's just plain cynical colleague, and above all Ralph Richardson as the marriage-worried Lord Mere, who drifts around with an umbrella looking vaguely bemused by everything until he gets suspicious enough to go on a vaguely bemused drunk. And the Technicolor photography by Harry Stradling is in fact luscious: the opening credits scroll like the neon signs of Piccadilly Circus. The sets and the costumes have a confectionary sweetness, all mint-cream and lavender and ribbon-blue and gold. The relevant pajamas are a heinously cherry-ish candy-stripe; they make Oberon look like a boiled sweet and their effect on Olivier can only be anticipated. (It's bad.) Even a borrowed pair of horn-rims pops red as licorice. Occasionally I feel Oberon has been too palely made up, but I suspect there's something about race at work there. Miklós Rósza is responsible for the score including the overheated zither and I approve. If it's not as madcap as Bringing Up Baby (1938) or as close to the bone as The Lady Eve (1941), both of which feel like the movie's closest relatives in terms of subject-object reversals and garden paths, Alexander Korda can still be proud of his decision to produce it in the wake of the unfinished 1937 I, Claudius. I'd love to be able to compare it with its quota quickie original Counsel's Opinion (1933), but since all that seems to survive of the older film is its entry in the BFI 75 Most Wanted, I'll just have to cross fingers for broom closets in Argentina.

I still understand why I've never seen it listed among the great screwball comedies. The leads never lose their chemistry, but the last third of the film feels increasingly diffuse and overstuffed, as though the screenwriters have mistaken the piling-on of plot twists for the fun of letting them play out. I am generally in favor of solidarity between female characters, but the much-discussed Lady Mere (Binnie Barnes) works infinitely better as a Maguffin than she does as a person onscreen; the action feels sidetracked every time it dives out of the points of view of its protagonists and I really don't know the purpose of the third-act fox chase unless someone thought it would show up nicely in color. The picture slows itself down just as it should be winding up for a sparkling whiplash and it's not fatal, but it does the story no favors in a genre so dependent on precision timing and unimpeachable absurdity. It pulls itself together in time for the ending, however, which would be only a comeuppance if not for the telltale shy flicker of happiness across Logan's face as Leslie demurely does his proposing for him—he may be seasick, professionally shaky, and feel at the moment like an absolute fool, but he's loved by a woman who turned him upside down and shook him like a dicebox and in the screwball universe there's no greater proof of devotion. Now I'm sorry they were never paired with a better script that wasn't Wuthering Heights (1939). This action brought to you by my proper backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
The first time I saw Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, it was love at first gag and I couldn't imagine how they had survived the pre-Code era. Their particular brand of racy, musical surrealism in which the women were as cockamamie and complicit as the men seemed doomed to land speed oblivion with the establishment of the Production Code Administration, which as of July 1, 1934 would hold final script and cut approval over nearly every movie produced in the United States for the next thirty years. Their humor wasn't blue so much as it was blithely rainbow-colored. The fact remained that they continued to make feature comedies for RKO until 1937 when Woolsey's fast-failing health rather than censorship put an end to their partnership and I was half curious, half apprehensive to know what they were like. I have now had an opportunity to find out.

Directed by George Stevens and released in November of its year, Kentucky Kernels (1934) was the first of Wheeler and Woolsey's comedies to be produced under the new regime; their June release Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934) had sailed under the nose of the Code by a couple of days, but the screenwriters of Kernels had to keep the Catholic parameters of decency in mind from word one and it shows. The plot is almost stereotypically family-friendly, with the anarchic pair of zanies turned adoptive parents to an orphaned moppet who promptly falls heir to an old Kentucky homestead, the claiming of which drops them all into the middle of a Hatfield–McCoy-style feud complete with moonshining, gunslinging, and cross-clan romance. The kudzu of Southern gentility rapidly overgrows the normally bumper crop of double entendres—no scantily clad showgirls in Banesville, population 1984 and falling—and while Mary Carlisle makes a spirited female lead, the script never gives her anything to match the flamboyance of Dorothy Lee swinging from light fixtures or cross-dressing her way through the Restoration. I also regret to inform the reader that sending the action south of the Mason-Dixon Line allows for the introduction of a slow-footed, easily spooked gofer played by Willie Best under the Stepin Fetchitesque moniker of "Sleep 'n' Eat," which I recognize is an artifact of the era in general but still aggravating: I don't consider racism a fair trade for smut. The movie as a whole is legitimately funny, its centerpiece number "One Little Kiss" is a Kalmar and Ruby earworm, and I would in all honesty watch Wheeler and Woolsey read a telephone book (inevitably they would end up serenading it and Woolsey would probably ash out his cigar in the pages; the scene ends in flames—"Whoa-oh!"), but it has been visibly tailored away from the freewheeling abandon of their pre-Code vehicles and I get that that was the point, but I don't have to like it. And yet I am not convinced that Code-era Wheeler and Woolsey were as totally domesticated as the censors of the time must have believed in order to approve the movie, especially after Breen had pulled one of their previous pictures from theaters and halted the further distribution of two more. Or let me put it another way: domesticity by Wheeler and Woolsey still looks pretty disorderly to me.

It's frankly reassuring. The story begins with a swell (Paul Page) on a high city bridge disbursing his cigarettes, his watch, and his billfold to passing strangers after fatefully flicking a ring into the foggy water far below, but it really gets underway in a tin-roofed shack in the shadow of that same bridge, its raddled walls crowded with old pictures and posters. One shows a pair of familiar faces, a four-eyed magician and his pert assistant smiling under the headline "The Great Elmer and Company—Sensational Feats of Magic." The Great Elmer when he's at home is Woolsey's Elmer Doyle, currently enjoying a cigar and the latest edition of Variety with his feet up after dinner; Company is Wheeler's Willie Dugan, currently not enjoying the latest round of after-dinner dishes. In shirtsleeves, an apron, and a gauntlet of suds, he snaps at his impatient partner, "It's all right for you to say, 'Hurry up.' All you do is sit around the house all day and read the paper—while I work my fingers to the bone!" and they're off on the archetypal argument of the layabout husband and the overworked wife. Eat your heart out, Menander. They don't miss a beat, from the attempted bribe of an evening at the movies to the invocation of the neighbors and what they must think, the display of dishwater-ruined hands, and the auxiliary argument about one of their mothers-in-law, culminating in Wheeler's long-resigned lamentation: "Oh, I should've known better than to let you make an actor out of me!" It is played absolutely, excuse my language, straight. No limp wrists, no lavender inflections, and no side winks to the camera to assure no homo. It's just the same casual gender play that runs merrily through their pre-Codes and that means that even though normally I can't stand this scenario even when it is Menander, I am charmed that the censors missed this permutation and accept these characters at once as a down-on-their-luck theatrical couple. "Is it my fault there's no more vaudeville?" Woolsey grouses defensively. They've been trying to rely on the river to get by, but all it's done is furnish them with the most interesting assortment of trash north of Turtle Mound. All they need is a crying baby and we could be in any Depression melodrama.

First they get the swell, who has fetched up dripping in the mess of fishing nets outside their door. Brought inside and dried out, he's so poetically despondent over his broken engagement to a woman he describes as "Juno, Venus, and Aphrodite all rolled into one . . . her eyes are sunbeams, her hair is just like burnished gold, her kiss is the gossamer touch of a zephyr breeze!" that his rescuers decide he needs something to distract him from rhapsodizing them to death; after a few false starts, they collect an appropriate distraction from the Children's Welfare League, but by the time they get home with the sturdy little tyke played by George "Spanky" McFarland, the intended father has kissed and made up with his syncretic goddess and skedaddled, leaving our heroes literally holding the baby. Wheeler is starry-eyed; his mantra for the last few scenes has been a sigh of "Gee, I would love to have a baby." Woolsey's eyes are looking a little wilder, especially through his suddenly vulnerable horn-rims. As if placed with them by the hand of Nemesis rather than a plummily disingenuous Margaret Dumont, Spanky is exactly the kind of rug rat a pair of tricksters should find themselves stuck with: a tiny, lisping force of pure destruction. He smiles seraphically. He breaks glass for fun. Windshields, spectacles, picture frames, windows, the kid has a hammer or a half-brick for all contingencies; he's indifferent to the upswing in his fortunes that whisks him and his new "uncles" from their now rather smashed-up shack to a bluegrass country mansion, but it's love at first sight with the big-framed greenhouse of the Milford estate. He says innocently truthful things that leave his uncles' fast talk flat-footed. He bats longingly at a garland of lights at a garden party like a cat with a string just out of reach. McFarland at five years of age was already a veteran of Hal Roach's Our Gang and your mileage on child actors may vary, but I feel strongly that if his Spanky had just been all dimples and light, both the movie and its viewers would have drowned in treacle. Instead, being the sort of miniature disaster engine who leaves the same trail of chaos through his uncles' lives as they leave through other people's, he fits right into Kentucky Kernels' burlesque of the nuclear family that still turns out weirdly sweet. After all the shenanigans of assumed identities, star-crossed romance, stage magic, disguises, drunken horse chases, and a brilliantly violent mockup of a Gatling gun with a kerosene torch, a can of raspberries, and a string of shattering lightbulbs, the happy ending is Spanky and his uncles plus one new aunt all heading back north in their old touring car—by way of the greenhouse, which collapses most satisfyingly in their wake. Maybe that gets it out of the kid's system, who knows. The climactic shootout broke so many things.

The musical number is also pleasingly polymorphous. We get the verse and chorus modeled by Carlisle and Wheeler; it's catchy and they're cute, especially since they share the lyrics. "One little kiss / Is all I live for / Oh, what I'd give for / One teeny little, weeny little kiss / One little kiss / Would satisfy me / Please don't deny me / One teeny little, weeny little kiss / Oh, what are your lips made for? / Oh, give me what I've hoped and prayed for / One little kiss / Not six or seven / One glimpse of heaven / One teeny little, weeny little kiss." Then it's taken up by Noah Beery and Lucille La Verne, representing the elder generation of the feuding families; an uncredited Black close-harmony group swings it for a refrain, dressed like sharecropper's kids in a yard of sunflowers; Spanky sings it to a dog which obligingly licks his face at the end. And then we cut to Woolsey, earnestly crooning, "One little kiss / Just to begin with / 'Cause I give in with / One teeny little, weeny little kiss / One little kiss / I've set my cap for / I'd be a sap for / One teeny little, weeny little kiss / I know that I am able / To make you think that I'm Clark Gable / One little kiss / That's all I beg for/ I'd break a leg for / One teeny little, weeny little kiss." He's singing to a donkey. He chucks it under the chin, hangs on its neck, caresses its big fringed ears; he cuts one line short to shoot a look at the camera: "I'm the one with the glasses on." I can't explain it and I don't care. Best abbreviated Midsummer I've seen.

I suspect I will still prefer the further pre-Codes of Wheeler and Woolsey when I can get them; Half Shot at Sunrise (1930) is one of the great Army comedy titles, Cracked Nuts (1931) and Diplomaniacs (1933) sound like Ruritanian spoofs of the kind I've just been discussing with [personal profile] moon_custafer, and So This Is Africa (1933) was famously so wild that it lost a third of its runtime to censorship even before the PCA came along. I was nonetheless worried that they had been forced to forfeit all their weirdness to the Catholic Legion of Decency and I am heartened to see that it wasn't a dead stop. Even a few innuendos insist on nudging their way to light. A skeptical Woolsey follows the swell's rhapsody with "Yeah? Well, I'll take Mae West," and when he muses a moment later, "Now let's see, what would take a man's mind off a woman?" his guileless partner is there to supply, "Another woman." An absentminded moment with a magician's hat leaves a gang of angry Wakefields trying to shoot our heroes with a brace of white rabbits. Wheeler does a very fine spit-take at the punch line of a story about a plumber. Margaret Dumont does not play the Margaret Dumont role. I will probably never wrap my head around the thing where Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby also wrote for the Marx Brothers and Eddie Cantor, but I'm glad they did what they could for Wheeler and Woolsey, even if I would have been gladder still for the history in which there was no need to clean up their act. This vandalism brought to you by my wholesome backers at Patreon.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
Ida Lupino's Outrage (1950) is one of the great American movies about rape and rape culture—sensitive, furious, and deeply noir, because noir is the genre where the world drops out from underneath you. One day you have an office job and a fiancé, a future as ticky-tackily rosy as the decade of prosperity assembling itself around you. The next it's as empty and threatening as the miles of highway under the wheels of the all-night bus you bought a ticket out of town for, unable any longer to bear being touched or even looked at by strangers or family. What has happened to change your state is a literally unspeakable crime, the euphemism of the title which yet has its own truthful force. This movie is not an exercise in pity. It should disturb the viewer that they live in the world it observes so acutely. It still works. We still do.

A disheveled, dark-haired young woman runs under the credits, through deserted night streets seen from a steep-craned angle as remote and disinterested as a God who marks a sparrow's fall but doesn't feel the need to do very much about it. She's Ann Walton (Mala Powers), whom it may take us a moment to recognize as the movie proper opens, bright-faced, carefree, and eager in the rollback of time. She keeps the books for the Bradshaw Mill Company in the Midwestern anytown of Capitol City and lives with her parents, not having gone to college despite her intelligence and especially her aptitude for math; her boyfriend Jim Owens (Robert Clarke) has just gotten the ten-dollar raise that will, he confidently assures her over half-sandwiches in the park where a carousel tootles and a neighboring matron does her impolite but kindly best to eavesdrop, enable Ann to quit her job and marry him. Rapturously, she invites him to dinner to tell her parents: "We're going to have fried chicken—and I'm going to make the gravy." Her father frets again that she's marrying so young, but her prospective husband reaffirms his love while Ann herself kneels at her mother's feet, a skein of yarn unwinding between her hands. It's all just a beat away from parody, except that Ann is so vulnerable and shining, so happy to be offered what she's been socialized to want. The next morning at work, she accepts congratulations from her coworkers in the form of a hug from her female best friend, a heartfelt pat on the hand from her male deskmate. She's making plans and why shouldn't she? She's not tempting fate. The film is very precise on this point. One of its working titles was Nice Girl. The other was Nobody's Safe.

In the first of many fidelities to the reality rather than the fiction of sexual assault, it's not stranger rape. An evil chain reaction. ) I have some issues with the psychiatric language of the third act, but not with its import: it is as remarkable as it is rewarding to see a movie from 1950 state so frankly that a survivor of sexual assault should get therapy rather than just get over it or die. The script is similarly refreshing about the ways in which damage begets damage and the institutions of society accelerate rather than address the problems. "That's my point. She is innocent of criminal intent and we are guilty of criminal negligence. It's our fault. All of us." It does not, however, confuse social reform with making excuses. The rapist has his own history of trauma, but there is at least one other damaged man in this plot and he understands quite well how boundaries work.

I had intended to watch this movie last week after it aired on TCM, but since their on-demand service skipped it and it does not appear to exist on DVD, I had to settle for a somewhat blown-out version on YouTube; I still recommend it. What with the centenary year and all that, now would be a magnificent time for Criterion or Kino Lorber to bring out a box set of the collected Lupino, writer-director-producer-actor that she was. The title card for Outrage reads "The Filmakers Present An Ida Lupino Production." No ambiguity there. She wasn't just a curiosity, the first female Hollywood filmmaker since Dorothy Arzner; she was a major American director and there are scenes here that prove it without strain, like a dance floor full of waltzing couples through which Archie Stout's camera travels like Ann's skeptical, envious, immutably separate gaze, or a flirtation shot like a monster movie to show just how much the normative, socially encouraged interactions of men with women exist on the same continuum as street harassment and rape. Like the pre-Code movies it satisfyingly resembles, Outrage stands with Caught (1949) and The Blue Gardenia (1953) as powerful correctives to the idea that the past was naturally, serenely sexist and no one until those second-wave bra-burners ever raised a fuss. This reality check brought to you by my nice backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
Mervyn LeRoy's Heat Lightning (1934) is one of the latest and greatest pre-Codes I have ever seen. If your heart does not lift at the thought of long-striding Aline MacMahon in a leading role, not to mention grease-stained overalls and the no-nonsense cool of a woman who can rebuild an engine with assistance from no man, then I don't know what we have to talk about anymore.

A proto-noir released just four months before the enforcement of the Production Code buried it for decades and condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency even before that, Heat Lightning hits its scandalous marks so forthrightly that they look natural, as nuanced female characters, sexual honesty, and no-moral murders should be; it almost prefigures The Petrified Forest (1936) with its plot of crime come to an auto camp and roadside café where a restless girl dreams of horizons beyond the yucca spines and dirt-road shimmer of the desert she unwillingly calls home, but where that film has a soft spot for fatalistic poetry, this one casts a skeptical eye on sweet talk, especially as practiced by men on women. MacMahon's Olga is done with most of men's practices, really. She can banter about the weather with burly motorists and her closest confidant is local rancher Everett (Willard Robertson) whose clunker of a car spends so much time in her garage that she teases him about breaking it just to have an excuse to visit. But she's done with sex, with romance, with the maneuvers that start like friendship and end up in bed: "You put a man and woman together, it gets complicated." There's a touch of the Western in the peace she's found in the solitude of the desert and the self-sufficiency of her own small business, like a gunslinger who has hung up her guns—in Olga's case, the accoutrements of performative femininity that were her "racket" in the days when she bestrode the cabarets of Tulsa like a colossus and couldn't stop loving a charming man who was no good for her and she knew it. No amount of dressing down can really disguise her heavy-lidded, sharp-chinned, ironical beauty, but her total butch disinterest in her face, her figure, and even the glorious weight of her bandanna-hidden hair sets her comfortably beneath the notice of most men and she returns the favor. Not so her little sister. Sheltered, impatient, and cute as chum in the water, Myra (Ann Dvorak) is starving to get out into the world her sister's been working overtime to keep her away from; though she longs to travel like the gritty or glamorous strangers she makes envious change for at the lunch counter, she'll settle for sneaking off to a dance in town with her snaky suitor (Theodore Newton), even or especially after fighting all afternoon with Olga about his intentions. "I don't care what you or anybody else says about him—I love him," she sobs, a terrible echo for Olga who fought her way out of just such a love to hear. "You never had any emotions. You never had any fun. And you don't want me to have any, either!" Not one of these statements is accurate, of course, but Olga's past will have to put in an appearance in order for Myra to find out.

I am now thinking that where The Hunted (1948) really went wrong was in casting Preston Foster as even a flawed hero—like Fred MacMurray, he's an infinitely more plausible heel. Over the twenty-four hours of the plot, the sisters' auto camp will play host to a positive gallery of Depression-era archetypes, from a couple of bickering long-marrieds (Edgar Kennedy and Jane Darwell) to a blonde-and-brunette set of Hollywood-bound hitchhikers and their outclassed sugar daddy (Muriel Evans, Jill Dennett, and Harry C. Bradley) to a catty pair of jewel-bedecked divorcées rebounding on their game but exhausted chauffeur (Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly, and Frank McHugh) and finally a working-class Mexican family (Chris-Pin Martin, Margareta Montez, and a jalopyful of child actors) on their way to Juárez for the fiesta. I am assuming that all of these moving parts were imported from the 1933 Broadway play by Leon Abrams and George Abbott which formed the substrate for the screenplay by Brown Holmes and Warren Duff, but they make for a bingo card of Warners contract players, each contributing their own little acid turn to the generally tart portrayal of male-female relations. "Well, there's one dance I know he ought to be a marvel at, he's got all the qualities—snake hips." "I told them I got a wife and two kids in Flatbush, but that only seemed to encourage them." "Well, you go your way and we'll go the way of all flesh." No self-respecting pre-Code from this studio would be complete without a crook or two, however, and Heat Lightning's arrive in the form of Lyle Talbot's Jeff, a safecracker with a squirmy conscience—he chews nervously on his own necktie—and the smoothly cold-blooded partner (Foster) he calls "George," but whom a stricken Olga recognizes as "Jerry." Large as life and twice as bad, her charming man's headed for the border after turning a bank job into a double slaying, but Olga's resistance inclines him to stick around till morning, especially after the more racist of the divorcées insists on locking her diamonds up for the night with Mexicans on the premises. "Prosperity is just across the border," he assures his unhappy associate. The horizon flickers with heat lightning, with the itchy tension of a storm that isn't breaking and sexual ghosts never truly laid. Myra's been making unwise plans with her Steve since the first act, but we don't worry about Olga until we see her emerge from the house wearing a dress, pale, ruffled, and very feminine, with the wry curve of her mouth pointed in lipstick and the bandanna gone from the wave of her heavy dark hair. She has taken up her guns again: she's beautiful in the ways that make men see her. Everett's tongue-tied, but Jerry grins and grins, wide as the jaws of a trap.

As much as any individually racy line or disrobing silhouette, I suspect the sophistication of this plot doomed the movie during the era of the Code's ascendancy: it knows that sex is not the problem, but rape culture is. The danger to Myra is not whether she'll lose her virginity, but whether she'll be date-raped by a man she trusted. The danger to Olga is not the self-respect cost of a one-night stand, but the emotional violence of being lured by pride and skin-hunger back into an abusive relationship she crossed three state lines to get away from. I found a big rat running around in the lunchroom. ) I can definitely see that not flying after July 1, 1934. Double-features nicely with Night Nurse (1931), though.

I watched this movie in the evening after voting, waiting for the midterm results to begin to come in; they are still coming, disheartening in the Senate but full of House seats flipping blue like dominoes, and I don't know how cautiously hopeful vs. continuingly stressed to feel about my country, but in the hours of maximum uncertainty I found it useful to be reminded that pendulums swing, that the past was no more all one thing than the present, and that more than eighty years ago Hollywood knew, even if it was later obliged to forget it, that women could be front and center in their own stories. Heat Lightning notices, too, that paranoia about Mexican immigrants is contemptibly racist, and that a heroine should speak to strangers in their own language if she knows it. The paramount relationship is the sisters, not either with any man. It runs 63 minutes and it doesn't waste a one of them; its exteriors are sun-baked Mojave Desert and its interiors as hot, cheap, and dusty as the studio could make them; Martin contributes some beautiful Spanish-language guitar ballads to the soundtrack. Everyone I know should be aware of the sexiness of competence that is Aline MacMahon in dungarees and a sweaty workshirt, repairing a car. This heat brought to you by my independent backers at Patreon.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
I watch a lot of B-movies. It goes with the genre; A-noir is not a contradiction in terms, but most of the movies now classified as film noir were originally produced as B-pictures, the cheaper, shorter, quicker features intended to run as the bottom half of a double bill. Studios could and did churn them out, never imagining that more than half a century later these unimproving mass-market entertainments would have given rise to an entire aesthetic as well as a field of study. Obviously, it improves my life that they did. The plethora just means that for every weird little treasure gifted me by local arthouses or streaming services, I also encounter my fair share of movies that have just about one thing going for them. Sometimes it's an actor, sometimes it's a character, sometimes it's a scene. In Richard Fleischer's Follow Me Quietly (1949), it's a concept so good and so eerie that it almost haunts the movie it belongs to into being better than it is. Almost.

Hastily produced by RKO after its first year of micro-mismanagement by Howard Hughes, Follow Me Quietly is a police procedural so low-budget, its backlot city can't even afford a name. For months now, its streets have been stalked by a serial killer known only as "the Judge." He kills on rainy nights; he leaves cut-up letters decrying the immorality of his victims; his crime scenes are scattered with physical evidence that leads maddeningly nowhere, half-smoked cigarettes and strands of hair and even a dropped glove and hat no use in the days before DNA profiling. They sit like museum pieces in a glass cabinet in the office of Lieutenant Harry Grant (William Lundigan), the lead detective who was put on the case because of his "imagination" but may now be dissolving, like so many profilers after him, into the abyss which he pursues. He sits up all night at his desk, brooding over a pile of crime-scene photos and crank letters until his slender, sarcastic partner (Jeff Corey, pre-blacklist; his entire plot function is kibitzing, but I'm here for it) snaps the shades up on daylight and reminds Grant that just this kind of obsessing landed "one of the best men we ever had in Homicide . . . in the bughouse." An undeterred Grant goes right on talking about the Judge. "If I could only see his face," he all but prays as the camera closes in on his own, sleepless and angry, baring his teeth with frustration. "I'd give a year's pay just to look at his face." Instead he has a dummy constructed to match all known particulars of the Judge—his height, his weight, his hair, his clothes—and presents it to an audience of detectives in the line-up room, himself voicing a kind of ventriloquist's catechism compiled from the Judge's taunting letters as Corey's Sergeant Collins interrogates the dummy onstage. He explains earnestly, "It'll give the men something more to go on than the usual routine bulletin description." It looks more like sympathetic magic than forensic science, especially when the pinstriped, greying figure with its back to the audience suddenly pivots around to reveal an absence of face as blank and uncanny as the no-features of a noppera-bō. To see it clearly as a mannequin as the detectives crowd around to inspect the thing that gave them such a jolt does not make it look any more reasonable. It is empty, anonymous, waiting. It could be anyone, which makes it everyone. It is a fetish. Grant takes to leaving it around his office, propped up in a spare chair with its back to the door as if gazing out the window; he nicknames it "Deadpan" and talks to it when he's alone. One night it begins to rain, hard and drumming in the gutters; he leaves his paperwork and stands in the shadows at the dummy's shoulder, asking it restless questions between drags on his cigarette, the ones he has no answers for this time.

"It's raining, Deadpan. Does that mean anything to you? You figure on going someplace tonight? Where are you now? The pool room, or a saloon? Maybe with a girl, eh? No, not you. You're all frustration. Tell me where you're going. Maybe I'll meet you there. How about a date—a blind date, with me?"

This last is answered snarkily by Collins, who has come to pull his partner away for his nightly sanity break: "Look, if you want to talk to a dummy, why don't you talk to me?" They banter a little, Grant reiterates his conviction that the Judge will strike in that night's rain, Collins retorts unflatteringly that Grant is "getting more like the Judge every day." He's resisted even jokingly treating the dummy as an animate thing, but when Grant exits before him, leaving him alone in the darkened, rain-rattled room with the silent audience of Deadpan, he's unnerved enough to tell it, "You give me the willies!" He bangs the door shut behind him. The office is quiet, and dark, and raining, and Deadpan stands up.

It's an astonishing moment. For just those few seconds it is possible that a bare-bones and otherwise conventional thriller has jumped the tracks into the supernatural—that by obsessing over the effigy of the killer, talking to it, talking for it, making it the vessel for the faceless force that roams his city's streets, Grant has invested it with life. It resonates uneasily with the equivalence already established between Grant and the Judge, with the awareness that the dummy's no-face could belong equally to cop or criminal or even both at once; it suggests that whether the dummy is possessed by the Judge or the imprint of Grant's obsession, there may no longer be any difference between the two. It says nothing as clearly as ghost or poppet or golem. It just moves when it shouldn't and we don't have to see its face because we know, nightmare-like, it doesn't have one. Then the figure that rose from the chair reaches behind a filing cabinet and pulls out what is obviously the real, rag-limbed Deadpan, arranges it in the pose he has vacated, and slips out the door. And we never have any idea what on earth the Judge was doing in Grant's office, impersonating his own dummy, and that's the problem with Follow Me Quietly.

It is not the only problem with Follow Me Quietly. At just under 60 minutes, the film is short even for a second feature, but instead of economizing on its atmosphere, it doubles down on its plot and the tradeoff isn't worth it. Dummy aside, the procedural elements of clues and cranks and witness interviews have all the magnetism of drying paint, and the less said the better about the tickybox romance between Grant and Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick), the tarnished but plucky reporter for a trashy true-crime mag who at one point pursues her story all the way to the efficiency apartment where Grant is taking a shower in a scene I have to imagine was intended to be racy, because I can't see excruciating awkwardness as a desirable goal. I can ignore a lot of surface boilerplate in a movie that has its deep symbols lined up, as is often the case in a genre as oneiric as film noir. I can't ignore when a movie doesn't commit to its dream logic. We are given this one tremendous moment of collapse between categories—in/animate, in/organic, un/known, un/real—stranded in a movie that seems totally unaware of its power, like someone either deleted or never wrote the rest of the pattern of obsession and doubling and merging and anonymity that would have scaffolded this breach of the uncanny into the everyday. It is almost there. Late in the third act, it seems to be surfacing again with our first good look at the Judge, a conservatively dressed, average-built figure whose face is invisible beneath his hat as he slowly crosses the empty, sun-washed street to his staked-out apartment: he looks so exactly like Deadpan that until he tilts his head back to reveal the tired, homely, apprehensive face of a middle-aged man with round-rimmed glasses (Edwin Max), we might almost be persuaded that even the real Judge has no face of his own. And then it's gone for good in the climactic chase through the pipes and catwalks of a gasworks, which is much more vividly shot than anything else in the movie, but Grant is chasing something real now, a living, struggling villain quite separate from the hero, all that bughouse obsessing concretely and sanely paid off, and we know how it has to end.

I really cannot tell if these traces are fossil, embryonic, or inadvertent. The screenplay was written by Lillie Hayward from a story by Francis Rosenwald and Anthony Mann, who had left the material with RKO when he moved on to Eagle-Lion; neither TCM nor the AFI Catalog could tell me much beyond that. It's just so full of gaps. Deadpan all but disappears from the movie following its big scene; it's glimpsed maybe once more in the daylit background of Grant's office, unambiguously a dummy with its gloved hands stiffly upturned in its lap and its blank visible under the pulled-down brim of its hat. Grant never discovers the substitution, nor is there any payoff to the infiltration of police headquarters by a wanted serial killer, not even when the audience might reasonably wonder whether the Judge committed that night's murder out of compulsion or because Grant more or less dared him to. I get that this film was ultimately not interested in the uncanny beyond its ability to deliver a hell of a shock, but then I'm not sure why making real-world sense was also too much to ask. A crazy killer does crazy things, that's all you need to know. The budget did not extend to context this year.

All the same, that one image of serial killer as crystallized obsession as awful object is so strange and so potent that I am not sorry to have seen it, even if I had to see the rest of Follow Me Quietly to get it. Maybe it would have fared better if it had contained Whit Bissell. This model brought to you by my lifelike backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I meant to watch more seasonally appropriate movies this October, but then real life stepped up to supply the horror instead. Compared with nearly any item in the news lately, spending an hour and forty minutes in the company of the Devil was a relief.

I admit it helps when the Devil is played by Claude Rains. Having previously essayed the apex of heavenly bureaucracy in Alexander Hall's Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), when offered the complementary chance to plumb the infernal-industrial complex with Archie Mayo's Angel on My Shoulder (1946) he took it deliciously; his Nick may in fact be my favorite screen Adversary, at once a crossroads trickster and a proud fallen angel and a sly stage manager of misfortune, as treacherously irresistible as a bad idea should be. I last saw this movie in 2011 and described it at the time as Mr. Jordan's evil twin: instead of a prizefighter prematurely translated to Heaven and returned to Earth only through some body-swapping celestial sleight of hand, its protagonist is a murdered racketeer offered an escape from Hell in the form of a diabolical substitution. To a Devil shivering in his office because a recent uptick in human morality means fewer stokers for the fires of the Pit, Eddie Kagle (Paul Muni, gloweringly handsome) represents a singular opportunity. First, he was bumped off by a trusted associate on his first day out of prison in four years and he wants revenge. He's already sworn to "crash out" of "the boiler room in the fifty-fifth circle of darkness" where his soul was consigned after a donnybrook with Hell's screws. Second, he bears a remarkable resemblance to a certain Judge Frederick Parker (also Muni, better groomed), an incorruptible crusader with reformist political ambitions whom Nick already holds partly responsible for the "labor shortage." In particular, the judge treats juvenile crime as a social problem instead of a fast track to incarceration—he's interfering with the Devil's future clientele. Silver-haired and silver-tongued, Nick disguises himself as one of his own damned trusties and proposes a deal: if they break out of Hell together, Nick will take care of finding his new best friend the necessary body to inhabit for his revenge on Earth so long as Eddie agrees to use that body to do a favor for Nick. It sounds good to Eddie; he just wants to be corporeal enough to handle a gun. The Prince of Darkness shouldn't have to do anything more than stand back and watch as the gangster's instincts send all the judge's good works down the chute. They ascend from the underworld via a freight elevator loaded with sulfurously hot ash cans and the rest of the movie sits back with popcorn as this seemingly idiot-proof plan absolutely backfires on Nick.

Not altogether surprisingly, my tolerance for default Christian metaphysics has really plummeted in recent years, which means I spent some time after this movie considering why it is that I find it touching and funny rather than anaphylactic—Claude Rains was a treasure, but I've seen movies he couldn't save. It helps that the screenplay by Harry Segall and Roland Kibbee is intelligent as well as witty and specifically free of the stupidity that so often afflicts bodyswap/doppelgänger stories. We learn early on that the honorable Frederick Parker comes from exactly the same kind of abusive slum background as crooked Eddie Kagle; not realizing he should blame demonic possession, his psychiatrist reads the startling break in the judge's behavior as a kind of post-traumatic reversion brought on by the strain of his job and the stress of his run for governor. Eddie is not, as he imagined, sticking it to the thoughtless privilege of "the Thou-Shalt-Not Gang, the Law-and-Order Brigade." He's stepping into his own alternate history, the life of the person he might have been if only a thing or two had been different, and I really appreciate that we never learn what those differences might have been, except that they were obviously nothing as simple as inherent good or evil. There's a clever hint in the abilities of Eddie-as-Parker. For all his criminal reflexes, he's limited by the capacities of his law-abiding body: the judge is a nonsmoking teetotaler, so Eddie's attempts to relax with a cigar and a shot of whiskey end in unconscious ignominy. When it comes to throwing punches, however, Parker's body has no difficulty remembering what to do. "Imagine that," Eddie marvels and mourns as he takes stock of his double's life, tough and upright, loving and well-loved. "I could have had all this—been all this—" He isn't so far from it, though, and the viewer notices before he does. At every turn, Eddie thwarts the Devil's intentions by doing nothing more than being his own stubborn, impulsive, not actually stupid self. Instead of meekly taking a hail of rotten vegetables from his opponent's goons at a campaign rally, he goes for the malefactors with both fists and won't stay down even when Nick implores him to, thereby rendering the judge a hero for life in the eyes of the at-risk kids brought to hear his speech: he demonstrated Captain America levels of Lawful Badass. Next day in his chambers, he's all set to let a couple off a rather gruesome insurance murder in exchange for the appropriate "fix" until he recognizes the woman as his former moll and the man as the reason she used to take "all them trips to Kansas City to see your poor old crippled mother! So this was your mother, eh?" and throws the money back in their faces before witnesses: Nick berates him for a fool, but Parker's sterling reputation is sealed. And though he falls in love, truly and sincerely, with the judge's fiancée Barbara Foster (Anne Baxter) who thinks he's just her lovely Fred in the throes of a nervous breakdown, he refuses to marry her once he understands how wrong it would be to steal another man's life and masquerade his way into his beloved's bed and heart—especially with Nick demurely encouraging him just for once to let the course of true love run smooth. But there's no road to Damascus in Angel on My Shoulder, not even when Eddie, for whom the penny has just dropped on the name "Mephistopheles," tears out of a church to "tell off the Devil!" (The minister responds distractedly, "Good for you, son.") Most importantly to me, I think, there's no redemption in the sense of theology rather than character growth. Nothing Eddie does in his second sojourn on Earth alters his fate in the afterlife, bails him out of his punishment or earns him passage to Heaven. The final scene finds him headed back to Hell—blackmailing the Devil as he goes, sure, but Hell for all eternity just the same. And he does the right thing anyway. Out of love of Barbara and sympathy for Parker, with nothing in it for him but knowing it was the right thing to do. That carries weight with me where more salvation-oriented narratives fall flat. It may not be irrelevant that Segall, who had previously won the Oscar for Best Original Story for Here Comes Mr. Jordan, was Jewish. That emphatic here-and-now-ness, even in a universe where God is understood to exist, feels recognizable to me.

But there is also Claude Rains, whose Devil may not have all the best tunes but certainly gets the best double-talk:

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


No argument. Mercury as much as Mefisto, he makes his entrance walking undramatically out of a wall of fire, checking the ticker tape and the temperature in an office that looks like a megalithic boardroom as he broods over his latest contest with his "Opponent"; he has a private smile, a musical snicker, and that caressing rough-edged voice that flexes itself like a cat's claws, one moment a confidential velvet murmur, the next as cold and remote as the space between stars. He's sensitive to chills and nervous about heights. He likes to appear where he shouldn't—behind closed doors, on the other sides of trees, until Eddie finally growls at him, "What are you gumshoeing around for?" Backstage at the judge's rally, he drifts merrily along at his protege's elbow until the laughter of a group of ministers sends him fading into the woodwork with his customary expression of blameless irony wiped off his face, recalling Thomas More's proud spirit who cannot endure to be mocked. Neat and unobtrusive in his false prisoner's black, he's always at the edges of the action, never at a loss for a plausible suggestion, until the charm drops without even a blink and the bitter hatred—and still, after all the aeons, the pride and bewilderment and pain: why should these stupid, crawling creatures be God's favored and he the first among angels condemned to fire and eternal defeat?—is there instead. I continue to regret that Rains never played Marlowe's Mephistopheles, or recorded The Screwtape Letters (1942). His last lines are anything but the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but they are right out of a folktale.

I cannot leave this movie without a shout-out to art director Bernard Herzbrun for creating a much weirder Hell than I expected from 1946. It has chains and furnaces and caverns of damned souls sweating in eternal toil, but also blasted volcanic plains and spattering rings of luminous stone, the hot ground seething with dry-sliding smoke and flames gushing up from cracked rock where there's nothing to burn; angularly lit by cinematographer James Van Trees, eerily wrecked and deserted, it's as theatrical as a stage set and frankly too idiosyncratic for me to think of it as camp. I like the sculpted stone map of the world in Nick's office, glittering all across the continents with what the viewer can only assume is the daily index of sins; the orchestra works its way somberly through variations on the Dies Irae. I have an ambivalent relationship with the genre of afterlife fantasy sometimes called the film blanc, but I can always make time for a good trickster and the chance to get better at ethics even when dead. This ascent brought to you by my trusty backers at Patreon.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
With all the recent excitement about Whit Bissell, I wanted not to overlook Belita. I saw her for the first time a couple of weeks ago in The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1950), playing the wife of Burgess Meredith's luckless knife-grinder; she had almost nothing to do onscreen but fret over her husband, but she had a more interesting face than either of the official female leads, like a fox turned human, white-blonde, and hard to wow. Almost the next night, she turned up in The Gangster (1947), a poetically offbeat, no-budget noir starring Barry Sullivan as a disintegrating racketeer in the low-rent purgatory of a thinly disguised Brighton Beach; again she had a relatively stock part as the antihero's glamorous, alienated mistress, but she executed it so compellingly that when I saw her name above the title of The Hunted (1948), another ultra-B noir produced by Monogram Pictures under their upscale label of "Allied Artists Productions," I had to check it out. It aired this weekend on TCM's Noir Alley. It's badly flawed and Belita is great.

The title comes up over a dark road lashed with rain; it is the proverbial dark and stormy night and a blonde girl with a cheap suitcase is stepping off an interstate bus in Los Angeles. A man in a trenchcoat seems to have been waiting for her, without her knowing—she catches sight of him through the fogged-up glass doors and turns on her heel without waiting for a taxi, striding off through the drenching rain with her shoulders braced and her head down, her free hand a fist in her pocket. Four years ago, Lieutenant Johnny Saxon (Preston Foster) sent his girlfriend Laura Mead (Belita) to prison after he caught her holding the diamonds from a high-profile heist; she maintained her innocence all through the trial and swore at her sentencing that she'd kill him and her lawyer for railroading her. Her brother was murdered while she was inside. Their suspected accomplice skipped town without being tied to the "Winston job." The rest of the jewels never turned up. Now that Laura's out on parole, Saxon who claims her deceit cured him of sentiment ("She thought I was so soft or so dumb or whatever it was, I wouldn't arrest her. She thought her tears could wash out a cop's sense of duty") yet keeps her class ring like an amulet on his watch chain can't decide whether to treat her as a credible threat, a romance to rekindle, or a lead on the missing loot, so he settles for an awkward mix of all three, his dominant motive at any one time unclear even to himself. He gets her a second-floor room at the Ajax Apartments, a job teaching and skating at the Polar Palace. She's wary but not unreceptive, but there's a real edge in her voice when she mocks him for still being afraid of her; he can't tell if he's seeing the bitterness of a wounded innocent or the manipulations of an ice queen fatale and neither can we, especially since one doesn't rule the other out. She's tougher now than the aspiring star he remembers: four years in Tehachapi have put a curl in her lip and a weary contempt in her small, slight figure as she folds her arms and accuses him of accepting her guilt as a matter of macho cowardice. "Your pride was hurt . . . The other detective that was with you—you couldn't afford to look a fool in front of him, could you? Not even for the sake of your girl." Rain shadows run down her face as she sits in his window, not smoking the cigarette he lit for her; he lies on the couch, not smoking his own. "When you hate, you give it the full treatment, don't you?" They are each telling the cruelest version of the past they remember and we have no idea which of them, if either, is right.

I like Belita's approach to her character's ambiguity, which is not to plead her innocence except in long-held flashes of anger; more often she turns a challengingly indifferent shoulder, as if it's not her business to prove she's anything more than an ex-con five foot four, a hundred and twenty pounds, hair blonde, eyes green, charge robbery. She's not affectless—I especially like her fox's smile, which can be sad or knowing or sharp with nothing more than the tuck of her mouth or the tilt of her long eyes—but Laura is at her most concentrated and alive when she's practicing the art she had to shelve for four years in state prison where they don't have ice rinks. Born in Nether Wallop under the impressively barreled name of Maria Gladys Olive Lyne Jepson-Turner, Belita was a real-life figure skater, by which I mean that she skated for the UK in the 1936 Winter Olympics at the age of thirteen; she did not medal but placed sixteenth in the women's singles and turned pro the following year. We get to see one of her routines in The Hunted. It's the nightly specialty at the Polar Palace, this time right after the championship playoff between the Blue Foxes and the Emperors, and it made me wish I knew more about figure skating style and technique of the '30's and '40's—it looks simple at first because her jumps are all singles or doubles, but I had to remember that women wouldn't start landing triple jumps of any kind in competition until the '50's and even the double lutz and double axel are a couple of years away. She has a very clean line, a lot of speed and spring; she is slimly but visibly muscled under her vine-spangled two-piece costume and the overall effect is not of airiness but something vivid and lithe. Her ballet training comes out in some of her gestures and stances, the steps she takes on the darkened ice, always pinpointed by the chasing spotlight. She doesn't cross her arms or wrap her ankles anywhere near as tightly as a modern skater; it doesn't affect the sureness of her landings. Even conflicted Saxon grins for once with unadulterated pleasure, watching something beautifully done. Off the ice, she's less streamlined but just as hard to look away from. If she's luring her prey, she's doing it with such cynical panache that it would be an honor to fall for. If she's on the level, Saxon's just lucky, that's all. You don't disbelieve she could shoot him and walk away cool.

That I cannot say the same about Foster is part of the movie's flaw. He made a solid heavy in the noir Western Ramrod (1947) and I remember enjoying him in Doctor X (1932), but that's a pre-Code mad science thriller of the same vintage as Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and it would be hard for any one actor to ruin a plot chiefly compounded of serial killing, synthetic flesh, and cannibalism, garnished with Lee Tracy talking fast and Fay Wray screaming. The Hunted has no equivalent distractions and consequently late in the third act I found myself wishing that Charles McGraw had not been cast in an uncredited walk-on as a local detective because then I couldn't stop thinking how much better I would have liked the movie with him as Johnny Saxon. If you have never seen McGraw, what you need to know is that he had a jaw you could break rocks on and a voice to match and he could have coasted to film noir immortality on his physical charms alone; instead, whether he's playing criminal muscle or incorruptible law, background color or tough lead, he never phones it in. He adds intensity to any scene he just inspects his nails through. He's not even a very ostentatious actor. He's just absolutely present. Foster is not. He's not wooden, he's not on autopilot, he's not giving a bad performance in any technical sense; I just realized that most of what I felt about his character was in the script by Steve Fisher, not anything Foster was doing with his face or his voice or his body language to convince me of his muddled feelings for Laura, his soft-boiled susceptibility smudged by his willingness to believe the worst of a woman he's gone out of his way to romance and nastily shaded with the instinct to use her as bait for Hollis Smith (Larry Blake), the definite rat who couldn't be pinned to the crime. They should have chemistry it's not safe to strike a match around. Belita's guarded smolder keeps her half of the bargain, but Foster never makes me wonder as much as he's supposed to. I could wonder about McGraw and his expressive stone face.

The rest of the flaw is the ending. I have said before that I am not against noirs that end happily and I mean it. I am, however, against anything that ends leaving me feeling that all the emotional processing required for an HEA rather than a WTF must have happened offscreen or in a different movie. You'd sell your heart out, wouldn't you? ) The final scene has great parallelism of night and rain and two people with a lot of history in a small room together, but they could have said almost anything to each other and I would have liked it better than the actual dialogue. Was this Fisher's idea? Are we missing a scene? Is this Breen's fault again?

I can see I'll have to watch Suspense (1946), the first of Belita's noirs for Monogram; if nothing else, it has more of her skating. Jack Bernhard seems to have directed an assortment of Poverty Row B-pictures including the cult noir Decoy (1946) and Unknown Island (1948), a Cinecolor lost-world film with some of the most dubious dude-in-rubber-suit dino effects I have recently had the misfortune to put into my eyes. He and veteran cinematographer Harry Neumann get as much mood as they can out of the material they've got in The Hunted and even a few moments that need no qualification at all, like Laura in lightning and rain-shadow saying to the man who threw her over for the thin blue line, "Sometimes I wonder if the police force loves you as much as you love it." This chase brought to you by my icy backers at Patreon.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
In one respect character actors resemble supernatural creatures or ants: once you notice them, they're everywhere. I have observed this phenomenon with Denholm Elliott, Ralph Richardson, and Roscoe Karns among others, and now it's happening with Whit Bissell. I watched Raw Deal (1948) and He Walked by Night (1948) on the common factor of Anthony Mann, who directed almost nothing but noir in the '40's before switching to Westerns in the '50's and epics the decade after that, and discovered I had also booked myself a double feature of skinny stock player about one rung up the noir food chain from Elisha Cook Jr. I am not actually complaining.

I side-eye the generic pulpiness of film noir titles often enough that I should give Raw Deal's credit for crystalline relevance: the action starts in medias double-cross, as neither the protagonist nor her time-serving boyfriend know that the one-time partner who let him take the fall for the "Spokane Mills job" is now setting him up for a jailbreak, not so that he can make the long-delayed rendezvous in Crescent City and collect his rightful $50,000, but so that he can get himself shot, in an elegantly prescient form of swatting, in either the escape attempt itself or the ensuing manhunt. "Why not?" Raymond Burr's Rick Coyle shrugs, a sleek hulk in a silk dressing gown who plays with fire the way other villains stroke the fur of cats. "It's legal." It's just not foolproof, which is how Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) ends up alive and pissed-off and working his way down the Pacific coast in a stolen Plymouth de Luxe and an increasingly volatile triangle with longtime girl Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor) and paralegal turned hostage turned new flame Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt). The viewer may be forgiven for expecting a familiar dichotomy: the women as devil and angel on the shoulders of our hard-driving, once-sensitive hero, moll and crusader, criminal past and fresh start, and the denouement of Joe's vengeance dependent on which romance is uppermost in his thoughts at the time. The viewer should be reassured that when I called Pat the protagonist of this picture, I meant it. She's the film's narrator, her hushed voiceover more poetic and more fatalistic than her tough dame's dialogue, as if she's honest only where nobody else can hear; she's the antihero at its heart, afraid of losing the man she loves to a younger, cleaner rival and hardening herself to the prospect of doing whatever it takes to clear the field, even if that means being complicit, like the cruel but craven Rick, in murder at second hand. She has a warily brazen, easily sneering face; we could believe it of her. She's not any more ahead of the eight-ball than the rest of the cast. There are passports in Pat's bag and two tickets to Panama if they can make the boat from San Francisco in three days, but every stage of the journey seems to bend back toward Corkscrew Alley, the fog-shrouded slum street where Pat and Joe grew up and where Rick still holds court, a second triangle of betrayal overlapping the first. Every sign of regeneration on Joe's part seems inspired not by Pat's devotion ("I'd always been more than ready to take him at any terms") but Ann's disillusionment ("I may have romanticized you before, but now I know you—you're something from under a rock!"). By the time he's brutally slugging it out with a contract killer in the back room of a taxidermist's while Pat with her bad ankle waits nervously at a neon-lit motel and Ann with shaking hands scrambles for a gun that went spinning across the antler-shadowed floor, it's beginning to look as though no one in this story is going to get what they wanted. We can't claim the title card didn't warn us.

Bissell's part in this one-way ride is fleeting—he's onscreen for three minutes if he's lucky—but memorable. Hunted up into the mountains where our main characters are hiding out for the night, his nameless wife-murderer comes scrambling to the door of their safe house begging for sanctuary and gets it thanks to the pity in Ann's eyes, but once inside the knowledge of what he's done drives him out again to commit suicide by cop, crying to his dead wife, "It's no good without you, May, it's no good!" He's a thin, panting little scarecrow in a torn denim jacket, covered in broken pine needles and sweat, and the bullets knock him down like a rag doll. He's like the ending of some other noir that the characters have stumbled through on the way to their own. Ann interprets him as a cautionary foreshadowing of Joe, a similarly lethal pack of police on his trail: "That could be you." Really he points forward to Pat and her crisis of second thoughts as the luminous hands of a clock tick round her darkened reflection and Joe talks haltingly, hopefully, of the "fresh, decent" life the two of them could build in South America: at what cost? What value to her, knowing how she got it? The murderer can't take back his crime; all he can do is die for it. Pat has the chance to undo hers, but the forfeit will be the life she's always dreamed of. If a good girl can feel rage, a bad girl can feel regret, but only in melodramas are nick-of-time rescues guaranteed. Speaking of women and noir, having recently seen The Big Heat (1953) I could not ignore the scene in which Rick heaves a dish of flaming brandy onto a woman who displeases him. It's a cruder take than Lang's overall, though more immediately shocking in the sense that the point-of-view camera makes the audience appear to get the fire in the face; the woman is not a character, merely a one-scene demonstration of the badness of this particular bad man. It's not the dominant note in the movie's attitude toward women, which means it leaves less of a bad taste with me, but I can't not wonder if Lang saw in it something he could work with—if so, The Big Heat really should have been Gloria Grahame's movie. Raw Deal is Trevor's and the better for it.

He Walked by Night is a curate's egg so neatly swirled between the two sides of its nature that I would call it a curate's yin-yang if that didn't sound incredibly rude. The premise is a compact lesson in the shadowing of crime drama into film noir: when the seemingly random, fatal shooting of an off-duty policeman produces a lot of witnesses but no leads, the LAPD throws out its standard dragnet with description, and almost at once what started as a simple if personal murder case escalates into something like a lethal snipe hunt, a will-o'-the-wisp of break-ins and hold-ups and black-market electronics resale that never leaves fingerprints, never shows itself to anyone but its targets, never leaves them identifying the same face twice. A promising lead blows up into a firefight; a stakeout only lets slip to their quarry what's up. The killer isn't the kind to play games with his pursuers, but he is extremely serious about not being caught. It's edge-of-the-seat stuff, in summary. In real time, I don't know if it's the dryness of the script or the terseness of the characterizations, but even knowing this film was the direct precursor of the Dragnet franchise and I owe it a debt of gratitude for transitively inspiring the straight-faced mathematical crime-fighting of Square One TV's Mathnet (1987–92), I have trouble working up much investment in the procedural portions of its plot. The cops are simply not very interesting people to spend time with. Jack Webb in his first credited screen role makes some impression as a laconic forensic scientist who already foreshadows the more eccentric specialists of later shows (presented with a mysterious liquid found in the glove compartment of the suspect's car, he gives it a judicious tap and then, inspecting the headless stick that used to be a ball-peen hammer, pronounces it "Yep—nitroglycerin"), but otherwise the law in this movie is so vaguely embodied that I failed to memorize any of the individual officers' names and even now find myself thinking of them as "the captain" (Roy Roberts), "the partner" (James Cardwell), and "literally Lawrence Tierney's younger brother" (Scott Brady). Any suspense on their side depends strictly on the craft of the chase, which the screenplay does no favors with the inescapably stentorian narration of Reed Hadley. It's like watching someone diagram a sentence instead of letting you do it yourself. Every now and then an unclaimed modifier or prepositional phrase sneaks through: the compositing of an unknown face from a roomful of witnesses and a screenful of slides; one detective managing to "boot some sense" into another without leaving his wheelchair. Any scene with Bissell earning fourth billing with a miniature masterclass in collapsing assurance as the killer's unwitting fence, a much more sheltered and much more credulous man than he thought before the police started grilling him about that television projector he resold to its original owner and the fine-faced fellow who sold it to him showed up with a few demands of his own; he can't tell who to be more afraid of, now that his tidy world of ledgers and transistors is yawning with moral shadows and glasses-snapping slaps. But on the whole, if you want to watch this movie, I must recommend you do it for Richard Basehart.

Because he got my attention for the first time in La strada (1954), some part of me always thinks of Basehart as an Ariel of the high wire, a daredevil with the face of an angel and a trickster's equal capacity for ruin and grace; it does not fundamentally change my feelings about him to see him as a criminal who haunts the storm drains of Los Angeles and dies without giving up anything of himself, not even last words. Even without the narrator building him up as "no more than a description, a shadow of a man—mysterious, elusive, deadly," Officer Rawlins' shooter assumes a semi-supernatural dimension simply because of everything that is not known about him, everything that seems unknowable. He's medium-height, indeterminately young, very beautiful. He doesn't look tough, but he handles guns with the same casual competence with which he rebuilds a radio and tunes up a car. We get a hint of sexual kink in the possessive way he caresses an oscilloscope, but otherwise he lives quite ordinarily in an anonymous little bungalow shared only by a well-cluttered workbench and a well-loved dog. He's utterly silent when he's on his own. He's mesmerizing. He's such a cipher that all the conventions of crime fiction lead us to believe, along with the LAPD, that uncovering his true identity will crack the mystery of his life against the law, but when he's finally linked to his past, it's as empty of motive or pattern as his real name: "He was a radio technician right here in our dispatch office . . . Sort of strange. Never bothered with anyone in the department, just kept to himself. He was in line for a promotion when he got drafted . . . He never asked for his job back after the war." That's our only clue, if you even want to call it that. If anything explains the man who goes by the name of Roy Martin, it happened in that lacuna of the war, when a kid who "had no interest in anything but electronics" went off and was taught to shoot by the Signal Corps. Now he lives in his native city as if in enemy country, as much off the grid as a man on a milk run can be; he always has escape routes, weapons cached in and outside of the home; his few conversations are as carefully worded as challenge and response. He can change the papers in his wallet as easily as the license plates on his car. He performs field surgery on himself as if he's done it before. But we never know why—what teachers, what demons. Where other damaged GIs in this genre have origin stories, this one deliberately refuses reduction to any nameable trauma. Maybe there was none. It's exhilaratingly existential. He takes his secrets with him when he goes. Alas that he could not take the lawful half of his movie.

Both of these movies are beautifully shot. John Alton was one of the acknowledged masters of making chiaroscuro stand in for budget and it is wall-to-wall in Raw Deal and He Walked by Night, from obvious expressionist opportunities like shootouts in mist-swirling alleys or wet-lit sewer tunnels to the fragmenting of human bodies in low-key light that turns even the front seat of a car into a liminal space. I feel more ambivalently about the contributions of John C. Higgins, who co-scripted both productions: I am beginning to think I feel about voiceovers the way I feel about shaky-cam. Nothing here is as bad as the interrupting narrator in T-Men (1947) who punctured the most emotionally devastating moment in the film for me, but Trevor has to narrate over a scene where her face is already doing all the acting and Hadley just sounds as though the screenwriters forgot they were writing for film and not radio. I can't knock Eagle-Lion Films too hard; they were the U.S. distributors of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948). I am just not sure why Anthony Mann of all directors should have been prone to voiceovers I consistently want to remove with a X-acto knife. In other words, I did not love either of these movies as I love some of their co-religionists, but they both showed me things I hadn't seen in this genre before, which is basically all I ask from my B-noir, even B-noir that is very highly rated by other people, and I am now fully prepared for the next thing I watch to contain surprise Whit Bissell even if it was made last year. This character brought to you by my shadowy backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I am not convinced that The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1950) is a faithful adaptation of Georges Simenon's A Man's Head (La Tête d'un homme, 1931) if only because I have trouble picturing a Maigret novel ending with a life-or-death chase to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but it was shot entirely on location in Paris and directed mostly by Burgess Meredith and I had not actually realized until the UCLA restoration notes came up before the title that it was a film noir in color. It's not great color. The process was something called Ansco Reversal, the original elements have gone the way of all nitrate, the surviving color prints had a hard life, and the combined result, Stanley Cortez's intelligent photography notwithstanding, looks like a vintage cheap postcard of Paris in 1948. It's good at green and red and everything else looks a little bleached out, a little acidic and brassy—a pulp magazine cover, the pages beneath burnt brown with age. It makes the whole production look more like a penny dreadful than I think it is, even with Franchot Tone having a blast playing a brilliant unstable murderer whose narcissism is going neck-and-neck with his manic swings and Charles Laughton concealing shrewdness behind stolidity as he waits for his suspect to cleverdick his way to the guillotine. There's a murder swap prefiguring Highsmith, the kind where one party doesn't think it's a real offer and the other party is already washing the blood off their hands. William Phipps as a baby-faced plainclothes policeman has drunk hair nearly as impressive as Dan Duryea's. Meredith's hair is something else again—in addition to directing with help as needed from Laughton and Tone, he co-stars in the pebble-thick glasses of a frame-up waiting to happen and even allowing for the prevailing dinginess of the print, I had no idea he had ever been a copper-wire redhead. He's as good as a lantern in the mostly day-for-night scenes, which I suspect were not meant to have ground quite so far down to black. There is a stronger vibe of hey, kids, let's put on a show to this picture than anything else I have seen released by RKO. But the street views are astonishing, the casual documentation of a city that gets playfully but fairly fifth-billed above the title. I don't begrudge the plot a single one of its three chase scenes—on foot—because there's cafés and barges and newsagents and ghost signs and kids jumping rope out front of drugstores and occasionally an artist with a street easel, but it's never the soundstage romance of An American in Paris (1951), it's Weegee's naked city transplanted to the banks of the Seine and the next most affordable thing to Technicolor, which at least you can't accuse of looking glossier than its material. There's the bronze lion of the Place Denfert-Rochereau, there's the colonnade of the Palais-Royal, and there's whatever the French is for flophouse, its rusted iron balconies and knocked-off plaster looking, I imagine naturally and literally, as though the building has been through the wars. I am particularly fond of the middle chase scene, which goes over a broken plateau of terra-cotta chimney pots and smoke-plumed skylights, and the way most of the cast hang out at Les Deux Magots, using their native accents so that the dialogue has to footnote which character is American because otherwise who could tell. The climax at the Eiffel Tower is legitimately memorable: it was done with minimal recourse to stunt work or rear projection and consequently even though Meredith lands a leap onto a moving elevator that would make Buster Keaton proud, the amateurishness with which he and Tone squirrel their way around catwalks and girders with the wide-open skyline on all sides actually boosts the realism. I am not convinced that Laughton is a faithful version of Maigret, either, but I enjoyed spending time in the world he belongs to enough that I won't hold it against him when I read the novel. This tour brought to you by my authentic backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Rabbit, rabbit! It's October and at least half the country is dreaming of eating men alive. Let's talk about Jennifer's Body (2009).

Written by Diablo Cody, directed by Karyn Kusama, and incredibly underappreciated by critics, Jennifer's Body spins a very funny, stealthily poignant horror movie out of a premise with the genius of a one-liner—when a virgin sacrifice to the powers of darkness turns out to be not so much of a virgin, a succubus is born and only her plain-jane friend can stop her—and a plot that commits to flipping the superficial misogyny of hottie vs. nottie to explore the demons of female rage and loyalty underneath. Megan Fox stars as the eponymous Jennifer Check, the reigning hot cheerleader of Devil's Kettle, Minnesota, so named for its local geographical mystery of a seemingly bottomless waterfall. Kids and scientists throw stuff down it all the time and none of it ever appears to come out. That concludes the most fun you can have in this town while staying legal. Big fish, small pond territory, all right? But what a fish. Slender and pneumatic in low-slung jeans and nipple-hugging crop-tops, Jennifer has wolf-blue eyes and twining dark hair and a cultivated trick of saying outrageous things in a tiny, pouty, little-girl voice; her bee-stung mouth drops open to reveal white, white teeth in a way that suggests absolute receptivity and then comes out swinging with opening lines like "It smells like Thai food in here. Have you guys been fucking?" Her sickest burns are reserved for her would-be admirers, the mean-girl swagger that passes for sophistication in high school: "He thinks he's cute enough for me and that's why he's in retard math." "He's into maggot rock. He wears nail polish. My dick is bigger than his." The heart-shaped pendant nestling just above her jailbait cleavage reads "BFF." Its twin swings around the throat of our milk-blonde, bespectacled, nerdy-cute narrator Anita Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried), whose Jennifer-bestowed nickname "Needy" illuminates the tensions of their long relationship just as much as the starry eyes with which she watches Jennifer twirling the high school flag. Whatever it was like when they were grade-schoolers playing with dolls in a sandbox, with the deforming pressures of adolescence they have fallen into one of those id-and-superego spirals that can lock girls together, especially girls with different insecurities, "tits were her trademark" Jennifer always pulling "dork like me" Needy along on some irresponsibly adult adventure, glamorous and irresistible and nowhere near the grown-up she looks or sounds like. "Boo," she mourns when it takes more than a casually issued order to get Needy to disregard her own boundaries yet again, this time into blowing off a night with her genuinely nice boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) to accompany Jennifer to the town's dive bar in pursuit of an indie singer she's been stalking on MySpace. Finger-marking the air with affected disappointment: "Cross out Needy." It works like a charm, albeit a malign and slightly sad one. It works on the audience, too. By the time Needy's having to decide, amid the Grand Guignol of the third act, whether she's willing to let Jennifer keep getting away with murder now that it's more than a figure of speech, we understand that the stakes have escalated only in degree, not kind.

In many ways, I think Jennifer's Body was for me the experience I had been promised with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) and never actually got—the daily horrors of high school expressed in supernatural terms and a slangingly snarky argot that never undercuts itself so much that the beats of real emotion have no room to land. The deaths in this movie have weight. In a small town that really feels rural, Midwestern, recession-hit, we see parents grieving, teachers lost for words, students drifting numbly through the hallways as the blunt-force trauma of a devastating fire gives way to the deeper panic of an unsolved series of gruesome murders. ("Did you hear what Colin Gray looked like when they found him?"–"Lasagna with teeth?"–"You heard!") For every dry jab of humor at the sight of Jennifer sashaying a radiant catwalk through a crowd of weeping, shocked classmates, there's a swirl of unease at the depth of her indifference, as if the studied carelessness of her introductory scenes has become effortlessly, affectlessly real. One minute she's casting a territorial eye toward Chip, the next falling into bed with Needy herself, at least until Needy kicks her out of it with a justified yell of "What the fuck is happening?" It's a nightmare not just because Jennifer's now-supernal levels of babe-hood have begun to wax and wane with the bloody disappearances of local boys, but because Needy can't tell whether to be more frightened of her friend or more frightened of losing her. The love in this movie has weight, too. Romantic, familial, whatever complicated and codependent thing twines between Jennifer and Needy, it's worth noting that while there are fright-flick moments aplenty in this story—spiky black vomit chased with a predatory whisper of are you scared, hallucinations of blood and of Jennifer crouching feral as Lilith at the foot of the bed in which Chip and Needy are sweetly, awkwardly, seriously getting it on for the very first time—they are always underlaid by the ordinary, awful fears of adolescence, when the night terrors of children bleed into the existential awakening of adults. That your friends will turn on you, that your parents won't save you, that the people you love won't heed you, not really, not when it's important. That you were always alone, even when you thought you had allies. That you were always too late to save anyone, even yourself. The nature of demonic possession in this script is sketched broadly enough to allow for the interpretation that what we might otherwise term "Jennifer" is for most of the runtime really more like "the demon where Jennifer used to be," but that doesn't change the fact that whether it's Jennifer's body or Jennifer herself in the climactic showdown with Needy, what they're fighting over is not really the serial man-eating that has terrorized Devil's Kettle for months but just how bad a friend Jennifer has honestly been for years. It's heavy stuff. It just comes out in lines like "She's just hovering. It's not that impressive" and "Do you buy all your murder weapons at Home Depot? God, you're butch." I was not necessarily as charmed by similar dialogue in the more realistic Juno (2007), for which Cody won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. What can I say? Add a succubus, it works for me.

I saw this movie with [personal profile] rushthatspeaks as part of the Boston Women's Film Festival at the Brattle Theatre; it was introduced by Strictly Brohibited and cheered by an audience split audibly between people who could quote it from memory and people whose high expectations were being fulfilled, which is a delightful thing to hear for a triple-threat female cult favorite whose critical reception was mixed in the extreme. I think it helps that while it's happy to reverse the conventions of its genre, e.g., boys in this story serve as the doomed, disposable equivalents of women in slasher flicks, it also insists on digging past the obvious. Tonight's going to be their last show. )

Beyond the title and the killer play-out of "Violet," I could detect no overt allusions to Hole in this movie, which doesn't stop it from feeling as though it's in dialogue with nearly every song ever growled, sneered, or screamed into a microphone by Courtney Love. I was especially reminded of "Miss World," "Celebrity Skin," "Reasons to Be Beautiful," and above all the Orphic fury of "Use Once & Destroy." It does not give an inch to the male gaze, but it's not interested in telling a pretty story for women, which does not mean there's not a lot of strength wrapped up in that mess. It deserves critical reappraisal, but I'm not sure it's so much lesser that the audiences for whom it was made scream for it as loudly as they do. I don't see a lot of movies that could double-feature as readily with Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) as with Pretty Poison (1968) and I especially don't see them featuring a cameo by Lance Henriksen, which after everything Jennifer's Body had already done for me frankly felt like a gift. With teeth. This friendship brought to you by my forever backers at Patreon.

February 2019

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