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The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019
Admission: $10, $8 seniors, $6 students, members free
Tel.: +1 (212) 708-9400
Naturally, I am including below the titles of only those films that have yet to be shown in this behemoth film exhibition. Where I have written about a film on my blog, I have included what I wrote—but many of these films I have always wanted to see and haven’t, and I hope that some of you will fill me in. I regret to say that the live musical accompaniments will obstruct perhaps the most expressive aspect of a silent film: its silence.
Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares
VARIETY (Ewald André Dupont, 1925, silent)
Sunday, November 28, 2010, 2:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Wednesday, December 1, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Heavily censored for its U.S. release [although the version that is part of this exhibition will likely be restored], E. A. Dupont’s atmospheric Variety recasts an adulterous pair as a married couple (a fabricated title card identifies them as such), a trapeze act, thereby losing the springboard symbolism of their moral slipperiness and risk. For this woman, orphan Berta-Marie, the protagonist has abandoned wife and child. Taken from Felix Hollaender’s novel Der Eid des Stephan Huller, the film begins with a prologue in which a prison warden summons no. 28, Huller, who hasn’t “opened up” in ten years of incarceration. An angled overhead long-shot of prisoners, including Huller, walking in a circle in the prison yard ironically conjoins the ring of the circus, what had passed for Huller’s freedom, with the idea of predetermined fate. Huller is locked into his past, present and future, and the warden’s getting him to tell his story is ambiguously motivated—a moral murkiness possessing the appearance of utmost clarity; is the warden really aiming at having the prisoner unburden himself, or is he idly, cheaply curious, a transplanted patron of the sensational circus? Dark and expressionistic, Dupont’s German film passes from one triangle—wife, husband, mistress—to another: faux-husband, Berta-Marie, the trapeze artist Artinelli, who seduces Berta-Marie as had Huller. Violence results; Huller kills Artinelli and abandons Berta-Marie (as he had his wife), “orphaning” her yet again. The circle continues.
An introductory angled overhead long-shot of the circus conjures a lurid waking dream, a phosphorescence; it is here that Huller, the “catcher” of his act with Berta-Marie, feels alert and alive. Transformative editing and strange camera angles reinforce the sense of phantasmagoria but imply as well Dupont’s analytical approach to the material. But there is little doubt that the film loses its edge and withdraws into the familiar jealousy plot. Léon Moussinac was not wrong about the film: “One is aware of the coarse thread of melodrama that is saved from vulgarity only by the clearly defined personality of the characters and by the rich and easily exploitable photogenic background.”
Although ridiculously overweight for a trapeze, Emil Jannings is magnificent as Huller—and a reminder of how indebted Variety is to Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924).
DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS (Richard Oswald, 1919, silent)
gay-themed; haven’t seen
Sunday, November 28, 2010, 5:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
THE PLEASURE GARDEN (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926, silent)
Monday, November 29, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
ALGOL (Hans Werckmeister, 1920, silent)
never even heard of; stars Emil Jannings, though
Monday, November 29, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Thursday, December 2, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (Phil Jutzi, 1931)
have always wanted to see this; the script was primarily written by Alfred Döblin himself, the author of the novel
Wednesday, December 1, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Sunday, December 5, 2010, 12:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert and Curt Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, 1929)
Thursday, December 2, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
A documentary fiction, a fictional documentary: Menschen am Sonntag, ein film ohne Schausppieler, written by Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder, and directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert and Curt Siodmak and, to a minor extent, Fred Zinnemann, is the last notable silent film from Germany—an experiment in which young filmmakers flex their love of cinema. [Apparently a sound version was filmed in 1930, and that is what MoMA is showing.] It is indeed “a film without actors”; the five main characters are played by nonprofessionals, who, titles tell us, returned to their ordinary jobs the next day.
Cab driver Erwin joins friend Wolfgang, a wine merchant, and Wolf’s new girlfriend (yesterday’s pick-up on the street), Christl, at the beach, leaving behind live-in Annie, a model, with whom Erwin quarreled the previous day, the tension between them signaled by a dripping faucet in their apartment. (Great introductory shot: Annie, reclining and comfortably bent, filling the whole frame head to toe.) Christl has also brought best friend Brigitte, who sells phonograph records, whom Wolf seduces after Christl (in the water!) rebuffs his advances; but in front of all these girls, the boys take up with others. At the end of the day, Brigitte still hopes she will see Wolf again next Sunday. Monday, everyone is back at work in Berlin.
The brilliant cinematographer is Eugen Schüfftan, who would photograph seminal black-and-white films, including Marcel Carné’s Quai des brûmes (1938). He and the filmmakers collaborate on a spontaneous air and fresh, crisp, exuberant, sometimes volatile images. Much of the framing surprises—and yet makes total sense: for instance, when Brigitte changes into her swimsuit she occupies a small lower portion of the screen and is surrounded by tall reeds that fill up the screen.
Charming: tots at the beach. Gripping: pans of tenement exteriors.
THE SONG OF LIFE (Alexis Granowsky, 1931)
haven’t seen this but would love to; Granowsky was the founder of Moscow’s State Jewish Theater, and MoMA promises that the film, a “paean to personal freedom, sex and childbirth[,] is like nothing else in cinema.”
Friday, December 3, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Wednesday, December 8, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
FRÄULEIN ELSE (Paul Czinner, 1929, silent)
haven’t seen; the first of Czinner’s collaborations with actress Elisabeth Bergner, his wife (and the model for Margo Channing in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, 1950), and based on the novel by Arthur Schnitzler
Friday, December 3, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Monday, December 13, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 2, T2
F.P. 1 DOESN’T ANSWER (Karl Hartl, 1932)
haven’t seen; along with Walter Reisch, Kurt Siodmak adapted his own novel. MoMA explains that F.P. “stands for Flugplatform, a fictional landing strip afloat in the Atlantic, where planes flying between Europe and America can land. The film’s elaborate set was a contemporary marvel, providing a dramatic backdrop for a story of romance and international intrigue.”
Saturday, December 4, 2010, 2:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Friday, December 31, 2010, 3:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
WAXWORKS (Paul Leni, Leo Birinsk, 1924, silent)
have seen it; haven’t written about it; don’t much care for it
Saturday, December 4, 2010, 5:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Monday, December 20, 2010, 7:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
HERR O.F.’S SUITCASES (Alexis Granowsky, 1931)
how I would love for one you to see this “charming fable” and report back
Saturday, December 4, 2010, 8:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Wednesday, December 8, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
WHITE ECSTASY (Arnold Fanck, 1931)
haven’t seen and do not wish to; Leni Riefenstahl stars
Monday, December 6, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Friday, December 10, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
The German Film Musical Before and After 1933
An illustrated lecture by Richard Traubner, author of Operetta: A Theatrical History.
Monday, December 6, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
SUNRISE (F. W. Murnau, 1927, silent)
Thursday, December 9, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Saturday, December 11, 2010, 8:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
F. W. Murnau’s first American film, Sunrise, is cherished for its lyricism and transplanted German expressionism. A critics’ poll in the 1990s voted it the greatest movie ever made.
The marriage of a young farm couple, splintered by the husband’s dalliance with a vampish visitor from the city, becomes whole again as the two become reacquainted—ironically, in the city. The film delights with its symphonic visual beauty and highly expressive technique. Murnau employs the liberated camera that distinguished The Last Laugh (The Last Man, 1924) back in Germany, as well as the most accomplished subjective use of back-projection in cinema. As the couple walk, the background—their surroundings—magically transforms correlative to shifts in their feelings. There is also a tram ride they share that lyrically condenses the whole course of their relationship.
Even with its cribbing from Theodore Dreiser’s much greater novel, An American Tragedy, and although a tad heavy, Sunrise is irreplaceable. It certainly seemed to predict Murnau’s success in Hollywood. But the film, while applauded by critics, was a popular failure. The first year of the Oscars, Sunrise won for “artistic quality”—a category subsequently canceled, ostensibly not to confuse the American public with two “best picture” prizes (Wild Bill Wellman’s Wings took the other, familiar one), but really so as not to encourage art over profitable entertainments. The fact that there were two such prizes in 1928 was an acknowledgment of the difference between art and manipulative entertainment, between individual expression and committee-determined commercialism. The dropping of the “artistic” prize was tantamount to a declaration of war on art and artists in the maniacal pursuit of quick, enormous profits. The industry ordained the sun should set on Sunrise.
Only it didn’t. It hasn’t. Who today, given the choice, would go with Wings rather than take in Sunrise?
M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
Thursday, December 9, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Saturday, December 11, 2010, 5:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Giving birth to the police procedural, Fritz Lang’s M, though talky, retains a grim fascination. It is about two city-wide hunts for the same man—one by the police, the other by the underworld, which hopes to put a stop to the police search of which their criminal business is running afoul. The hunted man is a pedophile and serial killer of little girls. When they wrongly suspect someone on the street of being the killer, people become an enraged mob and assault him, taking the law into their own hands, just as the criminals are doing. Moreover, they reflect something of the compulsive killer’s own inability to control himself. Primarily, the film identifies the two investigating groups: police and criminals. Eventually, the latter group captures and tries the killer, occasioning a stunning pan shot of the massive “jury,” and satirically pricking the modern concept of justice—trial by peers.
M is a pitiless film except regarding the mother of one of the victims, who waits for her child to come home for dinner, and the hunted man, whose sickness draws Lang’s full measure of pity. Even children are casually monstrous. The film opens starkly, with an angled overhead shot of girls in a circle and one in the middle, who recites a gruesome variation on “eeny meeny miney moe” to determine which child is “it”: something to do with a man in black who is coming to chop up whoever is chosen.
Humanity is often portrayed at a haunting remove: men are gesticulating shadows on a wall; the unseen killer is the tune he whistles from Grieg’s Peer Gynt whenever he is about to strike. Indeed, this is how he is identified by the balloon seller, who is blind.
Young Peter Lorre is brilliant as the hunted man.
LIEBESKOMMANDO (Géza von Bolváry, 1931)
haven’t seen; musical starring Dolly Haas
Friday, December 10, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Monday, December 13, 2010, 8:30 p.m., Theater 2, T2
BERLIN: A SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (Walther Ruttmann, 1927, silent—MoMA doesn’t indicate this, but every version that I’ve seen has been silent)
this film made my list of the one hundred greatest films ever made
Saturday, December 11, 2010, 2:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Wednesday, December 15, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Inspired by Mikhail Kaufman’s Moscow (1926) and other Soviet documentaries by Dziga Vertov, as well as abstract German experimental films, Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt is a rhythmic documentary. The idea for Walther Ruttmann’s film came from Carl Mayer, who had scripted F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924). Shots were selected and edited to compose a day in the life of Berlin, from dawn to deep in the night.
The sweeping opening movement is the camera’s approach to Berlin: over rolling water, across train tracks, including over a bridge. A montage of overhead shots portrays a dense metropolis; commercial advertisements on the sides of buildings perhaps introduce a disquieting note. Sewer; tall buildings. A solitary cat walks the street. A few people become visible, then more and more as the workday begins, with men in suits off to one kind of job, and laborers off to factories. Commuters enter Berlin (trains again); children are off to school. Here is a city that works.
Only, marching soldiers remind one of Great War defeat and Germany’s subsequent economic hardship. Are there other clues of stress? Magnets for a crowd, two “respectable” men push one another on a street corner. On another corner, a rabble-rouser of some political stripe attracts his own crowd. In a blatantly staged sequence, a woman commits suicide from a bridge. Before she takes the plunge, we see her eyes bulging in horror and madness—the film’s one closeup. A patron’s-eye view of a roller coaster ride insinuates more stress, as does the quickened pace of the film’s editing.
Most viewers, though, see Ruttmann’s film as harmonious. My reading of Berlin’s discontent may be wrong. It must be wrong.
VAMPYR (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1931)
this film made my list of the 25 best films ever made; it is a ranked list, and Vampyr came in at no. 14
Sunday, December 12, 2010, 2:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Monday, December 20, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Most of the best horror films, for a host of reasons, have come from Germany: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919), Nosferatu (Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, 1922), Jonathan (Hans W. Geissendörfer, 1970—this, from West Germany). From both Germany and France, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (Vampyr—Der Traum des Allan Grey) is probably the finest horror film ever made.
Dreyer had already collapsed the difference between historical reality and its fictional representation in his portrayal of Jesus and his disciples in the beautiful opening segment of Leaves from Satan’s Book (Blade af Satans Bog, 1919), from Denmark, and in his portrait of Jeanne d’Arc’s trial in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), from France. But Vampyr, for three reasons, is very different. Like Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), it fully enters a magical world, in its case, a realm of sinister enchantment. Moreover, its images and sounds across a spectrum of fictional and nonfictional, and objective and subjective, suggestions is correlative to its attempt to bridge the worlds of sound and silence. The film’s additions of sound effects and spoken dialogue, both sparse, interrupt and unsettle its silent or eerily quiet dreamlike realm, helping the film to realize its central theme: humanity’s anxieties as a result of (our species presumes) its peculiar awareness of its own mortality. The dreaminess of Vampyr suggests more than an anxious dream, however; on one level, it is a desired or somehow willed dream whose aim is to relegate elements of anxious reality to the realm of dream so that the possibility exists of waking up and having these elements dissipate and dissolve. The film implies, then, a permanently objective world the fear of whose loss requires the landscape of a dream as a kind of safety hatch or escape route. The blend of elements is so complete that, throughout much of the film, there is, simultaneously, a quiet sense of stability and a disquieting sense of instability and loss. Vampyr exists within a dream, but, within that dream, it exists at the crossroads of possibility and impossibility, loss and the hope of defeating loss, subjectivity and objectivity, nonfiction and fiction. Not coincidentally, it is the grayest film among all black-and-white films.
The film opens with sound: the low, ominous strains of Wolfgang Zeller’s musical theme, perfectly suited to the theme of mortal anxiety. It immediately posits Vampyr as a sound film but then visually opens as a silent film, or as a throwback to silent films, when a long title card appears, identifying the hero of the about-to-unfold adventure as young David Gray, whose study of evil and vampires from past centuries has rendered him a “dreamer, for whom the boundary between the real and the unreal has become dim.” (The dream state of Gray’s existence is reinforced by a subsequent reference to his “aimless journeyings.”) In effect, we the viewer relate to this title card, and the one that follows establishing the setting, the village of Courtempierre in the nineteenth century, as though they are documents: documentary guideposts. This will later connect to a huge document about vampirism portions of which we will intermittently read over Gray’s shoulder, as it were, as Gray himself reads it. On one level, this is an attempt by Dreyer to bring credibility to the fantastic, as Lang attempts to do by other means in Die Nibelungen. On a more pressing level, though, this is an attempt to use an element of silent films in order to stabilize the new anxiety-ridden territory of sound cinema (this was Dreyer’s first sound film)—anxiety that is correlative to, and perhaps even representative of, anxiety related to human mortality. That the object of Gray’s study is vampires makes the point perfectly, for vampires—the undead—are projections of this anxiety of ours over our finite condition. The peculiar nature of this printed language, however, is to encapsulate the anxiety that the language would seem to counter, much as, when a patient reads about a terminal illness he or she has, with the aim of mastering fear through knowledge, he or she may nevertheless be reinforcing the original anxiety. Facts about illness do not necessarily dissipate the fact of the approaching death. Attempts at objectifying often deepen a soul’s subjectivity. To say the same thing in another way: One does what one can to reduce one’s level of anxiety, but in reality, in certain situations, there is nothing one can do. The one possibility that is open is to go through the motions of doing something. Our fear of death stubbornly resists transcendence.
In the authentic kind of cinema in which Dreyer engaged, images take primacy over language, whether the language is spoken or written. After the two title cards, the film per se materializes; but it materializes in a kind of dematerializing way. Carrying against his shoulder a long-handled net, Gray appears walking up a hill with the sea in close proximity. Although he is fully dressed and dry, the shot is framed so that the “dream possibility” arises that Gray has just walked out of the water, and, in any case, because of what we have just read about his being a “dreamer,” we immediately associate the water with the unconscious—a common symbolism predating Freud’s naming of the unconscious. The complexity of the image speaks to the complexity of the film’s tack: Gray is on land, which implicitly means he is firmly in reality, but the water, coupled with the butterfly net he totes, renders the image dreamlike, casting Gray symbolically adrift. He is, recall, an aimless journeyer.
The next images find Dreyer renewing this tack—as, indeed, will the entire film. Having mounted the hill, Gray arrives at the inn where he will stay. This is grounded in reality, for the event implies the mundane arrangements that must have been made in advance so that Gray would have a place to stay while in Courtempierre. Such arrangements counter the idea of a dream by suggesting a continuity of behavior on Gray’s part. What we see next, though, counters the countering. Gray is at the door of the inn, but he finds no way of getting in. He knocks and calls to no avail; just when it seems that the implied “arrangements” have dissolved into nothingness, as things precisely do in a dream, a bespectacled woman opens an upstairs window, calls to Gray, and appears downstairs to let Gray in. Dreyer’s choice to keep the camera on Gray rather than follow the young woman downstairs (the shot of Gray at the door is from inside the inn), though, deliciously holds us in suspense as to whether the innkeeper will in fact let Gray in or simply vanish. (Who knows what might happen in this film?) Meanwhile, a man who is carrying a scythe descends the hill and rings a suspended bell, with the water again in close view. The scythe, which traditionally is something that the figure of Death might tote, identifies the man whose face is invisible to us because the camera is at his back as Gray’s reverse or contrary image: old instead of young, going down the hill that Gray has just ascended, and carrying the solid scythe instead of Gray’s airy net. The tolling bell, too, replaces Gray’s hello-ing, and, because of its visual juxtaposition with the sea, suggests the loss of human lives. Although the scene, and indeed the entire film, is wondrously light, there is an unmistakable presence here of human fear of death. This is reinforced to a stunning degree by a shot of the man, indeed old and now obliquely facing us with his scythe, shown against the quickly flowing water that now appears much closer than we have thus far seen it. We almost feel that it might carry us away.
The ridiculous plot of Vampyr, with its conspiracy to enslave a man and his daughters by a vampire and an evil doctor out of Caligari, comes from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s story “Carmilla” in In a Glass Darkly. The film’s immense value owes little or nothing to its debased literary source. It’s the magical quality of the film that matters, such as in those shots, in shadowy silhouette, where a man is digging a grave and we see, in reverse motion, the earth sail through space to the spoon of the shovel. What matters most is the “not-quite-rightness” of the world that David Gray navigates, which achieves its culmination when he witnesses the movement of his casket towards burial, with himself, open-eyed, in it. It is the blending of anxious fantasy and objective reportage, subjectivity and objectivity, fiction and nonfiction that makes Vampyr cinema’s preeminent (if uncredited) evocation of Edgar Allan Poe, the nineteenth-century American newspaperman and fantasist whom critic Harold Bloom has unwisely dismissed.
Vampyr’s script is by Dreyer and Christen Jul. Dreyer’s inspired cinematographers—like Dreyer, they have tapped into their dreams—are Rudolf Mâté and Louis Née.
NOSFERATU (F. W. Murnau, 1922)
Sunday, December 12, 2010, 5:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Saturday, December 18, 2010, 4:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
In the context of silent German cinema, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu looms, perhaps, a bit larger than is fitting. The film cannot compare to Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Destiny the same year, or the two parts of Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), or to G. W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925). Even Murnau, most agree, is better represented by The Last Laugh (The Last Man, 1924). But we tend to place Nosferatu into a smaller category where its renown is entirely appropriate: the horror film; more specifically, the vampire film; more specifically yet, films based on Bram Stoker’s nineteenth-century novel Dracula. In this last subcategory, only one other film may have a greater claim to brilliance: from West Germany, Jonathan (1973), by Hans W. Geissendörffer, lensed in delirious, dark colors by Robby Müller.
Hardly anyone is unaware of the premise of the plot. A vampire-lord sucks the blood of the living in order to maintain its own posthumous existence—an eerie, decadent variant of the ancient figure of the Wanderer (Cain being an example), in which human life is indefinitely extended, along with, ironically and tragically, both human fear of and sorrow over death. But Stoker departed from the religious significance, usually attached to this figure, that identifies it with the redemptive capacity of human suffering. Instead, Stoker courted sensationalism by relating his nocturnal fiend to the sexual anxiety and repression of its victims—a slant that Murnau will have nothing to do with. Nor, to tell the truth, is he all that interested in the story per se, which the scenarist, Henrik Galeen, has reduced to its bare bones. Rather, Murnau gives his material a fresh and captivating theme: a woman’s torment in an unfulfilling marriage.
The woman, Eillen, is deeply in love with Hutter, her spouse. Knock, the real estate agent for whom Hutter works as a clerk, has the boy travel from Bremen to the Carpathians and the castle of Count Orlock. The count—in reality, the vampire Nosferatu—is a client; Hutter’s mission is to convince him to purchase a home whose location, oddly, is exactly opposite his and Eillen’s own residence. The young clerk succeeds, but at an unexpected forfeit when his strange host drinks his blood, enfeebling him, and locks him up—a parody of the employer Knock’s tyrannical treatment of the boy. Hutter escapes, finally; back home, meanwhile, mystical nightmares visit Eillen, impressing on her a widening danger. Nosferatu takes up its new residence. Through the window it stares at Eillen, who, guided by her love for her husband, knows she must decisively act. In order to save her husband, and to free Bremen from the pestilence Nosferatu has brought with it, she avails herself of the one proven way to destroy a vampire; thus she submits to its loathsome advances in her bed chamber, detaining the thing until the crowing of the cock, whereupon Nosferatu dissolves into nothingness, like a nightmare, at the dawn’s light. For Eillen, the necessary forfeit is her own life.
Murnau does not dwell on the momentousness of this strong woman’s heroic sacrifice; he is, however, moved by it, and so are we. Murnau’s primary interest lies instead in rigorously analyzing this material in order to show that Eillen can more easily embrace a course leading to her own death for the release it provides from a perpetually frustrating marriage. As part of his analysis, Murnau establishes a series of fascinating correspondences. For example, the lowly clerk’s blood enters the lordly Nosferatu; the puncture left on the boy’s neck, from the bite, is a grotesque parody of a signature on a contract, in this case certifying the “business transaction” between the clerk and Nosferatu. In Bremen, there are the face-to-face living quarters and the “wife”—legal, for one; symbolic, for the other—that they share. Cumulatively, this mirror-imaging links the two “male” characters Hutter and Nosferatu.
On the surface, perhaps, this linkage is perplexing. But its basis is given early on, prior to Hutter’s trip, before we have even set eyes on Nosferatu. In an “idyllic” passage outdoors, we are able to glimpse the character of Hutter and Eillen’s marriage. The boy acts most lovingly; he is kind, affectionate, doting. However, Hutter’s frolicsome behavior, especially when contrasted with Eillen’s graver, more mature demeanor, suggests a life-partner less than it does a playful child. Hutter, then, seems “outside” his own marriage, much as Nosferatu is outside of life. He brings Eillen wildflowers, which he has (absurdly) rompingly gathered; she responds, tellingly, by longingly caressing the bouquet as though it were a baby—the child, the image implies, that marriage to Hutter hasn’t given her. Blissfully unaware, Hutter fails to respond to Eillen’s heartache. Acting more like a toy husband than a real one, inattentive to how unfulfilled the person he most loves is, Hutter is draining Eillen’s lifeblood. He is an “innocent” version of Nosferatu.
So disconsolate is Eillen in her stunted marriage that she desires Nosferatu, which is to say, death, as much as it desires her. Murnau makes this plain when the two neighbors stare at one another across the square. For Eillen, Nosferatu is a husband-substitute. But to submit to Nosferatu, even to save Hutter from also becoming the living dead, is to betray her marriage. In effect, this would mean admitting to herself the pointlessness of her marriage. Eillen’s death, then, releases her from a loving though disastrous union. As it happens, it is the very end that her nightmares foretold.
Murnau’s film achieves a captivating form in the phantomlike effects he conjures; he locates, in imaginative space, a twilit blending of fantasy and reality, shadow and substance, death and life, and, following Kierkegaard, the twin components of dread, attraction and repulsion, revulsion and desire. In the same vein, Nosferatu’s sea journey to Bremen impresses as a journey of the mind—Eillen’s shrouded, twisted, storm-tossed unconscious to which the failure of her marriage has given birth. Some of the film’s most powerful and hauntingly, eerily lovely images shows the “death ship” sailing across the sea or, toward the camera at an angle, out of the frame. Finally, there is the frightening image of Nosferatu itself, evoking indefinable horror. A critical contributor to the effectiveness of this image is the silence of the silent film itself; it is as if sound had been suspended, as in a dream. Above all, in a masterpiece of makeup, the actor playing Nosferatu, Max Schreck, brilliant here, is at once so hideous and yet so bodily insubstantial that the thing’s final disappearance seems as natural as a dream’s passing.
Spare, chaste, analytical, Murnau’s Nosferatu is the stylistic opposite of Werner Herzog’s sweeping Romantic remake (1978), where the wife’s submission and sacrifice yield no benefit in order to accommodate a pessimistic view, of the continual rebirth and rejuvenation of evil, that looks back to Lang’s fine, silent Mabuse films (1922), and dismally ahead to the misogynistic Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), a vampire film in disguise. The genre’s masterpiece remains, of course, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931), which immerses us the viewer in a shifting dream of mortal anxiety; it and Lang’s Destiny are the two most magical films in creation. And there is the haunting, intensely violent Jonathan (1970), where Geissendörffer relates his Dracula material to Germany’s Nazi past, creating a vision of evil so somber, so sorrowful and full of pain that it suggests our inhumanity as it weighs upon a loving God.
THE LAST LAUGH (F. W. Murnau, 1924)
Thursday, December 16, 2010, 4:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Saturday, December 18, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Following the lead of Grune’s The Street (1923), F. W. Murnau discarded title-inserts to create an uninterrupted flow of images in The Last Laugh. (The German title actually translates as The Last Man.) But, for this study of a demoted hotel employee, Murnau came up with originality of his own that widened the expressive vocabulary of film. His camera moved. A lot. And with purpose, for the film’s continuously moving shots—tracking shots—are ironic counterpoint to the toppled worker’s disintegrated self-esteem.
Nevertheless, The Last Laugh isn’t quite the masterpiece its reputation suggests. While Murnau captures every nuance of his protagonist’s fall from elegantly dressed doorman, a position of visible élan, to washroom attendant, he eschews every opportunity for probing analysis. Murnau skips by any consideration of the warped basis for the man’s self-image. Like his protagonist, Murnau is fixated on the shiny-buttoned uniform. Why should status be determined by what a person’s job is? The hollowness of such a yardstick could be connected to the capriciousness of the demotion. In some larger view that Murnau doesn’t take, there may be food for thought about how employers jerk around employees, attempting to decide even their souls for them.
That said, the film fascinates, not only because of its use of camera, but also because of the towering performance that Emil Jannings gives in the lead role. The film’s worldwide success brought both Murnau and Jannings to Hollywood, with Jannings winning the first best actor Oscar (for Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 The Last Command) before returning to Germany to follow his Nazi heart.
The tacked-on happy ending, in which the crushed employee becomes rich: this has never bothered me. Indeed, it is thematically consistent, because yet again the man’s fortunes are out of his control.
Two Narratives of Urban Dread
Bad things happen on public thoroughfares.
Sunday, December 19, 2010, 2:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
Tuesday, December 28, 2010, 4:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
POLIZEIBERICHT ÜBERFALL (Ernö Metzner, 1928, silent)
Ernö Metzner, the art director for G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928), himself co-wrote (along with Grace Chiang) and directed Police Report: Assault. Although the film’s protagonist is a coin, I will refer to the pop-eyed man who picks it up off the street as the protagonist; but when the police at the last ask him to identify whoever assaulted him and he imagines the coin spinning in space, we the audience know what he blames.
Metzner’s middling short film, set in Berlin, depicts desperate, impoverished lives in Weimar Germany. It would seem that the protagonist’s luck has picked up once he finds the coin by the curb that we know many other passers-by missed; but we also know that the coin’s previous owner collapsed before losing it to the street. Indeed, once he tries buying cigarettes with it, the protagonist discovers that the coin, as currency, is obsolete. What to do? The man slips it into a game of dice and wins. However, he is pursued through the street by someone else who is financially desperate, and who is toting a club. Two more stressed persons, a thin-lipped prostitute and her pimp, first, provide protection for the protagonist and then danger, once they also try to rob him. It is his original stalker, though, who gives the protagonist a whack across the noggin that causes his head, at the launch of an expressionistic passage, to stretch itself into distorted mirror-images.
How can it be that the Berlin street in daylight is utterly deserted but for the pursuer and the pursued? Siegfried Kracauer suggests the film’s method: “. . . it is as if the sordid real-life streets, rooms, and underpasses that crowd the film were hallucinated by its panicky protagonist. All these shots converge toward his mind . . . .”
being shown with THE STREET (Karl Grune, 1923, silent)
A middle-class man, in a rut at home, dreams of the excitement of “the street.” One evening, foregoing dinner, he leaves wife and apartment to pursue his dream but is lured into misadventure by a prostitute. He is arrested for a murder in her apartment he did not commit. As he is about to hang himself in his cell, he is released, the real killer, one of the prostitute’s accomplices in conning, having been inadvertently exposed by the killer’s toddler. The film’s entire action occurs in a single night.
It is something of a miracle that The Street (Die Straße), with its melodramatic plot, should turn out to be so brilliant and one of the most influential films of all time. But both are the case here. Karl Grune’s silent German film, dispensing with title-cards to achieve an uninterrupted flow of images, captivates with its vision of Parisian night life. In the midst of experiences pitched between dream and reality, the protagonist gets more than he bargained for and retreats. His return to his wife at the end of the film encapsulates both German defeatism and the overreaching nature of German idealism that his dreams portend, the combination of which, for Germany and the rest of the world, would have disastrous consequences. Grune may not have set out to provide political or social analysis, but, in the context of unfolding history between Germany’s World War I defeat and the rise of Nazism in Germany, his film isn’t limited by its intentions. Nor should its being set in France dissuade us of its penetration of the German psyche.
The film’s formal accomplishments, however, owe everything to Grune’s intentions. In this light, let us begin by addressing the film’s portrayal of those dreams which propel the protagonist into the street. These are presented as a chaotic series of alarming images. This is film analyst Siegfried Kracauer’s description of the passage, in From Caligari to Hitler (1947): “Shots of rushing cars, fireworks, and crowds form, along with shots taken from a roller coaster, a confusing whole made still more confusing by the use of multiple exposures and the insertion of transparent close-ups of a circus clown, a woman, and an organ-grinder.” The series of shots immediately follows the protagonist’s looking into the street from a window, but, of course, all this cannot actually be what he sees. Rather, as Kracauer puts it, the protagonist sees an “hallucinated street.” What is disclosed, then, is the depth of his dissatisfaction with his home life, and with the routine of his life in general, because in and of itself the series of “hallucinated” images would not inspire any reasonable person’s departure from a secure environment. The expressionistic images that Grune has conjured are fraught with danger—the danger that the protagonist will indeed find once he enters the world of the street. This isn’t academic irony. Rather, by not heeding the menacing nature of his own dreams, but propelling himself instead into them, the protagonist reveals his recklessness, his lack of self-control.
However, the film doesn’t stop thematically at a point of individual psychological disclosure. Instead, the protagonist’s lack of self-control is suited to another, more widely resonant theme: lack of self-determination—the lack of control over the course of his own life that the protagonist shares with the rest of us. For Germans, the problem was enormously deepened by the degree to which ordinary German lives were being affected by the economic burdens imposed on Germany by World War I victor nations.
The plot itself, in which the anonymous protagonist is manipulated and conned by the prostitute and her two male cohorts, speaks to his inability to control his own destiny. In a sense, even prior to that, the protagonist’s dissatisfaction with his home life implies the same thing; there is a clear discrepancy between his lot in life and the life he would prefer to live. His solution to remedy his dissatisfaction is counterproductive and ironic, because his venturing into the world of the street, rather than freeing him, entangles him in a nightmare that clarifies his inability to direct his own course and confirms his dissatisfaction when he returns to his wife, defeated, at the end of the film. The omnipresent silence of this silent film beautifully expresses his lack of self-determination by robbing him of a voice. He cannot even speak up for himself—a point that the general absence of dialogue on title-cards reinforces. Moreover, a central visual symbol for the extent to which “the street” controls the protagonist is the gigantic neon sign of eyeglasses outside the optometrist’s office, which lights up when he passes by. He doesn’t see it, but it “sees” him. In a sense, the protagonist is blind as well as mute, his life and his senses at the mercy of forces beyond his control.
As it happens, there is a character in the film who is literally blind: the grandfather of the toddler, the killer’s son. Throughout the film, characters (again, as in a dream) assume symbolical overtones that relate to the protagonist’s disposition and predicament. The slinky, glamorous prostitute, the antithesis of the protagonist’s stocky, fastidious wife, a bourgeois who sweeps clean a crumbless table, is his fantasy version of his wife—a dream that turns into nightmare. The man whom the protagonist is accused of killing is his doppelganger, a revelation, perhaps, of a self-destructive tendency. The toddler is the child the man feels that he is, someone entirely unable to direct the course of his life. Released from jail, the man returns to his wife, setting his head on her shoulder as a child might when seeking consolation. All this has the effect of fragmenting the protagonist’s personality and undermining its integrity, and this outcome, again, has the effect of taking his life out of his hands.
One of the most notable aspects of The Street is its complex, intricate mise-en-scène, such as in the streets, at night, with bristling human activity in the background while a car curves around in front of the camera in the fore-. Humanity often appears as flickering lights entering and sometimes emerging from deep shadows. (Grune’s brilliant cinematographer is Karl Hasselmann.) This mise-en-scène contributes to another of the film’s outstanding elements: the blend of reality and artifice—the “streets” are detectably studio-bound sets—that moves the material toward abstraction and generalization. Indeed, it is this method that invites us to interpret the characters symbolically, as psychic fragments of the protagonist.
Perhaps the film’s most extraordinary and heartfelt image comes near the end of the film: a wide-angle shot of the man, released from jail, walking home through the street at dawn. There is no lingering magic to the street that we see here; it is simply a pedestrian means for getting from one point to another. Yet it still controls his life, as it takes the man back to where he didn’t want to be in the first place. The aura of defeat that also accompanies him denies the image and the scene that follows, the man’s reunion with his wife, of any sentimental suggestion that he is now content with his lot, having learned of the worse alternative. The man goes home because he has nowhere else to go.
A shot very much like it, but one of weariness rather than defeat, occurs in Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitaï’s stunning Kippur (2000). But the influence of The Street goes well beyond subsequent borrowings of its vast array of terrific shots. Its City of the Mind is essential as a concept to countless important films, including F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967).
1923. Germany. Directed by Karl Grune. Screenplay by Grune, Julius Urgiss, from a story idea by Carl Mayer. With Eugen Klöpfer, Lucie Höflich, Aud Egede Nissen, Max Schreck. Courtesy of Murnau Foundation. Silent, with English intertitles. Approx. 75 min.
THE WAY TO STRENGTH AND BEAUTY (Wilhelm Prager, 1925, silent)
haven’t seen; wouldn’t want to
Sunday, December 19, 2010, 5:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Tuesday, December 28, 2010, 7:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS (Richard Oswald, 1919, silent)
I still haven’t seen it; see above
Wednesday, December 22, 2010, 4:00 p.m., Theater 2, T2
VIKTOR AND VIKTORIA (Reinhold Schünzel, 1933)
haven’t seen the film upon which Victor/Victoria , starring Julie Andrews, is based; would love to have someone tell me about it
Wednesday, December 22, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Sunday, December 26, 2010, 2:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
CONGRESS DANCES (Erik Charell, 1931)
Thursday, December 23, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Sunday, December 26, 2010, 5:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
“Why should Europe’s fate be decided in Vienna, of all places?” a citizen bemoans. Set in Vienna during the 1815 Congress, dazzlingly directed (as well as choreographed) by Erik Charell, Der Kongreß tanzt is a light, tuneful German operetta mixing ordinary characters with the powerful, for instance, Austria’s Prince Metternich and Russia’s Tsar Aleksandr I. Marked by political intrigue, this delightful film has rare charm—although Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) always provides me with similar pleasures. Both films, set earlier and coming after, reflect on the Great War and the absurdity of all wars. (Olivier’s film, of course, followed both world wars.)
The heroine, Christel Antonia Weinzinger, sells gloves. During a wildly applauded street procession, she enthusiastically tosses flowers, hitting the Tsar in the head; she is promptly arrested. Hilariously, the bouquet, which has landed on the ground, arouses mob panic as people anticipate an exploding bomb! But the Tsar isn’t worried, and his adjutant, Bibikoff, gets in a good line: “I believe we’ve had our fill of assassinations today, Your Majesty.” When informed that the “bomb” was really only a bouquet, the Tsar gets in an even better line: “Not even the anarchists can be trusted anymore!” Norbert Falk and Robert Liebmann have contributed a wonderfully witty script.
The Tsar has Christel released from jail; the two fall into romance. Meanwhile, Metternich plots to distract Aleksandr with another woman so that he, Metternich, can stake a claim to superior influence at the Congress. But there are two Tsar Aleksandrs about, one of them being an official substitute/impersonator. Meanwhile meanwhile, Christel’s boyfriend feels shut out.
Written, directed and produced by Jewish artists (Erich Pommer produced), and thriving on a spirit of liberation, Der Kongreß tanzt was banned by the Nazis.
EARLY TO BED (Ludwig Berger, 1932)
Thursday, December 23, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
IHRE HOHEIT BEFIEHIT (Hanns Schwarz, 1931)
haven’t seen; Billy Wilder contributed to the script; MoMA: “In this adorable Ruritanian comedy, a princess, craving escape from the formalities of her position, disguises herself as a commoner and finds love.” But does she look like Audrey Hepburn?
Friday, December 24, 2010, 3:00 p.m., Theater 1, T1
THE THREEPENNY OPERA (G. W. Pabst, 1931)
this film made my list of the one hundred greatest films ever made
Monday, December 27, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Thursday, December 30, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Pabst’s The Threepenny Opera portrays an impoverished Soho one hundred years after John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728)—satirizing elitist high opera, the people’s ballad opera that Bertolt Brecht’s play updates. Its London reflects post-First World War Berlin, another hundred years later, exposing the social disease and discontent that had fomented the allure of National Socialism in the Weimar Republic. Pabst’s film, like the play, is a musical about something.
It takes us into the criminal underworld. Mack the Knife, king of thieves, dandy and bully, preys on the weak in the dockside slums. He dumps prostitute Pirate Jenny (wonderful Lotte Lenya, wife of the play’s composer, Kurt Weill) and marries Polly Peachum. When Mackie next visits the brothel, Jenny betrays him to the police. Will he hang?
Slow tracking and panning shots, and deep shadows, characterize the film’s atmospheric visual style, along with sharp images of teeming humanity, such as when a street singer sings the most famous tune in the Weill-Brecht score, “Mack the Knife,” and couples move toward the camera as it pans leftward across the backs of the large gathered audience—a separate shot places Mack himself at the scene!—and, also, during a beggars’ demonstration at Queen Victoria’s coronation. (In her pompous carriage, Victoria uses her bouquet to block her sight!) Veterans, whose “rags do not cover [their] wounds,” are also demonstrating—against military wantonness and false promises. The film closes famously: at night, the camera at the backs of an army of the poor and disenchanted filling the frames with foreboding—the dangerous raw edge of expectancy.
Brecht, unhappy with Pabst’s film, unsuccessfully sued.
The Nazis destroyed the film’s original negative and prints.
Die Dreigroschenoper remains the most brilliant film musical of all time.
A CRAZY IDEA (Kurt Gerron, 1932)
haven’t seen this musical-comedy; investigate the filmmaker’s tragic history at the hands of the Nazis
Monday, December 27, 2010, 7:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
Thursday, December 30, 2010, 4:30 p.m., Theater 1, T1
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.
buy tickets online: www.filmforum.org
December 31-January 13 (1, 4:30, 8): THE LEOPARD: It would appear that this is NOT Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece, which took the top prize at Cannes in 1963 and is one of my favorite films, but, rather, the god-awful 20th Century-Fox slashed, burned, English-dubbed version that Sydney Pollack oversaw. I’m surmising this on the basis that Film Forum’s description doesn’t flat-out identify it as the authentic Visconti version but instead dances around the whole issue of competing versions. If you can determine that I’m incorrect, Visconti’s Il Gattopardo—on my list of the 100 greatest films of all time—is an of-course must-see:
Following an engrossing, brooding Rocco and His Brothers (1960), about a rural peasant family’s demoralization and disintegration after their move to industrial Milan in order to better their prospects, Luchino Visconti made his most celebrated work: The Leopard, from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, about an aristocratic Sicilian family’s demoralization and disintegration under Risorgimento, the unification of Italy begun with the revolution of 1848.
Prince Fabrizio of Salina is an intelligent, enlightened man; and, although the nationalist movements point to the end of his influence and the death of his elegant way of life, his feelings about the changes are divided. Like Lampedusa, who based Don Fabrizio on his great-grandfather, Visconti was an aristocrat deeply committed to social and economic justice. (He was a Marxist.) Both author and filmmaker, then, identified with the larger-than-life character at the center of their epic accounts. The film’s expense required a considerable star to make it bankable; enter Burt Lancaster, who had never given the slightest indication of acting ability. Here, superlatively dubbed, he impresses, as does Alain Delon as Tancredi (so different from Delon’s Myshkin-like Rocco), Don Fabrizio’s dashing young nephew, who comes to embody realpolitik, beginning as an impassioned enlistee in Garibaldi’s people’s army, and then switching to the cause of Camillo di Cavour, the aristocrat who succeeded at unification where Garibaldi failed, but only by ruthlessly assaulting regional cultures.
A grand ball and, for Don Fabrizio, its ambulatory aftermath: In the last movement, the tracking camera witnesses the proud patriarch’s self-aware eclipse in a lofty world that is losing political ground. Detailed, sweeping and, like the rest of the film, objectively toned (a surprise from Visconti), this phenomenal passage suggests history meditating on itself. Nearly an hour long, it brings Visconti’s masterpiece to a stunning close.
As to the rest of the films in the most recent Film Forum advertisement:
November 26-December 2 (2, 4:30, 7, 9:30): THE GRAPES OF WRATH
Acclaimed worldwide as a masterpiece, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath nevertheless invites a charge of impersonality. Ford, despite winning one of his six Oscars for it, was never keen on the film. Perhaps he felt hemmed in by the John Steinbeck novel on which Nunnally Johnson based the script. Also, the book’s Leftist slant may have uncomfortably chafed against his Irish conservatism, although probably more for its cheery dogmatic insistence than its political assumptions, some of which Ford in fact shared. Finally, there was Darryl F. Zanuck, the studio head, whose interference damaged the film. While unmistakably Fordian in all its major themes, the film must have seemed to Ford less his own than it should have been. Still, it is a very great work.
The Great Depression of the 1930s: in their jalopy the Joads, Oklahomans, and their extended family take off for California, the new Promised Land. Forced by circumstance, this westward trek of theirs mocks manifest destiny, the expansionist rationale on which the American nation had been built. Sharecroppers, they have been displaced by Nature and by inhuman nature—dust bowl erosion and a foreclosing bank. The odyssey of these “Okies,” and the bankruptcy of dreams that awaits them in California, form the narrative basis of both book and film.
Visually expressive, Ford’s film is way superior to the novel. The latter has passed into a kind of faded antiquity, like nearly everything else that Steinbeck wrote. Still, the book does hold some interest. Consider the form: chapters which alternate between the Joads’s fictional story and a kind of factual reportage—in the manner of prose-poems, general information about the Depression, including statistics of its impact on Americans. Like Maxwell Anderson’s verse plays, this can be viewed as one of the Left’s strained formal experiments of the day. But Ford, who had filmed Anderson’s Mary of Scotland (1936), didn’t discount Steinbeck’s cleverness, either. True enough, he and Johnson discarded the neat structure; and yet Ford retained the bifurcated content contained in it by incorporating the book’s nonfictional track—an overview of countless American families, from which the Joads (fictitiously) have been singled out—into the narrative itself.
This is variously accomplished. For instance, Ford and black-and-white cinematographer Gregg Toland, in their steely, immutably clear fictional images, evoke ’30s photographs—from the U.S. Farm Security Administration—by Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange and others, as well as the spectacle of erosional devastation captured by Ralph Steiner, Paul Ivano, Paul Strand and Leo T. Hurwitz’s cameras for Pare Lorentz’s documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), likewise underwritten by the federal government. Also, Ford has blended actual outdoor shots and in-studio “outdoor” shots, unifying them by extending to them both a subtle expressionism that ever so slightly heightens the sense of reality emanating from the screen. This, in turn, smooths the path for the different role that the Joads occupy in the film than in the book. For Steinbeck, the Joads assume a sociological role; they are stand-ins for countless real families. In the film, however, they embody the experience of a blighted nation—an epic occurrence. While at a glance this may seem to overfictionalize the narrative by applying to it a definable literary form, the result is quite the opposite. Ford’s epic treatment allows the film to combine into a single mode—really, to reconcile—the book’s alternate chapter tracks.
We loosely speak of certain films as being “epics”; usually this means that their background or subject matter is historical and the scale is generous. Ford’s film, though, is more rigorously epic, for the Joads project the aspirations and hardships of a whole people; theirs is a communal and a national experience. (For this to hold true for the book, the reader would have to be able not just to correlate but to fuse the book’s alternate tracks.) Ford here presumes an idea of nation that some may feel the United States, with its patchwork of peoples and their divisive levels of competitive success, cannot accommodate; even Ford finds the idea, while applicable, equivocal, foretelling for the nation, as for the Joads, a tragic destiny. (His most highly analytic treatment of this theme ennobles his final masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).) Certainly the elimination of the Joads’s representative character by his epic merger of the illustrative example and the thing itself gives the film a far darker complexion than the novel possesses. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is, in fact, optimistic, even sentimentally so, given the rejuvenative Mother Earth symbolism, for example, scabrously attached to Rose of Sharon—Tom Joad’s (early-on) pregnant sister; in the film, Rosasharn—that, even had industry censorship not prohibited it, Ford could no way have adopted since his fictional/nonfictional form cannot accommodate the blatant elements that Steinbeck, in his separate, self-proclaimingly fictional track, can freely (if revoltingly) indulge. (Those familiar with the novel know to what I refer—the nursing activity of Rose of Sharon’s that Steinbeck, being Steinbeck, milks for more than it’s worth.)
In true epic fashion, Ford’s film opens in the middle of things, with young Tom Joad, freshly paroled from prison, momentarily halted in the road on his way home. (Tom killed a man in a bar fight.) In a middle-distance shot Tom proceeds screen-right. This opening recalls the closing of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Ford’s previous film but by one, where in a ferocious, portentous storm Lincoln, played by the same tall actor now playing Tom Joad, makes a screen-right foot-journey up a hill. Thus Tom’s own brief steps (prior to hitching a ride), now across stormless flat land, obliquely echo young Abe’s, thereby linking the two characters and, in the process, investing Tom with an aura of national destiny despite his surly nature, nasty temper and criminal past. Actually, the very end of Ford’s (beautiful) Lincoln film occurs after the scene I have described, which is the film’s closing scene of fiction; following it is a stirring documentary coda consisting of shots of the Lincoln Memorial, a bulwark in the current storm of the Depression that Ford thus links to the Civil War, while on the soundtrack the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” resolutely plays. The lyrics remain unsung; but the famous line “He has trampled out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” now also looks ahead to The Grapes of Wrath, investing Tom not only with Lincoln’s mantle but something of Christ’s as well. And why not? Like Abe and Jesus, Tom also will prove a fighter against injustice and oppression, a folk-common redresser of social wrongs.
I have said that Ford’s film begins in the middle of things; so does it end, given its proper ending, with Tom at the advent of a fresh quest. He is an outlaw again, this time for killing a civilian “cop” who has bludgeoned to death a friend of his, Casey (John Carradine, wonderful), a former preacher-turned-laborist who had been working to counter the local exploitation of homeless workers, including Tom’s family. It is vicious authority, then, that deems Tom a criminal; but Ford wholeheartedly finds him on the side of the angels, especially now that Casey’s words and example have redeemed Tom from his prior selfishness. So as not to jeopardize their own freedom by harboring a fugitive, Tom leaves parents and siblings—the last vestige of his life as he has known it—in California. We see him back on the road, this time in an eternizing long shot, walking screen-right across the horizon. Whatever in his journey on the lam he can do to help the exploited, the oppressed, the downtrodden (“. . . since I’m an outlaw already . . .”), he will do. Ford, Toland and Johnson may have devised here the most stunning conclusion of any American film.
Ford’s open-endedness underscores the enormous mission ahead for Tom; it predicts no more than occasional, and then limited, success. Right before his leavetaking, Tom’s recitation to his mother of the kinds of situations where he will “be” to help and share with others is less positive and programmatic, and infinitely more piercing, than in the book. (Echoing Woody Gurthrie’s poignant Joe Hill ballad, it is also, over a half-century of work, actor Henry Fonda’s signature moment.) In the film, Tom’s self-prophecies favor the idea of him as a persevering spirit over the idea of him as a competent, nuts-and-bolts activist, whereas the novel scrupulously balances these attributes in order to predict an American upturn proceeding from Tom’s example. The novel claims, then, no tragic dimension, nor is Steinbeck, unlike Ford, susceptible to a measure of defeatism in the face of the disparity between America’s reality and myth. In the film, Tom’s solitariness—his sudden disconnection from family—seems overwhelming. A new, this time paroleless imprisonment, it is less a political opportunity, which Steinbeck reduces it to, than an endless heartache. The novel’s schematism can absorb readily the likelihood that Tom and the rest of his family will never be reunited; Ford is incapable of such complacency. His conclusion, therefore, completes a very bleak vision.
That amazing ending. Alas, Zanuck stepped in and changed it by adding a scene of his own without Ford’s consent or even knowledge, and without Johnson’s or Toland’s participation. It is something that Spielberg might have come up with: a preposterous few minutes of gooey uplift, lifted (out of sequence) from the book. (And the fix worked; despite its overall harshness, the film became, like a Betty Grable picture, a popular success for 20th Century-Fox.) In this meretricious (although, mentally, easily detachable) add-on, the Joad family minus Tom appears happier than ever—a spectacular absurdity to which even the novel doesn’t descend. Like so many other Ford films, this one trenchantly records family disintegration—and there no amount of Steinbeck’s family-of-humanity rhetoric can provide salve for the bleeding event. Indeed, Ford’s merging of the book’s two tracks helps make his film more pessimistic in yet another way, by displacing to the Joad family itself the book’s structural division, in effect, fragmentation, thus giving the theme of the disintegration of the American family—to be precise, the disintegration in America of the once immigrant family—a more critical and controlling role than it occupies in the book.
It is beside the point that it is not the Joads themselves who have emigrated in order to start over in the United States. The son of Irish immigrants, Ford illumines the cost of the Joads’s immigration at whatever generational remove. Indeed, in a Ford film any westward journey in America doubles as metaphor for emigration from “home” to America, with the added irony that one always remains in some sense homeless in America, needing always to search out a place secure from social, religious or some other form of bigotry—unless, like Ethan Edwards in Ford’s tremendous The Searchers (1956), almost as a sacrifice for others one embodies America’s tragic destiny, in Ethan’s case in the form of white American race hatred, and is thus driven to wander forever between the winds in a grotesque parody of the “manifest destiny” that immigrants and their descendants invented to justify their claims on the land. The “home” one perpetually searches for in America is, at bottom, a golden reality to match America’s great promise (one thinks here of Ford’s magnificent Wagon Master (1950), for which The Grapes of Wrath is a kind of precursor); and therefore the so-called American Dream of owning one’s own house represents an unwitting compromise, an attainable reduction, of the original, more exalted goal. The disappointment the Joads discover when they reach California, “the land of milk and honey”—the Land of Zanuck, Ford may have been thinking,—is therefore a recurrent theme in Ford’s cinema, in this instance a disappointment exacerbated by the human cost of the journey, which the deaths along the way of “Grampa” and Grandma encapsulate. In this regard, perhaps, Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) may have the final word; for there, in order to start over, find a home and activate the ideal of America, the young outlaw couple, ironically, must escape the borders of the actual, nonmythic America—a tragic suggestion that, within U.S. borders, we all must remain homeless and unfulfilled.
Ford’s merging of documentary and fiction—on one level, a reconciliation of Steinbeck’s two tracks—is also, then, a sorely ironic metaphor for the cohabitation in the States of both American reality and American myth. It is in this context that Ford’s film is most brilliant. Some of its imagery, certainly, is indelible. In one passage perfectly blending documentary and fiction, superimposed Caterpillar tractors razing homes from which tenant farmers have been evicted appear alien, as though from another planet, in order to underscore the unnaturalness of farm equipment’s use against farmers—a classic instance of withering visual irony. (This irony, incidentally, is the difference between a Ford and a Lorentz.) Later, in what may be the film’s most remarkable passage, a traveling shot into a migrant camp finds faces and forms listlessly passing before the camera; they appear worn, depleted, even ghostlike—a reflection of hopelessness among the dispossessed. These human beings seem lost souls; like the merchant ship and its crew in Ford’s poetic masterpiece from O’Neill, The Long Voyage Home (1940), made immediately after The Grapes of Wrath, they are—I am applying Matthew Arnold’s words for Victorian England—“Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born.”
Because of its blend of documentary and fiction, Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath may be his most delicately balanced film. The balancing is precarious; a part of the blend may at any point separate out. If that happened, artifice—specifically, rhetoric—would result. Ford’s rigorous objectivity—which at its opening this piece noted invites a charge of impersonality—helps avoid this. Where the film, however, does dip into rhetoric the fault almost invariably lies with Jane Darwell’s hammy, Oscar-winning turn as Ma Joad. It is slow and studied; Darwell’s Ma seems to have read the script. The situation of her character is enormously complex. For, as a result of his losing their rented land and, along with it, his capacity to provide for himself and his family, Ma’s spouse, the family head, has become demoralized, and it’s up to Ma, an ordinary soul unused to exhibiting particular strength, to fill the place of responsibility that her husband’s shattered withdrawal has left vacant in order that they all may survive and, if possible, prevail. Working here at her hardest, Darwell is, as usual, appealing, and she has little trouble projecting Ma’s anxiety; but she has nothing like the depth of talent necessary to suggest the upheavals her character has so recently undergone. One actress who would have done a much better job is Beulah Bondi, the superlative Granny in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945) and an Emmy winner more than three decades later for another country role, in The Waltons. (Bondi herself was pure city: Chicago—and later, professionally, New York.) As it happens, I didn’t just pull Bondi’s name out of a hat. Ford had, in fact, enlisted Bondi to play Ma Joad, a role she spent months researching, rehearsing and losing weight for; at the last minute, to cut production costs, though, Zanuck replaced her with Darwell, who was under contract to his studio. This much can be said: Ford used the lesser actress beautifully—as when, just prior to the family’s leavetaking, alone in their shack, Ma looks into a mirror while holding up to her ear lobes hanging earrings—baubles from among the various keepsakes Ma must leave behind not only for want of space in the family’s dying jalopy but also for want of the time necessary to nurture the memories that the keepsakes represent. This is Ford at his most moving; the strains of “Red River Valley” that accompany Ma’s crestfallen reflection abruptly stop—an aural metaphor of the scene we are witnessing and the family departure quick to follow. Memorable, too, is Ma’s dance with a clumsy Tom at a government camp, once again to the plaintive, poignant tune repeated throughout Alfred Newman’s fine score, the words to which, on this occasion, Tom sings. Great, moving filmmaking. Bondiless, Ford yet prevails.
Most of his other actors, thankfully, are up to their parts. I have already mentioned Carradine as Casey, the reformed preacher (I choose my description here to what would have been Ford’s liking). John Qualen is an equally fine Muley, an “old barnyard ghost.” Russell Simpson, as the shell of a man that Pa has become, is perfect. And in a nicely bowdlerized version of the book’s yuckiest character, Dorris Bowdon is a touching Rosasharn.
Of course, the most profound acting comes from Henry Fonda, whose Tom Joad escapes few lists of the greatest film performances of all time. (Fonda’s preparation: his splendid Eddie in Fritz Lang’s excellent You Only Live Once (1937).) How deeply moving and complex is this characterization; for Tom is insolent, embittered, selfish, loyal to family and friends, struggling to understand what’s happening to himself and others, noble, unselfish and caring at times—a tangle of human contradictions. As Fonda plays him, Tom is an Everyman precipitously poised at crossroads where (to us who watch) great decency and great viciousness seem equal possibilities. Fonda’s Tom Joad, then, is the quintessence of human possibility. After the war, Fonda’s masterful portrait of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, loosely based on Custer, in Ford’s mind-socking Fort Apache (1948), shows, by contrast, humanity very nearly past all possibility. (In all, Ford and Fonda made seven films together, including the majesterial My Darling Clementine (1946) and the underrated The Fugitive (1947) and Mister Roberts (1955).) One of them heartrending, the other unexpectedly so, these two performances from a staggering career can remind us how cleanly Fonda could get to the marrow of the American male—here, as one who is dangerous against authority, and as another who is equally dangerous with authority. So very differently these two men behave, as on the dance floor, where Owen’s joyless military polish and correctness contrast with Tom’s heartfelt klutziness and simple pleasure. Yet, in the imaginative space that Ford and (until their falling-out) his favorite actor fill in with such precision and depth, some perplexing, elusive thread of character hints that Tom Joad and Owen Thursday are alternate possibilities of the same fractured soul, that each of them has latched onto a different way of feeling whole, useful, meaningful and at home in the United States, where for better or worse they find themselves.
December 3-4 (Dec. 3: 1, 3:45, 6:30, 9:15; Dec. 4: 1, 3:45, 9:30): WOMAN OF THE DUNES
Adapted by Kôbô Abe from his own novel, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Suna no onna is curious. Niki Jumpei, an entomologist, is collecting bugs by the seashore but misses the last bus back to the city. He stays the night in the home of a local. So what if her house is situated at the bottom of a sand pit? But the next morning the ladder that got him down is gone. It appears that the woman spends her days being an insect, removing sand in order to keep herself from being buried alive by the dunes. Now Niki also is an insect; he becomes part of the woman’s existence, from which there seems to be no escape.
The principal activity here reminds us of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill and repeating the process endlessly each time it rolls back down. But there is this difference in Suna no onna: the woman’s activity is necessary, not meaningless; what she does somehow maintains the survival of the community to which she belongs and, perhaps, by extension, the whole planet’s survival. Think of those advancing dunes as Godzilla.
Lacking Hawksian fun, the gender contentiousness down in the pit is irritating, and the entire film, aimed at aesthetes and graduate students, is too abstract, academic and schematic to add up to anything. On the contrary, everything reduces down. We think about the film as we watch it, as we might an episode of TV’s The Twilight Zone, and our thoughts dig up possibilities to which the actual film gives no formal expression. Descendence is presumably meant to convey transcendence because of the woman’s contribution to the social good; only, it doesn’t. For all its occasionally exquisite black-and-white imagery, this is a hollow and very silly movie.
December 5-6 (1, 2:35, 4:10, 5:45; Dec. 5 only: 9:45): ANTONIO GAUDÍ
Japan’s Hiroshi Teshigahara: I dislike his fictional films. But his documentary Antonio Gaudí, about Catalan architect and sculptor Antoni Plàcid Guillem Gaudí i Cornet, is exceedingly beautiful and adventurous. Teshigahara, assisted by color cinematographers Junichi Segawa, Ryu Segawa and Yoshikazu Yanagida, has created a nearly silent waking dream, with one “talking head” who (very late) speaks for only a few minutes. We listen carefully.
Gaudí (1852-1926) derived his forms, he said, from the Book of Nature, and indeed one sees in his work the influence of honeycombs, spiraling seashells, the luxuriant growth of rough-textured trees, and regional caverns with their stalactites and stalagmites. Gaudí’s prolific work, which rambunctiously pursued curvilinear lines, especially turned Barcelona into a breathing, overflowing garden of public art. All this art still stands. One shot is framed so that a child glides backwards amongst columns that Gaudí designed—Teshigahara’s evocation, perhaps, of Cocteau’s use of reverse motion in the Underworld in Orphée (1949). But here it is daylight, the child is happy, alive, and a dip of the camera reveals she is on roller skates. She is unaware of the “art” she is maneuvering her way around, but in a sense those columns were designed and constructed for her, and the structure belongs to her by her use of it. Increasingly religious, Gaudí’s art is, at its best, splendiferous and mysterious.
Teshigahara’s slow camera movements in every conceivable direction, including inwards, take us on a journey. (Teshigahara edited—brilliantly.) We see connections in and influences (besides Nature) on Gaudí’s art: in the medieval past, the Romanesque that evolved into the Gothic; in the present, Art Nouveau. (Gaudí himself influenced Surrealism.) Thrillingly, we journey into a portion of the mind of humanity.
Antonio Gaudí is what Kubrick hoped his 2001 would be.
December 5 (6:20): THE CEREMONY
Masuo’s flashbacks and present-time experiences allow us to view the fortunes of the Sakurada family, to which Masuo belongs, and all this in turn reflects on postwar Japanese history: such is the ambitious intent of Nagisa Oshima’s Gishiki. It is a convoluted and, in its tenor, a nearly subterranean film, one that in fact ends in the brief, fleeting present-time coda to one of Masuo’s childhood flashbacks—to a baseball game he sees but can no longer enter: a cousin to the elusive tennis match with which Antonioni ended Blowup (1966). The shards and fragments of memory that sadly drift somewhere within Masuo’s tormented soul—one of these is a family suicide that may have been a family murder—mask a life of losses and humiliations, and collisions with the patriarchal power, the spirit of Japan’s past long before Masuo’s birth, that his grandfather, Kazuomi, continued and represented, testing the capacity of Masuo and his generation to liberate Japan from this past.
The color schemes of both interiors and even exteriors suggest entombment. The film mainly proceeds through a series of family weddings and funerals; but these are ghostly, pale events. (It is Grandfather’s death, leading to his funeral, that sets the plot in motion.) The ghoulish wedding in Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1968) is done one better by Masuo’s “brideless” wedding in Gishiki, where the bride, whom Masuo has not met, pleading appendicitis, declines to show up, but Grandfather, committed to form and ritual above all else, as a means of exercising and securing his own power, insists that the ceremony continue. Masuo feels the perfect fool at the altar—although he does intriguingly improvise on his brideless wedding night.
Kenzo Kawarazaki is excellent as the grown Masuo. Kei Sato’s graceless Grandfather, however, grates.
December 7 (1, 3:30, 8:35): THE FACE OF ANOTHER
“I wonder if losing one’s face deranges one’s senses. . . . I feel as though I’ve been buried alive.”
Businessman Okuyama’s face has been horribly burned. Nastily sensitive, he quips, “I’ll burn my wife’s face so it looks like mine.” (At home, his face has become a sore subject, and Okuyama picks fights with his wife over it.) Actually, except in a long-shot at a reflective remove, we do not see his face. White bandages cover the whole of his face, except for slits for eyes, nostrils and mouth. He must look funny, he says, with a cigarette dangling from his lips. He plans on rearranging his life, even at work, to be “as inconspicuous as possible.”
Adapted by Kôbô Abe from his novel, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Tanin no kao is a creepy, pretentious piece of medical science fiction. His plastic surgeon makes a mask for Okuyama; it comes from a mold made of the face of a stranger whom Okuyama selected. It is, then, a bought face in Teshigahara’s consideration of the commoditization of both human nature and human spirit.
Okuyama’s doctor wonders aloud, with almost cruel detachment, how wearing the mask will affect the wearer’s self-image and change him “internally.” “[M]asks like this,” he adds, “could destroy all human morality.” But perhaps the most ghoulish remark that this man makes to his patient is this: “[T]he mask wants to take on a life of its own.”
With the bandages removed and the mask put in place, Okuyama begins an alternative life. To what extent is the mask responsible for his changed personality? Or does the mask free Okuyama to effect these changes himself? Someone else’s life, that of a horribly scarred young woman, is inserted in fragments.
Don’t we all wear masks?
December 8 (3:30, 7:50): PITFALL
Striking black-and-white compositions aren’t enough to navigate the sluggish pace and Twilight Zone-ery of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s first feature, Otoshiana, written by Kôbô Abe.
A man who has “deserted” the mine where he last worked, seeking employment at a unionized mine, takes his young son to a remote village where he hopes to find such work. Only one person lives there, waiting for a lover to return; she explains that the mine has been closed for being dangerous. A white-clad gentleman carrying a briefcase, whom the mute child has spotted (Teshigahara works up a dramatic zoom for the moment of detection), has been stalking the miner. Just outside the ghost town the man in white stabs the miner to death; the miner’s son circles the corpse with fascinated attention but no grief. A reverse-motion shot has the miner instantly upright, but it is a ghost who can converse and be seen only by other ghosts. It chats with the ghost of a miner who died in a cave-in. The woman, an eye witness, accepting the killer’s payment and following his script, tells the police that the death was the result of a brawl between two miners. It turns out that the dead miner is a ringer for a union leader, and a quarrel between competing unions is blamed for the tragedy. The woman is raped and killed by a police officer at night. Ghosts keep a-comin’.
The police investigation is stultifyingly tedious, and there is a lot of screaming, including by ghosts who do not wish to be ghosts. Who knew they’d kvetch so!
Teshigahara’s themes are the danger and drudgery of the existence of miners and the exploitation of these workhorses.
Given my political sympathies, I should go for it; but the movie is esoteric, inhuman.
December 9 (6:30): ALONE ON THE PACIFIC
May 12, 1962: Kenichi Horie, 23, in the dead of night steals out of Nishinomiya Harbor in a small sailing craft. Ninety-four days later, the social dropout and perpetual worry for his parents reaches his destination: San Francisco. Back in Osaka, his father publicly apologizes for his son’s individualism and pesky independence.
Working from wife Natto Wada’s brilliant, intricate script, an adaptation of Horie’s account, Kon Ichikawa has created a massively moving masterpiece, a hymn to the human spirit. Ichikawa’s film is also highly analytical, especially in its fluent interweaving of Horie’s experience at sea, which is interrupted by flashbacks prior to his departure from home, and his voiceover. What we see as the present is the recent past; what we hear as an echo of this past is, actually, closer to Horie’s present. Different tenses, time frames: Ichikawa is exploring the unfettered, integrative nature of the human mind. “I wonder if I’ll ever reach America”: one must be alert as to what Horie visibly says, as here, and what he discloses in recollective voiceover. Horie continually speaks aloud to assuage his loneliness.
“You know what it’s like, Dad, pushing and shoving your way through life, trying to survive”: a flashback shows the reconstituted conversation in which Kenichi says this. Kenichi’s adventure, which a number of times nearly kills him, shows the boy honoring tradition and the past—in effect, his father—even as he seems to be rebelling against them. For instance, Kenichi’s making it to America symbolically reverses Japan’s defeat in the Second World War; when he crosses a spot where twenty years earlier the Japanese navy suffered losses, Kenichi offers a silent prayer. At different junctures, we see (a decade after the U.S. occupation) America’s continuing pernicious grip on Japan.
December 10 (1, 6:30): K[W]AIDAN
An early twentieth-century Japanese folklorist of Irish and Greek descent, Lafcadio Hearn wrote the “strange tales” that Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan samples. This tense, spooky, stylized, painterly quartet of ghost stories transports us to another world in order to return us to human nature.
In “The Black Hair,” a samurai abandons his devoted wife and marries a governor’s daughter for the sake of career advancement, eventually abandoning her for his first wife, citing his thoughtless youth. But, as in Ugetsu (1953), the reunion is illusory, and the man here is punished for continuing selfishness; for doesn’t this motivate his abandonment of his second wife also? To underscore the point, the segment ends in a freeze-frame of his horrified face as he fails to exit a world of caustic memory and avenging ghosts.
“Woman of the Snow” features a supernatural snowstorm—trees dance in its thrashing winds—and culminates in the abandonment of a woodcutter by his wife over a broken pledge he made to a spirit in the storm. “Hoichi, the Earless” includes a ferocious battle at sea under a blood-orange sky and horrific revenge by ghosts of its warriors exacted against a blind musician for favoring pride over his sacred obligations to art and to the past. “In a Cup of Tea,” about a man who sees a stranger’s reflection in his cup of tea, is introduced by voiceover narration speculating on why some tales are left incomplete. After the cup falls to the floor, claiming being “wounded,” the stranger mysteriously appears in front of the man, de-materializes. The same thing happens to the aborted story! The author has vanished, too, leaving it to others to complete it so that he doesn’t disappoint. For us, the man has replaced the stranger at the bottom of the cup.
December 10 (4, 9:30): SAMURAI REBELLION
1725. It is a time of peace, but upon Lord Matsudaira’s instruction swords are being tested on straw dummies in readiness for conflict. Matsudaira has a son by mistress Ichi (Yôko Tsukasa, excellent); cannot he let this matter lie either? Offscreen, Ichi is enormously displeased when she walks in on Matsudaira with another woman; or is it because Matsudaira fails to appreciate the reality, much less the primacy, of human feelings that he wants to rid his castle of Ichi’s presence? After all, his descendency is set with an older son by another mother. Much as he was pressured into testing swords, Isaburo (Toshirô Mifune, drawn increasingly tight) is pressured into accepting Ichi as a wife for his son, Yogoro, who accepts Ichi, and indeed falls in love with her, as she does with him. But when his older son dies, Lord Matsudaira orders Ichi and child back. Isaburo has had enough. This time he will not comply. His daughter-in-law shall cease to be a pawn. Blood will be spilled.
In stark, unforgiving black and white (Kazuo Yamada strikingly cinematographed), Masaki Kobayashi’s Jôi-uchi opens with a survey of huge surrounding rocks emblematic of the capricious, cruel power of feudal lords against which, upon instruction, heads of vassals are supposed to crack. A cold passage of architectural details implies the low status of humanity in the feudal hierarchy.
Kobayashi’s film is somewhat overwrought, and increasingly so; Isaburo’s nasty, carping wife sets off this strain in the material. But Nature attempts to intercede and prevail, as in the case of Ichi and Yogoro’s love. Shots stress the formal distance between those seated and engaged in “conversation,” but an open door between two such persons in one shot, revealing Nature outdoors, lets in a breath of fresh irony.
December 11 (1, 3:35, 6:10, 8:45): HARAKIRI
Story-telling within the story we watch unfold: different perspectives; compounded realities.
Seventeenth-century Japan; civil war has ended, eliminating some clans, scattering warriors to the winds of uselessness, demoralization, poverty. The samurai code prescribes an honorable solution: gaining entrance to a lord’s castle and committing harakiri. Tsugumo Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai—his greatest role until Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, 1980) has seemingly thus arrived at Lord Iyi’s castle to disembowel himself ritually with a sharp blade. Immediately he is suspect; lately, dishonorable men have offered the pledge of harakiri when they are really hoping for jobs or handouts. Hanshiro, therefore, is immediately suspect. He is told of a youth who had recently made the identical request, but who, armed with blunt bamboo swords, had no real intention of committing harakiri but was compelled to do so as a deterrent to other frauds. (The passage detailing the disembowelment is graphic and convincing.) This boy, it turns out, was Hanshiro’s son-in-law, who had hoped for employment at Iyi’s house to support sick wife and child. Gearing up to take embittered revenge against Iyi, Iyi’s officials and retainers, Hanshiro tells his story.
Quiet, at times almost tortuously suspenseful, Masaki Kobayashi’s legendary Seppuku reaches into the past in order to reflect on Japan’s present. Postwar capitalism, imposed on Japan by the U.S. occupation, has restructured society, making owners and heads of corporations the new lords; Japan’s national commitment to lifelong employment is giving way to a further pampering of private enterprise’s bottom line, exposing workers to joblessness and ruin. Kobayashi’s good, strong, stinging film cries out against injustice and devises a symbolical revenge. It also implies that the Japanese standby of honor has lost ground to ideas closer to hearth and home. One’s own family now claims the importance that clan once did.
December 12-13 (1, 4; Dec. 12 only: 7): RAN
Ran, which is Japanese for Chaos, is widely regarded as one of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces and one of the most fiercely beautiful films ever made. It is based mainly on two works: William Shakespeare’s King Lear, apart from John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost probably the greatest literary work in the English language; and a medieval Japanese epic. I have seen the film twice at the movies and perhaps thrice on tape. To me, it seems mediocre and uninteresting, a far cry from Kurosawa’s artistic triumphs (among them, The Idiot, 1951, Ikiru, 1952, Seven Samurai, 1954, Throne of Blood, 1957, Dodesukadan, 1970, and Dreams, 1990), and an even farther cry from Shakespeare’s towering play. Its portrayal of war, granted, is among the most awesome in cinema, but the vehicle for this is primarily a set-piece to which the rest of the film hardly measures up. I keep wanting to appreciate it more, as Ran is one of only a very few films—Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) is another—where my opinion differs widely from the world’s. I might add that two friends who loved film and are now deceased, Kenneth Jozwiak and Alfred Watkins, held Ran in similarly low regard. It is perhaps for the sake of their memory, then, that I am braving hostile reaction by airing my concurring opinion now.
I have no intention of synopsizing perhaps the most famous plot in existence. Let me just say that on this occasion the king is a warlord named Hidetora Ichimonji instead of Lear, the kingdom he divides in his old age goes to three sons instead of three daughters, and the “good son” predicts holocaustic warfare between his two brothers, whom he plainly knows very well.
Perhaps in Japan the relationship between father and sons resonates as profoundly as does, in the West, the relationship between father and daughters. We must take a film on its own terms and on the terms of the culture from which it arises. However, let me note in passing that it doesn’t strike me as nearly as much a violation that sons should turn on their father, or on one another, for that matter, as does the betrayal of a man by daughters. Indeed, in our neck of the woods we expect sons to displace fathers in their life’s journey of becoming, in a profound sense, their own fathers. In our culture, they are scarcely seen as owing their father any allegiance whatsoever—which is why it hardly shocks us at all that the current U.S. president blithely refers to his father, behind his father’s back, as “the old man.” (It may disgust us, but it doesn’t shock us.) Daughter to father, though, represents the most sacred bond imaginable. But as I said: When in Ran we must “do” as the Japanese do and, as it were, feel along with them. Still, we are apt to feel little, if anything, over this Japanese Lear’s plight, and certainly nothing comparable to the emotional devastation we feel whenever we encounter Lear’s wrong sense of betrayal by Cordelia, his reprisals against her, and the real betrayals he suffers at the hands of his other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, and their equally heartless spouses. The substitution of sons for daughters helps render Kurosawa’s Lear emotionally inert.
The centerpiece of any Lear must be, of course, Lear himself. But Kurosawa’s Hidetora is an oddly abstract figure, one lacking the massive though imperfect humanity that characterizes Shakespeare’s king, father, father-in-law, and master to his fool. (The Fool here is another washout—a whiny, pathetic figure lacking the wit, bravery and philosophical nature of Shakespeare’s version.) Anyone who has seen Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980) knows how fine an actor Tatsuya Nakadai can be; but the part of Lear requires a grasp of human nature, and deep and massive emotions, of which he is incapable. For this role, Kurosawa is in sore need of Toshirô Mifune, the exuberant, turbulent star of so many of his films, but with whom by this time he had become estranged over the man’s lifestyle (for gosh sake!). Mifune would have made a powerful Lear, as indeed, in Kumonosu jo (Spiderweb Castle, known in the States as Throne of Blood), he had made for Kurosawa a powerful Macbeth. After his falling-out with Henry Fonda, John Ford found an effective substitute for his once favorite actor in James Stewart; Kurosawa, though, wasn’t so fortunate.
Apologists for Ran frequently point out that it wasn’t Kurosawa’s intention to fashion a transplanted, transmuted version of King Lear, at least not to the extent that Throne of Blood was intended to be a transplanted, transmuted version of Macbeth. Then why draw upon Lear at all? I appreciate that his primary aim is to achieve a scalding vision of war, which he believes to be the greatest human evil on earth—humans mass-murdering humans. But Shakespeare’s King Lear is a deeply philosophical play, too, about the nature of the universe, about humanity’s relationship with forces beyond itself, including God. It is too bad for Kurosawa that, in choosing the play as even one of his sources, the outcome he creates must be measured against what Shakespeare created. (Kurosawa had also made a modern, corporate version of Hamlet—The Bad Sleep Well, 1960). His Lear is puny alongside Shakespeare’s, for all the sweeping action in its brilliant set-piece, for all its pageantry and spirited colors. Its cosmos seems a cut-rate version of the one that Shakespeare evokes. In truth, though, Kurosawa had already achieved, stupendously, a facsimile of that daunting, crushing, mysterious universe in his Macbeth film, opening up Ran also to a charge of superfluousness.
And what about the use of color in this film? The cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitô and Masaharu Ueda is gorgeous beyond belief; but to what thematic purpose, to what avail? Color should be used only when there is some specific justification for it, especially since color inevitably, by its nature, reduces the expressive visual possibilities of any film. How are the horrors of war better conveyed by images rendered in such gorgeous colors? Instead, Ran’s color applies a luxuriant aesthetic to the grim, lethal vision Kurosawa is after.
Many of us know about Kurosawa’s financial struggles to put together this project and about his encroaching blindness, which made his crew reliant on his meticulous storyboards. An awful lot went into the production of the film. Sad to say, I don’t think the result profited from much of this.
Others, however, disagree. Ran won best film prizes and prizes for Kurosawa’s filmmaking galore. These include prizes from BAFTA and the London film critics, the David di Donatello Award, and prizes at Bodil and Mainichi. In the United States, the film or Kurosawa, or both, were honored by the critics’ groups in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, and by the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review.
December 14 (2, 7): DÔDESUKADEN
Shugoro Yamamoto’s The Town Without Seasons includes the stories upon which Akira Kurosawa drew for Dôdesukaden, one of his most trenchant and haunting achievements. The film, Kurosawa’s first in color, is set in a Tokyo slum. The title is a word that Yamamoto coined; it is the sound of the imaginary streetcar that a feeble-minded boy, Rokkuchan, repeats over and over as he trots and shuffles along, circumventing piles of garbage, going through the motions throughout the area of being the car’s conductor. Thus Rokkuchan copes with both his limitations, mental and socioeconomic, in the same way: by imagining himself beyond them. This makes life bearable; at least he can pretend—and believe—that he is a productive worker, and in a respectable position. Otherwise, all that sustains him and his careworn mother, with whom he lives, are their Buddhist prayers—another version of his trolley-chant!
An antecedent to this film is Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths (1957), from Gorky’s play. Dôdesukaden also weaves a tapestry of assorted impoverished human lives. Imagination ameliorates the trauma of poverty for Rokkuchan but falls against hard limits for others. The imaginary dream-house that a beggar builds for his son, with the boy’s own input, cannot protect the child from painful illness and death. Ocho’s single lapse of infidelity, more an imaginative leap out of the poverty with which she identifies her marriage than out of the marriage itself, becomes unforgiveable to Hei; he also is striking out at her as a way of striking out at his status and struggles. He is consumed with anger; she, with guilt—and her trek when, tossed out by Hei, she wanders off amidst a bleak landscape signals imagination’s suicidal end.
The final shot is heart-piercing: pictures of trolleys adorning the walls of Rokkuchan’s hut. Hopes, dreams, delusions.
December 14 (4:40, 9:40): EMPIRE OF PASSION
A companion-piece to the swooning, painfully immediate Ai no corrida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976), Ai no borei (Empire of Passion) again involves a passionate illicit couple, but is distanced and lacks the oversaturated colors of its predecessor, not to mention the slicing off of an erect penis.
Again, Nagisa Oshima (brilliantly) directs. In a rural village in the late 1800s, a young man convinces his mistress that they should murder her spouse, a rickshaw driver. They dump the body down a well and continue their clandestine affair. But the husband comes back in two ways: as a communal memory, as the villagers wonder how he could stay away in Tokyo year after year; as a ghost, haunting the killers. The latter might be a guilty projection; or it could be a ghost.
The former possibility is in keeping with the film’s understanding of human behavior. Oshima’s ghost story relates individual acts to communal justice. This “justice” suppresses its own real motives, sublimating these, much as the ghost may be a sublimated form of the couple’s guilty regret. Oshima already explored the possibility that capital punishment echoes ancient barbarism in Death by Hanging (1968). Empire of Passion, in this instance ironically referring to society as it metes out what it has convinced itself is justice, involves a painfully protracted punishment for the offending pair. Oshima goes further, suggesting (compellingly) that society desires, even requires, hideous crime for the sake of both the cathartic release and the reassuring sense of its own justice that the brutal punishment of wrongdoers provides.
But, above all, it is the form of this burrowing work that captivates: dark, mysterious, eerily beautiful color images exquisitely lensed by Yoshio Miyajima, the cinematographer of Masaki Kobayashi’s K[w]aidan (1964).
December 17-23 (1, 3:15, 5:30, 7:45, 10): THE CONFORMIST
The quality of Bertolucci’s films is all over the map, but it is universally agreed that, from Alberto Moravia, The Conformist, about Fascism’s ghosts, is exceptionally beautiful.
For many of us, when we were in graduate school or college, The Conformist was the film to see. When two glamorous young women danced together in a working-class dance hall, incongruity deliciously compounding incongruity, a heady intoxicant of perversity overtook our senses. The Conformist has remained one of the films of our dreams.
Mild-mannered Marcello Clerici’s mania to appear “normal” and to disappear into the crowd drives him into an ill-suiting marriage and into becoming a Fascist assigned to assassinate a former professor of his, an antifascist activist. The film begins in the 1930s and ends after the war, by which time Clerici appears to embody Italy’s determination to deny its political past.
The Conformist dazzles with its bits and pieces juggling the present and different degrees of the past. Vittorio Storaro’s color cinematography—at a level of achievement beyond what he contributed to the films that account for his three Oscars—deepens the impression that everything in the film is haunted by memory. Italy’s past is flypaper; but in the disposition of the Clericis’ marriage at the last Bertolucci also summons echoes of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Bertolucci is famous for eliciting superlative performances: Adriana Asti, Before the Revolution (1963); Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris (1972); Ugo Tognazzi and Anouk Aimée, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981); John Lone, The Last Emperor (1987); Keanu Reeves, Little Buddha (1993). On this occasion, with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli, however, Bertolucci broke the bank. The Conformist may be the most brilliantly acted movie ever made.
January 14-20, 2010 (1:30, 3, 4:30, 6, 7:30, 9): BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN—for many, the greatest movie ever made; for me, the second-greatest movie ever made:
One would never guess that Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein heralded from the stage. Thrilling and kinetic, his Battleship Potemkin is purely cinematic.
The film re-creates the Kronstadt naval mutiny that triggered the doomed 1905 Russian Revolution—an event preceding the Bolshevik Revolution. In graphic detail, the film shows the conditions onboard that led to the mutiny.
Perhaps cinema’s most celebrated passage is the Odessa Steps Massacre. In reality, this event never occurred, but, because of the power of Eisenstein’s images, it is widely believed to have occurred. Potemkin, then, reinvents history, translating documentary and fiction each into the other—what has remained cinema’s signature strategy for fathoming time and investigating social and political realities. It is important to note that Eisenstein’s fiction remains true to political circumstance in Russia. His fabricated event captures the cruelty and oppressiveness of tsarist rule, creating for these a stark, fiercely lit metaphor. (Eduard Tissé is Eisenstein’s essential black-and-white cinematographer.) In a rush of images, the masses, in enraged sympathy with the mutineers, are cut down by the police in the streets. Shot rapidly follows shot; but this ferocity gives way to another kind of passage later on—mysterious, meditative, lovely, one that is wrapped in silken darkness: dusk-cloaked sails on moonlit water—images that evoke the eternal note of sadness attending humanity’s struggle to assert fundamental rights in the face of oppression. Somewhere, always, the battle continues.
Eisenstein’s militant masterpiece is a national epic for his young nation, set a dozen years before its existence. It is a film full of anticipation—a look back for the courage to move ahead, united. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Today, Battleship Potemkin is cinema’s most poignant elegy, and its most powerful expression of a now largely dormant idea: the people.
January 21-27 (1, 3:30, 5:40, 7:50, 10): MAMMA ROMA
Anna Magnani gives a clear, bright performance, but not a profound or interesting one, in writer-director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma; her character, who tries leaving prostitution behind to provide guidance for her teenaged son, becomes a metaphor for Italy’s struggle to emerge from the shadow of its rigidly class-bound past. Mamma Roma is the antithesis of Magnani’s previous role, as dark, barren, embittered, nastily married Lady Torrance in The Fugitive Kind (1960), Sidney Lumet’s scathing film of Tennessee Williams’s play Orpheus Descending. Magnani called her role for Pasolini her most important one “thus far”—suggesting promotion to advance the film’s commercial prospects. Certainly this role is no match for Magnani’s truly great ones for Rossellini, Visconti and Renoir.
Ettore, Mamma Ro’s boy, is the tedious protagonist. Ettore endlessly hangs out with same-age Roman slackers whose poverty predicts the course of the rest of their lives. Nothing his mother does can redeem Ettore; only his suffering can do that.
There’s much walking, some of which visually puns off of Mamma Ro’s nighttime trade until she turns to daylight fruit peddling, from which she slides back into whoring when her former pimp, Carmine (Franco Citti, expert), threatens her with exposing to Ettore how she used to earn her living. Learning the truth elsewhere, Ettore downwardly spirals into a fatal illness; moreover, he dies horribly alone, tied and strapped to a table, after committing a petty theft. This last phase of his is visually represented as a crucifixion.
The camera keeps apace with the film’s walking characters, either following them or withdrawing from them, creating a sense of stasis and confinement, which is enhanced by the subsidized, featureless urban housing that occupies the background of numerous frames.
In this synthetic tragedy, the mother’s considerable anguish insufficiently moves us.
January 28-29 (1, 4:15, 7:45; part of a single-admission double bill): HUMAN DESIRE
Flimsy, unconvincing, at times ludicrous version of Zola’s La bête humaine, updated to the present, divested of naturalism and moved to New Jersey. The script is a load of melodramatic clichés, with heavy-handed references to the Korean War to remind us that its author, Alfred Hayes, helped write Rossellini’s magnificent Paisà (1946) about the Second World War. Fritz Lang, who directed, opens Human Desire with a stunning hommage to Jean Renoir’s 1938 film version: forwardly propelled train’s-eye shots over tracks and through bridges and a tunnel, visually encapsulating two ideas: the penetration of an obsessive mind; fate. Little of interest follows despite faint echoes of the Renoir film and traces of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Lang, who regretted the sanitization of the material that fifties Hollywood imposed, considered the film vastly inferior to Renoir’s. He was correct, although La bête humaine, starring Jean Gabin in a powerhouse performance, is also not among the brilliant lights in the Renoir œuvre.
Glenn Ford stars as Jeff Warren, who returns from three years in Korea to reclaim his job as a train engineer—a hifalutin description of a brakeman. Ford, who had as little talent as Rock Hudson, was a dumb jerk. I recall a television appearance where he explained to host Mike Douglas that acting classes that have students imagining they are chairs were not for him because he had no intention of ever playing a chair. Of course, artists (whatever their medium) in preparation for a work of art perform exercises that they do not intend to show an audience. The whole purpose of the acting exercise that Ford disparaged is for actors to empty themselves of ego, creating an imaginative empty space that they can then fill with whatever character they will play. It is not hard to understand Ford’s difficulty with such a tack as he never gave a single performance that wasn’t full of himself and nothing or no one else. His Warren is a perfect example.
This is an odious beast beset with “human desire”: at an inquest into a murder, Warren refrains from telling the truth about what he saw onboard the train where the murder occurred, because he wants to have sex with the married woman whom his lie is shielding; but nothing of this self-serving motive, or Warren’s capacity for it, is at all visible in Ford’s superficial projection of personality. Indeed, Ford’s own smugness, sanctimoniousness and complacency eventually take over the role, leaving the protagonist a cipher—at best, a non-human beast. One imagines that Ford never searched himself to find the points where his own character and Warren’s crossed. Rather, he clung to a self-idealization that he projected onto Warren, just as he had done with all the other characters he played.
Somewhat intriguingly, Warren and work colleague Carl Buckley, the husband of the woman he beds and also the killer, seem to be split halves of a single personality. Is Buckley what Warren would have become had he stayed home rather than go to war?—or does Buckley’s becoming a killer reflect Warren’s becoming a killer in combat despite Warren’s insistence there’s a difference? I don’t know; but our first view of Buckley makes him seem just as “nice” as Warren—then Buckley loses his job, which he desperately needs to feel like a man, and discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. Warren ends up feeling even more morally superior than he used to because he resists lover Vicki Buckley’s attempt to get him to murder her husband. Looked at from a different angle, Warren abandons Vicki to her fate: Carl strangles his wife onboard the train that Jeff, the blind lug, is helming.
All this is psychological doodling; only Buckley’s theft of his first victim’s watch—his symbolical attempt to master wife, time and fate—resonates. The rest is late forties/fifties nonsense.
Burnett Guffey’s shadowy black-and-white cinematography is worthy of a great noir, as is Daniele Amfitheatrof’s relentless, ominous score.
Broderick Crawford gets nowhere playing Buckley, but the next year, in Fellini’s Il bidone, he would give his greatest performance.
January 30 (both films for a single admission): THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1:30, 5:25, 9:20) and SCARLET STREET (3:25, 7:20)
Richard Wanley, assistant professor of psychology at Gotham College, worries that middle-age has dimmed his “spirit of adventure.” His wife and children out of town, he embarks on a platonic dalliance with a mysterious young woman whose portrait is displayed in the window of the shop next door to his men’s club. He thus becomes involved in the killing death of her jealous lover, who attacks him in her apartment, and which he goes to great lengths to cover up. It turns out that the victim is a high-profile fiancier who has been carrying out his clandestine affair under an alias—and a sleaze, quick to blackmail, has been paid to routinely follow him.
Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940; Roxie Hart, 1942) contributes an exceptionally fine script based on J.H. Wallis’s 1942 novel Once Off Guard, from which Fritz Lang directs brilliantly, creating a beautifully paced melodrama full of wicked, dreadful suspense. Much as we hope that Tom Joad and Roxie will prevail in their run-ins with the law, we root for Dick Wanley to get away with not-quite-murder. Intriguingly, the film opens with Wanley lecturing his class about legal gradations of killing: second degree versus first degree murder; murder versus self-defense, manslaughter—although what this has to do with psychology, even criminal psychology, is never made clear.
Those bemoaning a “tacked-on ending” miss the presentation of a dream from the get-go. The woman in the portrait, Alice Reed, is introduced as a reflection in the dark of night, which a point-of-view shot, keyed to Richard’s wish fulfillment, delivers to still ambiguous substance. An overload of mirrors, including one that reflects the back of Richard’s head, makes a through-the-looking-glass suggestion; inside Alice’s apartment, Richard is subtly lit in the foreground of a shot while Alice herself is subtly darkened in the background. Clocks may seem to insist on the reality of time—but, in context, they are headed at the club for the moment when Richard has already asked to be told that it’s a certain time so that he can go home.
Excellently acted by Edward G. Robinson, The Woman in the Window is among Lang’s very best American films—a tale of equal ambivalence about growing old and imagining oneself a bit younger. The little jabs of the scissors, handed to him by Alice while he is tussling on the floor with the intruder, by which Richard will take the man’s life, are both funny and sad, lethal and impotent: a reflection of the professor’s low social status vis-à-vis someone he would wish to kill under any circumstances.
Jean Renoir’s first sound film, a tragicomedy from a low-grade novel, is a magnificent social portrait and an embittered analysis of money’s pernicious role in everyday life. Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon, perfect) is a full-time cashier; sustaining him through a miserable marriage is his passionate avocation: painting. Naïvely failing to recognize her as a prostitute, one night, walking home, he meets Lulu, who is being beaten by Dédé (Georges Flammand, both creepy and brilliantly funny), whom he fails to recognize as her pimp. They have an affair, Maurice doesn’t know, so that he can underwrite Lulu and Dédé’s existence. But Maurice’s wife, taking all his money, gives him a tiny allowance; so Maurice steals at home, embezzles at work. Eventually Dédé connects with an art dealer and Maurice’s paintings, with which he has gifted Lulu, make money, but none at all for the artist. Maurice doesn’t even get the credit; Lulu has signed them as “Clara Wood,” purportedly an American. Maurice doesn’t mind the shortchanging, though, so long as he has his Lulu. When he discovers that Lulu and Dédé are lovers and she derides him, however, in an offscreen fit of rage he stabs her to death. Circumstantial evidence lays the rap on Dédé, who is guillotined. Meanwhile, Maurice, who has lost his job as a result of the scandal, ends up a homeless tramp, at the last watching his self-portrait being carted away by a posh buyer.
Dark, biting, hilarious, Renoir’s film shines brightest on a Montmartre street as residents, including children, gather around a street singer and a violinist, perhaps his daughter, as the killing occurs upstairs. When he picks up his coins, the singer—another impoverished artist—embodies Renoir’s theme.
Fritz Lang’s Hollywood remake, Scarlet Street (1945), is thin, tawdry, sensational.
February 3 (1:30, 5:20, 9:10; part of a single-admission double bill): WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS
Born in Vienna, Austria, Fritz Lang was a genuine artist in Germany, where he made great films, among them the most magical one ever, Destiny (1921), the two-part Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), the two parts of Die Nibelungen (1924), “Siegfried” and “Kriemhild’s Revenge,” Spies (1928), and M (1931). (One of his most famous silent films, Metropolis, 1927, however, remains dubious despite two or three extraordinary passages.) His heritage half-Jewish, and his leftist sympathies having led to his making The Last Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), whose villains, judged by their comments, are in effect Nazis, Lang was given an ultimatum by the Third Reich: make propaganda films for us—“We will decide who is Jewish,” Goebbels is reported to have said to him—or suffer the consequences. Lang fled. In the mid-thirties he arrived in Hollywood. By no stretch of the imagination were his American films the equal of those he had made in Germany.
A few reasons immediately present themselves. For one thing, there is the discombobulation of his life that included not only the geographic and cultural relocation but also the loss of his wife, who had authored the scripts he had been directing, Thea von Harbou, who, electing to remain behind, had joined the Nazi party. (Over and over I wonder: How could the person who wrote M become a Nazi? Lang also must have wondered: How could the person who shared my life, including my bed, become this?) The consequences of his geographic and cultural relocation also help explain the decline of Lang’s work in the U.S. Lang had exchanged his European roots for life in a strange country and, more than that, a rootless nation whose citizens, never having had a culture to which they belonged, couldn’t possibly fathom the trauma he was experiencing. Without wife, without Europe, without the cultural moorings that helped corroborate his existence, Lang must indeed have felt alone. Too, he wasn’t just anywhere in the United States; he was in Hollywood, a place that manufactured movies and actively discouraged an artist’s pursuit of visionary work such as had occupied his career in Germany. Most of the projects that now came Lang’s way were dismal, and even the better ones did not permit him to use the resources of film in a highly personal or expressive way.
A rare exception is the brilliant passage surveying the operation of a fishing village’s processing plant in Clash by Night (1952). (The producer, Jerry Wald, is responsible for relocating the Clifford Odets play on which the film is based.) All in all, showcasing a remarkable performance by Barbara Stanwyck as someone entering late the foreign territory of marriage, Clash by Night is one of Lang’s few good American films. Others include the following: two starring Henry Fonda, who is superb in both, You Only Live Once (1937) and The Return of Frank James (1940); one of the several film noirs Lang made with Joan Bennett, Woman in the Window (1944); and the brilliant, fascinating western Rancho Notorious (1952), starring a former lover of Lang’s, Marlene Dietrich. (Please see my full essay on this film, also listed under “Hollywood film reviews,” elsewhere on this site.) I am also fond of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), whose exceedingly farfetched plot cannot dampen the spark contributed by Joan Fontaine’s poised and elegant participation.
Perhaps the American film for which Lang is best known is Fury (1936), a dull “message movie” targeting a legal rush to judgment, including the sort of mob hysteria that leads to lynching. Lang himself liked this one most among his Hollywood films, and his second choice is just as lame, I’m afraid. I have finally seen While the City Sleeps, and it’s hardly worth the affection Lang felt for it. It’s a thin, plot-heavy and dispiriting film despite an impressive cast. For Lang, though, it was a major hit, and this may be why he recalled it with more satisfaction than the result merited.
The film’s narrative comprises two intersecting plots. One involves a contest at a New York City newspaper, the American Sentinel, to determine who will become the new publisher’s editor-in-chief. This new publisher, Walter Kyne, is the effete, borderline moronic son of the venerated king of the Kyne media empire, Amos Kyne, who has just died. (Kyne reminds us of Kane, and the company’s insignia, a ‘K’ inside a circle, corroborates the aural/visual echo of Orson Welles’s 1941 Citizen Kane.) The other plot involves “the story” that the three competitors for the prize job pursue in order to win against the other two. What is the identity of the “Lipstick Killer,” the serial killer targeting young women and terrorizing the city? It turns out that he is a boy who hates his doting mother as much as Walter Kyne hates the memory of his dismissive, derisive father.
Lang’s film wavers between being mild-mannered and being inert; little suspense is generated in terms of the outcome of the Sentinel’s internal competition, although somewhat more suspense—though not much—is generated regarding the police and media efforts to capture the misogynistic serial killer, a boy barely out of his teens played with sufficient panache by John Drew Barrymore (John’s son; Drew’s father) to put the lie to the ridicule his acting career at the time engendered. (We needn’t compare his performance with Peter Lorre’s amazing one as the serial killer in Lang’s M.) From a large cast, “John Barrymore, Jr.,” as he is billed here, gives one of the better performances. The best comes from Ida Lupino as the newspaper’s gorgeous women’s columnist, and two other good ones come from then-spouse Howard Duff as a police detective and Sally Forrest, who is especially winning as a news office secretary. Forrest, a discovery of Lupino’s, had starred in Not Wanted (Elmer Clifton, 1949), which Lupino had co-scripted and produced, and Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), which Lupino had directed. (An aside: Lupino, who is alluring, doesn’t require the falsies with which she is decked; these “enhancements” only diminish.)
Other cast members include Dana Andrews (a drunk, we’re told—but one who seems nimble enough here), George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Rhonda Fleming, James Craig and, as an apartment house janitor, Vladimir Sokoloff.
I regret to say—and how often can one say this about a Lang film?—there is only one interesting shot in the entire movie: an unexpected downward, angled long-shot of the city street outside the apartment building out of which the Lipstick Killer comes tearing. I know; it can be argued that the electric charge of this shot largely derives from the prosaic nature of all the shots preceding it. How many of us would wish for just one bright second a day, however much the other mundane seconds intensified its brightness by contrast?
As it happens, we expect more from life, and we certainly expect more from Fritz Lang.
February 4-5 (2:40, 6:20, 10; part of a single-admission double bill): MAN HUNT
The hallucinatory opening verges on fairy tale: a British sportsman silently proceeds through a Bavarian forest. Alan Thorndike gets his quarry into the sights of his high-powered rifle: it is Adolf Hitler at the Berghof, his retreat at Berchtesgaden. Thorndike squeezes the trigger, but there is no sound; this is Thorndike’s test of his own prowess as a hunter, not a political assassination. However, the Germans are not understanding.
Based on Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel Rogue Male, Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt centers on the pursuit of Thorndike, who has escaped their clutches, by German agents. It is a What if . . . ? story, with pulsating resonance for its own time. Whatever his original intent, Thorndike is determined to get a second shot and blow away Hitler to Kingdom Come. A bit of brutality from the Gestapo and he is radicalized, engaged: a prescient stab at how the U.S. would come to enter the Second World War.
Alas, the powerful opening gives way to an unconvincing thriller, with only George Sanders’ unctuous and effete Gestapo officer an interesting figure along the way. Walter Pidgeon is stodgy as Thorndike and Joan Bennett, in the first of four performances for Lang, is ridiculously bouncy and cheery as Jerry, a Cockney prostitute—because prostitutes are such a happy lot, you know. Bennett, so wonderful in Jean Renoir’s Woman on the Beach (1947) and Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment (1949), is amateurish here.
After Jerry is killed by the Nazis, the brooch that Thorndike had given her, in the shape of an arrow, which she had worn in her cap, figures prominently in Thorndike’s act of revenge and his final ingenious escape. What if . . . ?
Lang was in Hollywood, of course, after having fled Hitler’s Germany. Dudley Nichols wrote the script.
February 6-7 (both films for a single admission): RANCHO NOTORIOUS (1, 4:45, 8:30) and CLASH BY NIGHT (2:45, 6:30, 10:15)
A fascinating Western noir, Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious is propelled by a recurring ballad of “hate, murder and revenge.” The images seem to elaborate on the song, “Legend of Chuck-A-Luck.” Therefore, the song (with music and lyrics by Ken Darby) seems to attribute the film to a legendary domain, pointedly distancing us the viewer from the unfolding drama. This deepens the distancing achieved by the remoteness of the Western setting sometime in the 1870s and the use of color. (The cinematographer is Hal Mohr, whose specialty is dreaminess: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1935; Phantom of the Opera, 1943.) Flamboyant yet elusive, convoluted in the machinations of its meanest characters yet as persistent as a train going down a track, Lang’s third and final Western—the other two are The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941)—altogether seems a dream existing in a dream. Along with You Only Live Once (1937) and Clash by Night (1952), it is Lang’s finest American film.
Even the meaningless title, imposed over Lang’s objections by RKO studio head Howard Hughes, fits the material perfectly. (Lang had wanted the film to be called Chuck-A-Luck.)
What sets the narrative wheel in motion is the rape and murder of Beth, a girl alone at the counter one day in her father’s general store in a small Wyoming town. Set to marry her in eight days, cowboy Vern Haskell is left with a gaping hole in his psyche, which instantly is filled with hatred for the anonymous wrongdoer and a determination to exact revenge. Michael E. Grost, an Internet film critic, thus finds the film to be “deeply feminist, in taking with great seriousness the horrible crime of rape.” This is certainly possible, so long as we admit that Vern’s course of action divorces him from a feminist impulse. Vern’s pursuit of “justice” objectifies the victim all over again, consigning her memory to the status of mere touchstone for his vicious, oppressive rage, and implying that the crime committed is one of a violation of his property rights. By extension, one may infer—although, of course, he himself would be incapable of such a formulation—that Vern felt only he, as her husband had she lived, was entitled to rape Beth. There is a sourness to the tone of all this psychosocial complication that, while not excluding the possibility of frustrated feminism on Lang’s part, suggests that other meanings may be more central. Indeed, the film’s Langian sense of determinism all but requires the rape and murder of Beth—hardly a felicitous springboard for feminist inquiry. In addition, at some point the pun contained in Vern’s last name, Haskell, likely kicks in: has kill, as in has to kill, may imply that Beth’s fate is mere pretext—rationalization—for Vern’s murderous impulses and vengeful mission, making the death of his beloved, in fact, a matter of convenience for him. Perhaps her end spares Vern the forfeit of his idealization of Beth; this cancellation of their wedding spares him the ordeal of embracing the reality of her with which marriage would have confronted him. Vern has been left with an image of Beth that he hopes to hold onto—and an image of himself, as her avenger, that may tighten the psychic grip necessary to accomplish the task.
Underscoring the theme of possessiveness is the glittering brooch that Vern pins on Beth at their last meeting and which her killer confiscates as a memento of the rape. In effect, Vern is after this prize to reclaim it as his own. This all but identifies Vern with Beth’s (as yet) unknown rapist and killer. Certainly Vern’s quest fails to characterize him as any sort of shining knight, for as the ballad tells us, “ . . . deep within him burn the fires of hate, murder and revenge.”
Different viewers will interpret Vern’s tenderness toward Beth differently. Some may take it at face value. But, for me, what is so startling about that opening scene between the two on the threshold of their wedding is its unreality, its adolescent nature. It’s a purely conventional moment between young lovebirds that’s undercut by a curious remark Vern makes. When giving Beth the brooch, Vern boasts that the person who sold it to him said the brooch came all the way from Paris. Later, this ridiculous comment will connect the brooch to the world of an outlaw and gunslinger named Fairmont, who goes by the nickname Frenchy. Initially, though, it strikes us as juvenile that Vern seems to be unaware he has been the victim of a merchant’s puffery; he seems to believe that the piece of jewelry crossed the Atlantic Ocean and the U.S. just to flatter his ego as gift-giver and to adorn his soon-to-be-bride. This is a presumably grown man speaking, but his impossible innocence here reflects on the impossible purity and innocence to which he has mentally consigned Beth. It is he who has thus made her, at least symbolically, ripe for rape.
Of course, the exchanges between Beth and Vern are no less realistic for being giddily foolish. It is often the case that in wooing a girl, after all, a man is after a prize that marriage will suddenly convert into a flesh-and-blood woman—one who cannot help but contest the ego that her succumbing to his wooing previously nurtured and stroked. Weddings consummate the wooing; marriage is another matter entirely. The fact that Rancho Notorious is prevented from ever reaching Vern and Beth’s wedding, let alone their nuts-and-bolts, two-human marriage, is one of the film’s dream, even fairy-tale, elements. One is reminded here of Much Ado About Nothing, whose merry romp stops short of Beatrice and Benedick’s wedding, sparing them (and us) the undoing of their love that marriage, according to Shakespeare, would likely have brought about. In tune with this idea, at the other end, is Ingmar Bergman’s film Scenes from a Marriage (1974), which shows a couple who become friendly, finally, after divorce, after marriage.
Whatever its nature, Vern’s quest involves the unravelling of a mystery: Who assaulted and murdered Beth? If, as I have suggested, in some sense (out of Sophocles’s Œdipus Rex) the answer to this is “the quester, or detective, himself,” then a significant motivation on Vern’s part is to deny this truth by pinning the rap on somebody else. Like Œdipus and Hamlet, Vern Haskell looks outside himself to keep looking too closely or carefully within. In part, the fatalism of the film derives from the fact that, afflicted with a lack of self-knowledge, Vern cannot help but do this. All the while he is searching for the solution of the mystery at hand, he is venturing deeper and deeper into fantastic territory that removes him more and more from the truth about Beth’s death, their planned wedding, and himself. Unlike Œdipus, Vern—and Lang’s film along with him—will remain embedded in a dream. Vern will never face the truth because something in the American experience denies him tragic dimension and renders him, instead, cheap, evasive and dishonest. In many ways, Rancho Notorious is, thematically, the mirror-opposite of, four years hence, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), which also centers on a quest, but one that is tragic regarding its quester, Ethan Edwards, and the America he represents—a film in which self-discovery and self-awareness are results of his quest.
From an old man, the partner whom the rapist-killer (the projection of Vern’s denial of responsibility) has shot in the back, Vern gets this clue as the man expires: “Chuck-A-Luck.” This is the film’s Rosebud, Grost notes; if only Vern can find out what Chuck-A-Luck means, he will learn, he believes, everything. Of course, chuck-a-luck is a gambling game involving a wheel of fortune and bets placed on color-coded numbers on a board. The game was popular in the Southwest, into which Vern rides ever deeper and deeper in search of his solution. Instinctively, however, he knows that the dying man’s utterance refers to something other than the game, to a place, perhaps, where he will learn the identity of Beth’s assailant. It is worth noting that the game chuck-a-luck derives from the French roulette. Vern’s trail is littered with things French.
As Vern questions people along the way, he encounters a series of recollections and accounts that come to us as dreamlike, exaggerated, borderline surreal flashbacks—dreams within the housing dream of the quest. They involve a fabulous woman of mystery, the powerfully alluring and unforgettable Altar Keane, who has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. Keane, which sounds like Kane, as in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), tweaks us a bit, given that Chuck-A-Luck has already asserted itself as a facsimile of Rosebud from that film. It turns out that, years earlier, with Frenchy Fairmont’s help, Altar Keane, a saloon singer, right after being fired, made her fortune at the chuck-a-luck table in the saloon and has since retreated to her (relatively) palatial domain, a horse ranch which hills hide in its valley, and which is also called Chuck-A-Luck. Vern gains his entrance to this world-within-the-world by befriending Frenchy Fairmont, an outlaw, “the fastest gun in the West,” and Altar’s longtime lover, and by helping him escape jail. Vern’s first distant view of Chuck-A-Luck, on horseback from on high, identifies it as a dreamlike vision—as glittering as the brooch that will reappear there, worn by Altar. The place is a dream within a dream.
Indeed, the film questions its own reality, shifting its images to dreams. I noted the flashbacks that are conjured for us by people’s recollections or accounts of Altar Keane. Are the images in these real? Dreams? How much is accurately remembered, how much exaggerated, how much wishfully invented? (In a deputy sheriff’s account, for instance, Altar is lasciviously riding him, as if he were a horse, in a saloon race, in which she is wearing a fall, a golden faux-pony tail that rounds out an impossible portrait conjoining corruption and innocence.) Daniel Taradash’s splendid script (from a story by Silvia Richards) pokes at us with these possibilities as some of those invoking Keane make comments such as these: “I don’t swear this is true, because I wasn’t here. But this is how they tell it.” “I was told a story . . . If you want to believe what you hear . . . I don’t know if it’s true, but . . . .” Those familiar with the rhetorical strategies of the trickster narrator in Billy Budd will recognize American author Herman Melville’s method for throwing into question military officialdom and its pronouncements, as well as the instant history, the so-called truth, promoted by newspaper accounts. But Lang’s aim in Rancho Notorious is somewhat different. Lang is questioning the reality, as well as the morality, of the rags-to-riches American experience that Altar Keane represents. Keane got her gains through Frenchy’s cheating intervention and she has used the money to build her own Chuck-A-Luck, a hideout for thieves 10% of whose stolen acquisitions she appropriates. The façade of American capitalism, that wealth is won by honest work, is a dream, according to Lang’s film; the sordid reality lies underneath.
The night she met Frenchy Fairmont at Baldy’s Palace, Altar, according to the flashback, was dressed in red and black. A wall painting is an abstract design consisting of red, white and black. The chuck-a-luck wheel is red, white and black. Moreover, when first we see Frenchy in his jail cell, he is dressed in these colors, and the same colors, in a more subdued incarnation, dominate Altar’s residence and place of operations, Chuck-A-Luck. Without doubt, this color scheme is a parody of the red, white and blue of the American flag, but the virulence of Lang’s parody fully kicks in only when we recall that red, white and black were also the colors of the Nazi flag, which was adorned by a swastika instead of a brooch. Half-Jewish, Lang fled Nazi Germany once Hitler came to power. Interestingly, his first stop on his eventual journey to the United States was France, the nation that produced Stendhal’s (Marie-Henri Beyle’s) novel Le rouge et le noir, in which the color red is identified with the military and black is identified with the Church. I don’t know quite what to make of all this, but it’s interesting, in this context, that Keane’s Christian name is Altar. In another context, she is so named because she is a constant reminder to Vern of the wedding that did not take place owing to Beth’s brutal death.
Lang’s cinema had always been fatalistic; in light of the Holocaust, it could scarcely become less so. The nightmare of Nazism haunts Rancho Notorious as Lang addresses, and attacks, the dangerous nature of idealistic national myths, whether they are promoted in Germany or the United States. Vern’s lack of self-knowledge is an index of the delusions that such myths generate, and his grimly hilarious series of wrong assumptions as to who killed Beth from among the suspects at Chuck-A-Luck underscores his incapacity for self-criticism. Like the Nazis, this film implies, McCarthyite America pins its problems on “the Other.” The Nazis had their Jews to scapegoat; the Americans, their communists. (Actually, the Nazis also scapegoated communists.) In the latter case, the film further implies, the scapegoating is a distraction from America’s delusional foundation in myths about enterprise and financial success. Chuck-A-Luck, a parody of the American Dream, represents the nightmare of capitalism, which entraps human lives in a circle of luck and unfair competition, with its hidden or denied elements of advantage and disadvantage, and which promotes itself as providing fair, open opportunity. One shot is trenchant in this regard: Altar Keane, dressed in lavender, riding triumphantly in an open carriage, her black maid, dressed in black, sitting right behind her, shielding her from the sun with a black parasol.
Arthur Kennedy is good as Vern, who betrays his friendship with Frenchy by becoming Altar’s lover, Mel Ferrer is (for a change) excellent as Frenchy, whose reputation as a fast gun, it turns out, exceeds his actual skill, and Marlene Dietrich, who had had a brief affair with Lang a lifetime earlier, is brilliant as Altar Keane, whose land, Vern roughly points out to her, is a graveyard. The film implies, I am afraid, we Americans are all buried there.
Perhaps the most solitudinous love poem in the English language, where the poet’s lover, whom the poet addresses, may as easily be absent as present, someone to whom he speaks as though she were with him, Matthew Arnold’s phenomenal 1867 “Dover Beach” endorses fidelity, at least the illusion of love and peace, in a loveless, tumultuous world “where ignorant armies clash by night.” The sea that begins in calm in this meditative poem thus resolves itself in crashing waves which both divide the lovers and spur at least the poet’s defiant desire that they come—that they be—together. No poem better situates the love of a couple, if there is a couple, in the larger world. One thing only is certain: uncertainty.
Clifford Odets borrowed the title of his 1941 play from the fabulous final metaphor of Arnold’s poem. The U.S. was on the brink of engaging in the Second World War. When Fritz Lang, also a Leftist, made his film based on the play about ten years later, the war was over but the U.S. was embroiled in a civil war, a footnote to the Cold War that the U.S. initiated in part by the way it had ended the world war, where some American citizens, fired-up by a monster named McCarthy, retroactively assaulted the patriotism of other American citizens. In Lang’s remarkable film, Uncle Vince (played by J. Carrol Naish, who had worked for William A. Wellman, Jean Renoir and John Ford) announces, “The trouble with this country is too much education, too much free speech.” I have no idea whether this character exists in the play (his instigative role in exciting marital jealousy in one of the main characters, suggesting Iago a bit, is largely indigestible), but this utterance of his suggests Senator Joseph McCarthy’s influence perfectly.
In short, Lang’s Clash by Night resonates—and it opens brilliantly, with a documentary prologue that follows a catch of commercial fishermen from ocean to unloading dock to cannery assembly line in Monterey, California. (Odets’s play is set in Staten Island.) Everyone here is engaged in productive, responsible work; but it is monotonous, draining work that has long since replaced human beings with zombies or automatons. (Lang, of course, earlier directed Metropolis, 1926.) Jerry D’Amato—in the play, Wilenski—later makes an interesting remark. Asked whether he enjoys his work as a fisherman, he defensively answers, “It’s what I do!” It is as though he were responding to the question with his own question: “What kind of question is that?” The implication is that work is a necessity, not a choice, and there is scarcely any choice involved as to what kind of work one ends up doing. Uncle Vince doesn’t work. Jerry’s father, on the other hand, simply wants to be working. “I like to work!” he announces, as though the fact indicates his character. A widower who apparently hasn’t a clue as to the nature of his son, his delusion about his own character may be all that he has to hold on to.
In this film, people don’t much know the people in their midst, even the ones to whom they are most closely connected. Mae, who has returned to Monterey after a decade-long absence during which her dreams of success and happiness have collapsed (“Home is where you come to when you run out of places”), tries dissuading Jerry after he proposes marriage: “People have funny things swimming inside them.” She is talking about herself, of course; it doesn’t occur to Mae that the same is true about Jerry, her view of whom is as limited and simplistic as his father’s. Ignoring her own remark, she marries Jerry, hoping that the financial security he offers will give her “confidence” and “a place to rest.” It is doubtful that this is possible. Jerry: “I suppose that’s what everyone’s afraid of. Ending up getting old and lonely.”
Lang isn’t one to contest too strenuously Odets’s male chauvinism, which perhaps takes the form in Odets’s play of a coded defense of his unfaithfulness in his marriage to Luise Rainer. If so, it isn’t cricket that Odets made the wife the unfaithful one. Still, in Lang’s film Mae’s gravitation towards Jerry’s best friend, Earl, whom she despises and then suddenly “loves” and with whom she is prepared to run off, fascinates. It is willed, like what the speaker proposes in “Dover Beach,” but in Mae’s case because she wants to be irresponsible again, this time by exiting her marriage and, possibly, Gloria, her and Jerry’s infant. The film, I understand, ends more tidily than the play—though not too tidily. No irreparable violence occurs, and Mae and Jerry tentatively reconcile.
Lang is greatly assisted by Nicholas Musuraca’s black-and-white cinematography; but his chief asset, beyond his own visual gifts, is his cast. Only Robert Ryan, as Earl (he had played Mae’s brother on Broadway), is largely out-of-focus through too much familiarity with awfully similar misogynistic roles. Barbara Stanwyck is best as Mae, whose decision that she has been selfish and should change convinces precisely because it is willed, a product, that is, of Mae’s sensitive intelligence. In a role that Tallulah Bankhead and Kim Stanley played before and after her, Stanwyck is flawlessly modulated and bone-deep. Moreover, her appearance in the role additionally resonates because Stanwyck had played Lorna Moon in Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939) based on Odets’s 1937 play, and Mae is soul-sister to Lorna—in effect, Lorna having traveled a different life-path. (Jerry’s showing his daughter the moon for the first time is surely an “in”-reference linking her mother to Moon.) Paul Douglas is strong as Jerry, who doesn’t know himself and doesn’t want to, and Marilyn Monroe is excellent as Peggy, who capitulates to Joe, Mae’s brother, who demands that she shed all of his sister’s unconventional influence. Monroe, in an early straight dramatic role, is not only believable but always interesting—although the irony of her quarrel with Joe frightens: life in this instance would duplicate art when Monroe married her own highly similar Joe a couple of years later.
Irritatingly unreal: the nearly invisible, silent baby.
February 8 (1, 4:15, 7:45; part of a single-admission double bill): THE BLUE GARDENIA
Initially it seems an extraneous line—a peripheral bit of amusement. At the dreamy Los Angeles restaurant-club The Blue Gardenia, a male bartender remarks to a patron, “I fancy men myself.” Yet this utterance suggests the elusive theme of one of Fritz Lang’s most underrated films.
Her loyalty to her boyfriend, who is fighting in Korea, has been Nora Larkin’s excuse for not dating, translation, celibacy. She is robbed of that crutch, however, when she opens his “Dear John” letter on her birthday. Indeed, Lang’s mise-en-scène, both at the job and in the apartment they share with another co-worker, suggests that Nora’s real, if unconscious, attraction is for Crystal. Meanwhile, Crystal is dating her ex-spouse, explaining to Nora that Homer has none of the faults of a husband and all the virtues of a boyfriend. This implies her celibacy as well; Homer is Crystal’s “crutch” allowing her to sidestep sexual activity.
Even in the fifties, though, someone has to be getting some action. Seemingly fitting this description are two lady killers: Harry Prebble, the customer who roams the floor of The Blue Gardenia as if he owns the place, and crime columnist Casey Mayo, the proverbial bachelor with a little black book. Curiously, though, when Nora impulsively substitutes herself for a date with Prebble that’s intended for Crystal, we watch Prebble commit himself at ridiculous length to the atmospherics of seduction without ever getting Nora to bed, even in his apartment. Everything in this film is sexually ambiguous (except for the bartender’s admission), including Prebble’s coldness toward women. Casey ends up pursuing Nora, but the film even deprives us of the requisite closing clinch.
Vera Caspary’s murder mystery showcases two bravura performances: Anne Baxter as vulnerable, adorable Nora, Ann Sothern as crafty, gorgeous Crystal.
February 10 (6:15, 10): BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT
Those who denigrate Fritz Lang’s last American film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, usually describe its story as being overly contrived and “full of holes”—two attributes that a logical person might deem mutually exclusive. Some fault its legal naïvité despite the fact that the script from which Lang worked was written by Douglas Morrow, who graduated with a law degree from N.Y.U. Despite a pipe-smoking red herring, this is a fine little film that, beguilingly slippery, turns against itself repeatedly, all the way through to inside-out, confounding a series of audience expectations in order to relegate a number of things to an inconclusive zone populated by murky results: a capital murder trial prosecuted by a politically ambitious district attorney; the crime involved as manipulated by a wealthy newpaper publisher intent on embarrassing the legal system to advance his cause against capital punishment; the crime involved as manipulated by a man from a working-class background who (at the very least) is pursuing material for his second novel; the conflicted feelings of a woman—the publisher’s daughter; to begin with, the novelist’s fiancée—whose reflex of loyalty battles a repressed desire to dismiss or betray whoever might get cozy with her, which is her way of guarding against being manipulated, used. As Susan Spencer, this woman, Joan Fontaine is exquisitely convoluted—a raging neurotic beneath a poised surface. Although she has no accomplishments, Susan is the image of accomplishment. Tom Garrett has at least written a well-received novel.
Lang’s film, which revolves around Tom’s attempt, at Austin Spencer’s prompting, to feign being the murderer of a burlesque performer, has people doing daring, stupid things. Like Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel (1945), also starring Dana Andrews, Lang’s Beyond is rife with class collision. Think An American Tragedy.
also February 10, separate admission (8): FURY
Consider the premise of Fritz Lang’s god-awful Fury, a Hollywood joke when compared to the masterpieces that Lang made in Germany (Destiny, 1921, both parts of Die Niebelungen, 1924, M, 1931)—perhaps because, like M, this preposterous and fanciful melodrama is grounded in actuality: in California in 1933, the killing by jail-storming vigilantes of two kidnappers who had drowned the son of a wealthy department store owner once they had extracted the ransom they were after. To its everlasting discredit, Fury converts the original crime into sex crimes against a woman—rape and murder—and refuses to examine its socioeconomic basis. The Hollywood version is divided: sober and serious in style, but cheap in (pardon the word) execution. Fury would remain one of Lang’s worst films—possibly the very worst. Its undigested bits of expressionism embarrass.
Upright garage mechanic Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy, at his sanctimonious worst) innocently drives into town, to see his girl, with a criminal $5-bill in his pocket, obviously from a customer (the ripping up of his vehicle produces no other evidence that he participated in the crime), and the jail holding him is burned down by the town’s mob-citizenry, presumably killing both him and Rainbow, his sweet and equally innocent dog. The dog is indeed killed, but Joe somehow escapes. Now a mob-in-one behind the scenes, he schemes to have 22 of his assailants tried and hanged for his murder. But the reminder of his previously impending marriage to schoolteacher Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney, at least borderline human) compels him to appear in open court right before twenty of the twenty-two defendants are about to be sentenced to death.
Those who defend this earnest piece of trash note that ordinary people, including Joe, are shown to be capable of rash judgment and violent action; but a condemnation of democracy, as kissing kin to fascism, is dropped from view. (Lang, who was part-Jewish, had fled Nazi Germany.) Ultimately, Fury isn’t about anything.
The one good performance is given by Edward Ellis, who plays the just, deliberate town’s sheriff. Perhaps Lang scores a peripheral point by showing his inability, despite all his righteousness, to control the mob that the citizens of his town become.
Fernando Ezequiel Solanas and Octavio Getino’s 4½-hour Argentinean The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), which made my list of the 100 greatest films of all time, is available in the U.S., in a set of three gorgeous DVDs, from Subterranean Cinema. This outfit has a lot available, including films by Norman Mailer, Michael Snow, Andy Warhol and Frederick Wiseman. Check out the Subterranean Cinema site: http://www.subcin.com/subvid.html.