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Rancid Popcorn » Please To Enjoy…

Category: Please To Enjoy…

Chandu The Magician

Chandu The Magician (Marcel Varnel and William Cameron Menzies, 1932)

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This was released last year on DVD in the “Fox Horror Classics vol 2” box. Fox knows that slapping “Horror” on the cover sells pretty well, which must be why they think they can get away with two out of three titles in that box having no particular horror elements at all. Dragonwyck, with Gene Tierney, is also in the box and no sort of horror movie. Yes, Vincent Price is in it, but that doesn’t make it a horror movie – he was in Song of Bernadette ferchrissakes, and that’s no horror movie unless the entire idea of organized religion gives you the shakes.

In the same manner, Chandu The Magician is not a horror movie, it just has Bela Lugosi as a villain. I guess for some folks that’s close enough. What we actually have here is an adventure movie, a proto-superhero movie. This is a link in the chain that leads to Spider-Man and Iron Man and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Chandu is Frank Chandler, an American trained as a yogi, whose skills are mostly (but evidently not entirely) based on powerful and immediate hypnotism. There is a long line of these swami-like mystic/magician characters emerging from the pulps, mostly taking up pages in the comics – Mandrake the Magician, Sargon the Sorcerer, Ibis, The Green Lama, culminating for practical purposes with Marvel’s Doctor Strange. I can’t quite figure out who Chandu’s antecedents are, however – he predates all of these. He arrives on radio a couple years after The Shadow appears in print, but The Shadow’s “power to cloud men’s minds” didn’t become part of the character until several years later – in ’32, he was an unpowered do-gooder using bad guy techniques. Thirties and forties adventure fiction all seems like a ripoff of one thing or another – I’d be curious to know who Chandu’s creator was ripping from.

The film is a triumph for co-director/art director William Cameron Menzies, who employs every special effect technique of the time, one after the other – mattes to suggest space, double exposures, cunning miniatures, opticals – everything. He frequently makes a relatively cheap film look like it cost a fortune. Menzies is one of the great figures of pre-war film technique, and his genius gets a nice showcase in these snappy 72 minutes.

Bela Lugosi, also, is on top of his game. Bela’s time as a true movie star was short, but this is right in his glory days – he’s still physically fit, he sells his megalomania character Roxor unashamedly, he preens and spins and oils and rages and gasps and gives the whole thing a great thrust that Edmund Lowe as Chandu simply can’t.

Lowe’s not at all a bad actor of the time, he’s just clearly better suited to drawing room theater or character parts – adventure heroics are not for him or his paunch.

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A mysterious eastern monastery, a.k.a. a Menzies miniature.

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Within these walls a ceremony is held, conferring upon Frank Chandler the rank of Yogi. He is now to be known as Chandu.

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Edmund Lowe.

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The hypnotic eyes of Chandu!

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Chandu celebrates his graduation with a few parlor tricks. First up, the ol’ rising rope gimmick…

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Followed by some astral projection…

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And finishing up with some good solid firewalking.

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Following this, Chandu’s master fires up the crystal ball and shows Chandu a great evil brewing, and gives him an assignment. Think the scene near the top of most Bond films where M briefs Bond on the villain du jour and sends him off with license to kill.

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The ball clears to reveal Roxor, Egyptian madman! With Hungarian accept app installed!

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The crystal continues, showing Chandu’s brother in law, Robert Regent, at work in a laboratory. It’s mad scientist stuff, filled with inserts of flashing, whirring equipment pretty clearly of the Frankenstein art direction school.

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And what is Regent inventing? Why it’s a Death Ray! Capable of obliterating cities at a stroke around the globe.

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Success! I have to confess I was not understanding the film as I was meant to at this point. Regent is totally vibing evil mad scientist, what with the secret Egyptian lab, the gleeful exultatation at inventing a Death Ray, and then having the idea to actually call it a Death Ray. Bad dude, right? Nope. Turns out he had no idea that investing years in researching and perfecting a Death Ray (Death Ray!) might be a good news/bad news thing.

These science nerds. I tell ya what.

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No sooner is the Death Ray (Death Ray! Jeez!) successfully tested than Roxor’s minions bust in and make off with Regent and his invention. Roxor, you see wants to visit devastation to all and sundry who do not kneel down before him and worship him as their God. He’s not real flexible on this.

So, this is all awful and must be stopped, and kharma has picked Chandu to be the agent to deal with it, because his family is both partly responsible and also threatened. He must get to Egypt before the rest of his sister’s family is endangered by Roxor.

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Too late.

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“Hi Uncle Frank! What are you doing here in Egypt? Golly, are you really a full-fledged Yogi now? Can we go to Baskin Robbins to celebrate?”

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Enter Princess Nadji. She’s come to parley with Roxor for him to, y’know, not visit a holocaust upon them. She’s Chandu’s love interest in this thing. I had assumed it was just for this story, since it takes place in her principality, but the most casual of research shows she’s in pretty much the entire run of radio adventures as well, no matter where they’re set.

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Just your everyday humdrum Egyptian den of iniquity. Naturally Roxor operates out of here. Think Tony Soprano in the back room at the Bing

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Lugosi works his charm. Nadji is played by Irene Ware in her first screen credit. She’d also experience Bela’s charm playing opposite him in The Raven a couple years later.

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Herbert Mundin plays a drunk named Miggles, Frank Chandler’s orderly in the military, and who just wonder of wonders is kicking around the desert with nothing much to do. Chandu hires him to handle the light comedy, on the condition that he not drink. Chandu hypnotizes him so that every time he drinks, he will see this mini-version of himself who will take him to task for it. Mundin did plenty of character work but I recognize him as Much the (middleaged) Miller’s Son in the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood.

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There are a bunch of these scenes where Chandu plights his eternal troth to the Princess. He gets all gooey and swoony and his accent threatens to go all mid-atlantic on us. I don’t buy it any more than I would buy his protestation of love for the wicker chair over his shoulder. These scenes are timekilling drama suckers. They make the Baby Jesus cry.

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This may not look like much of anything as a still, but I wanted to call attention to this sequence all the same. This is the interior of Roxor’s mountain lair (one thing’s for sure, Roxor’s got lairs coming out his ears – city lairs, desert lairs, timeshare by the lake lairs, etc). This begins a shot, that I assume is miniature, of the camera careening down the hall at breakneck speed, nearly crashing into dead ends before taking a series of violent 90 degree turns. It’s sort of like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, culminating with a tip-down overhead of Roxor’s lab where the Death Ray has been set up. Kudos to Menzies.

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Chandu n’ pals scale the mountain and try and find their way in. Nothing happens in the scenes that immediately follow that I don’t totally love.

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Chandu finds the trick entrance, swinging Miggles out over certain death. “Put…The Candle…Back!”

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Miggles’ POV of what lies beneath – the bones of those who have fallen or been tossed overboard before. Y’know, when we think of Precodes, we mostly think of all the banned moments of naughtiness, like Warner Brothers contriving to get Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck into their underwear at every turn, or characters talking about reefer. Sure the code knocked out those things, but it also did a number on a lot of offhand violence in adventure films. This makes me think of things like King Kong eating the native, or Tarzan And His Mate, with the gorillas throwing boulders down the mountain onto a line of coolies.

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Having gained entrance, Miggles takes a break in the passageway while Chandu and Nadji go on ahead. He rests his hat on the staff of one of a line of statues. If you can’t guess exactly what’s coming, you haven’t seen many movies, or at least hate Abbott and Costello. And if you hate Abbott and Costello, I can only conclude that you hate America.

Why do you hate America?

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“Zoiks!!”

There now, wasn’t that predictable? But the predictability is part of why it works.

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Reunited, the trio get tricked into a locked room with three sarcophagi. They open to reveal…
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…three armed Amway salesmen. Chandu breaks out the gestures and piercing stare:

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Rifles turn to snakes. Much like Indiana Jones, they hate snakes.

Okay, remember back at the beginning, how Roxor stole the Death Ray and kidnapped Regent, Chandu’s brother in law? The thing that made Chandu go to Egypt in the first place? All this time since, Roxor has been torturing Regent trying to get the secret to make the ray work, because it’s just not happening. Despite torture, Regent hasn’t told. Roxor may have all the dialog and slavering stares of an evil mastermind, but as a torturer he’s world class fail.

Not for lack of trying though, and now he’s on to another tactic – he’s not even in the mountain fortress Chandu is searching, he’s moved on to another town. He has kidnapped Regent’s teenage daughter and has her put up for sale to attempt to force him to talk.

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Remember a minute ago, when I was talking about Precodes and Joan Blondell in her bloomers and whatnot? Yeah, sort of like this.

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Dear old dad, forced to watch the auction.

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This guy is representative of series of crowd shots showing the sort of dirty, horrible street Arab bidding on her blonde virginal goodness. Or else it’s Eddie Constantine, I’m not sure.

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Chandu arrives just in time to win the bidding, disguised as a bearded old Arab.

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As he escapes with his niece, Roxor uncovers the deception and sets the crowd on them.

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Chandu creates a double image of himself to hold off the crowd while they escape. One man sneaks up behind the illusion…

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The empty burnoose hangs in the air. Priceless.

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Safe at Nadji’s boat, the reliably alcoholic Miggles goes in search of the liquor cabinet, only to find his imaginary friend and personal Jiminy Cricket waiting to hector him.

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Finally Roxor hits on a winning plan! Wisely surmising that Chandu’s strength is in his eyes, he has him attacked from all sides with teargas. Teargas is to Chandu as Kryptonite is to Superman

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All these screengrabs, and I haven’t done remotely enough demonstration of Lugosi’s totally in-character mugging. Here’s one.

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Because Roxor is an ultimate villain, he of course cannot simply kill Chandu, no no. The captured magician is shackled, sealed in a sarcophagus, and tossed into the Nile. If this sounds like the setup for a Houdini trick, you would probably be right.

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Meanwhile, Chandu cuts to the chase with Regent. Unless he fixes the Death Ray right now, his entire family will die. Trapped in a cell, the floor slowly drops open beneath them to expose a gaping pit. Regent finally gives in.

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Oh look. The magician escaped. What a…surprise. Chandu “swims” back to the surface, in one of the worst dry-for-wet, fakey paper seaweed shots of all time.

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“Me? You want me to possess the Death Ray and rule the world with nothing but the worst of intentions? You like me! You really like me!”

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Roxor has orgiastic visions of the violence he’s about to perpetrate. First Paris will be incinerated! Ooh la la!
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Next, London. How dare you Brits take over the Suez Canal! Oh, yeah, after this, I’m blowing up Suez!

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Down the barrel of a Death Ray.

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Just as Roxor is about to fire the weapon, Chandu returns, and is finally able to turn his hypnotic gaze on the villain directly. “My will is greater than your will.”

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Roxor stands motionless, aware but unable to act as the machine begins to tear itself apart. Our heroes run as sparks and flames pop all around Roxor.

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The handy explosion that neatly wraps up your standard adventure narrative.

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So that’s it. No doubt Fox expected to get a series out of this, but although not unpopular, it just didn’t go over big enough to try again. It’s hard not to blame the casting of Edmund Lowe. A few years later Chandu was done as a serial, this time with Lugosi moving over to take the lead role. Yes, that’s Bela Lugosi as American Frank Chandler. No problems there!

A Gallery of Chandu’s Fellow Travelers — Mandrake, Sargon, Ibis, The Green Lama, The Shadow, and Doctor Strange:

Mandrake

Sargon

Ibis

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Shadow

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Chanduadvert

In Defense Of Robot Monster

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Cinema Styles is hosting a Blogathon this week titled “The Spirit of Ed Wood”. The jumping off point is the 50th anniversary of Plan 9 From Outer Space, but the Blogathon itself is, well, let’s let Greg speak for himself:

The idea is if you want to write about Plan 9 you can. Or Ed Wood. Or any underground, cheaply made movie that was filled with heart, or just incompetence. It can even be about good movies too. Carnival of Souls was made on the cheap in the can-do spirit of Ed Wood and actually succeeded. So basically I leave it up to you. Let the spirit of that unstoppable force of cinema, Ed Wood, be your guide, not me.

I’ve been itching to have a go at Robot Monster, and I think this is my in. When the nefarious Medved brothers proclaimed Plan 9 the worst film ever in that book of theirs, Golden Turkey Awards, or whatever it was called, Ed Wood’s profile got a serious shot in the arm some thirty years ago. A kind of groupthink Bad Movie Canon took hold, with Wood and his Plan reigning over fellow travelers like Terror of Tiny Town and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. The film that emerged as perhaps the greatest competition to Ed and his crown was Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster.

I’m going to go against the tide of history and all you other MFers: I don’t think Robot Monster is a bad movie at all. Incompetent, sure. Obviously cheap in all the wrong/right ways, a la the Woodster. But not bad. It has a distinction and saving grace most famously bad movies don’t have – it’s actually about something. Glen or Glenda is most certainly about something, I’m not sure any of the rest of the Wood oevre is. Most of the other “bad movie” usual suspects aren’t either. Heck, the runaway number one movie in America right now is Transformers 2, which, like the movie or not, is about nothing at all. Toys, how cool cars can look switching into giant robots and shooting stuff. That’s not a narrative subject, that’s about pleasantly passing two hours. There’s nothing wrong with having nothing to say, but nothing very admirable in it either.

But Robot Monster…Robot Monster. It’s about the confusions of childhood, not unlike the fondly held Invaders From Mars. Our boy, Johnny, is missing a dad, with seemingly no other males prominently in his life. He’s growing up in the Mutually Assured Destruction, duck-and-cover nuclear 50s. He doesn’t entirely know what to make of those screwy girls, and his older sister’s mature sexuality has not escaped his notice. These things – the yearning for a father, a big brother, the fear of dying young in nuclear cataclysm, and yeah, maybe even fear of girls – these are all played out in Johnny’s whacked-out dream.

And it is a dream – 63 minutes of movie, 57 of them a child’s dream sequence. Anyone who actually watches it from beginning to end understands that, but there seems to be great reluctance to think that this lets it off the hook for any of the silliness. The dialog, hackneyed from the humans, pompous nonsense from the Ro-Men, is marked by frequent non-sequitors. The gorilla suit/diver’s mask, the repetetive hillside wandering, the German-accented dad draw sneers. And the bubble machine…oh the bubble machine! All of it though – all of it – is a plausible outgrowth of this boy’s dream logic, his personal interests, his fears, and his own limitations as a “writer”. As an act of filmmaking, they are not just cheap but lazy, in an essentially Woodian way. But as an explication of a child’s subconscious, the slapdash becomes the inspired, even brave in it’s 1953 fatalism.

Let’s examine some evidence:

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The poison that is warping our young men’s minds! The first shot of the film. Nothing that comes after this beginning should be much of a surprise. It also grounds Robot Monster where I think it fits best -as a morbid children’s film. I like to think what we’re seeing here is Johnny’s personal comic collection.

While we’re on the credits, there’s some other ground we should cover:

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Yes, yes, Elmer Bernstein did the score. Which means an Oscar winner worked on it, which is more than most flicks can claim.

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One of the most charming credits ever.

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Young Johnny stalks his little sister in the park, approaching her in his bubble-blowing space helmet.

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“Gee, are you scientists?”

The kids meet a couple of men studying markings on the cave wall. They’re archaeologists, which Johnny quickly, happily catergorizes as scientists.

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They return to Mom and their older sister for a picnic lunch. Mom’s picked just the right spot, if you like desolation. We find out Dad died some time ago, and Johnny for one misses the Old Man. Or at least his familial role – he hopes they get a new dad, and wishes that dad could be a scientist. They all nap after lunch, and Johnny’s dream unambiguously kicks in. He awakens before the others and wanders back to the cave mouth.

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At first the cave looks as it did when the archaeologists were there, but as Johnny falls to sleep there again, it gains a smattering of cartoonishly scientific equipment and…a bubble machine!

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Johnny awakens and hides as Ro-Man appears! Yes, its basically a gorilla suit and an old diver’s helmet. Yes , it’s silly, cheap, incompetent, but it’s also not so out of line with shot one – the array of sci-fi monster comics. It’s not hard to imagine how Johnny’s Id dreamed this fellow up.

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Ro-Man XJ2’s devastation, leaving earth a hulking wreck of film negative. He’s a foot soldier for the Ro-Men, charged with eliminating Earth’s threat by eliminating every Hu-Man in a grand holocaust.

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He’s periodically receiving orders via viewscreen from this fellow, the Great Guidance (aka the same gorilla suit with a slightly different diver’s helmet). The Great Guidance, it turns out, is a demanding boss who just micromanages and doesn’t understand that sometimes your employees just need to feel a litte appreciated.

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Johnny with his dream family. The German-accented archaeologist is now (and seemingly always was, in the dream reality) his dad. Mom has a new, fashion-forward dress. Their home is a ruin, but they are safe because brilliant scientist dad (with brilliant scientist older sis) has constructed an electrical shield that defies detection. As is frequently the case, what seems silly must be allowed as part of the dream-logic: Johnny’s family are the last humans alive on earth, and Ro-Man just happens to have made his Earth headquarters in a cave just down the road from them? Yes. Even if competent people with budget to spare were making this, you wouldn’t change that – if we were asked to take it seriously it would be ludicrous. We’re not though – we’re asked to accept that this is how a boy would dream of his encounter with a world-destroying alien, and that’s not hard at all.

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Frustrated Ro-Man taunts the last plucky family that defies him. Johnny’s dream is both nightmarish (alone in a nuclear annhilation) but self-aggrandizing (my family is the toughest).

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The last people on Earth, Johnny’s family. They’ve been joined by George Nader (the assistant archaeologist of the pre-dream opening). He’s sweet on Johnny’s older sister and is a potential big brother. Nader is all ripped shirt, he-man tough guy, and not overcompensating in any way at all, really he’s not.

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Thank God! These 63 minute features really are a trial.

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Walk walk walk walk. Ro-man does lots and lots of this, tediously back and forth across the dry hills. The movie is padded at 63 minutes. I always like to imagine that he’s walking somewhere mundane, like he ran out of margarine back at the cave and needs to pop down to the store.

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Ro-man has decided that although he’s sworn to destroy all Hu-Mans, there’s something about Sis that makes him want to “negotiate” with her. Dad and George seem to know exactly what that’s all about and tie her up so she can’t go meet Ro-man.

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I once caught a fish this big!”

This would be the ever-so-ill-conceived silent love scene, played out entirely in made-up sign language. It’s horrible. And not to be missed.

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George and Claudia decide they want to get married before they’re all killed. Dad performs the solemn ceremony. So solemn that George takes his shirt off for it. Because he’s dead butch, make no mistake.

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Little Carla comes across Ro-Man on the trails. Compare and contrast to the first human subjects in the film, Johnny in his space helmet menacing his little sister.

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Mom and Dad find Carla’s broken body. Children die in this, which makes the film both unusual in 1953, and, like I said, pretty morbid for a kid’s film.

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Ro-Man: I am ordered to kill you. I must do it with my hands.

Sister: How is it you’re so strong, Ro-man? It seems impossible!

Man, that is poetry. Straight up, testosterone juiced poetry. Caveman, indeed!

Ro-Man catches his girl and takes her back to his cave to show her his wall paintings. He roughly rips the front of her shirt down and ties her up. Tying up big Sis is becoming a theme.

Ro-Man: I cannot, and yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do “must” and “cannot” meet? Yet, I must. But I cannot.

Okay, that is not poetry.

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On a roll now, Ro-man gets ahold of Johnny and strangles him! Strangled, in your own dream! Ok, this is where I should mention one of the complexities that I think makes Robot Monster worthy of brownie points. I think, in Johnny’s dream, he is not only himself, Johnny, he’s also Ro-Man. At least some of the time. All-powerful in his space helmet, unstoppable, cannot be told when to come in for supper, confused with Claudia’s changing relationship to boys (and his own changing relationship to girls). Owner of the galaxy’s most powerful bubble machine! Is it really such a leap between the two images below: Johnny striding over the hills play acting the villainous helmeted spaceman and Ro-Man being the villainous helmeted spaceman in the exact same park?

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The Great Guidance exults in Johnny’s death, and rains down destruction on everyone/thing left, including Ro-Man.

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A boy and his monster alter-ego, in death together. The very earth splits, and all things end.

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Johnny wakes up back at the cave with a knock on the head. All is back as it should be. Dad isn’t “Dad” anymore, he’s back to being a friendly German archaeologist. It’s a little Wizard of Oz – “and you were there, and you were there” – but only a little. All is well.

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Or is it? Ro-Man appears again, lumbering from the cave, over and over, coming right up to us before he translucently disappears.

The dream is now yours.

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I’ve completely avoided mentioning the dinosaurs until now. I don’t know where these clips come from, was it some Ernest Shoedsack production from the 20s/30s? These stop-motion dinosaurs appear at the beginning of the dream and the end. I can’t mount a defense for this. I got nothing. It’s just dumb.

A final thought – the ridiculousness of the Ro-Man costume. Let’s spare a moment for his comic book compatriots and insipirations, and remember that the illustrators of these comics had no practical limitations on their imaginations – they didn’t have to actually design to costume an actor. In short, they had no excuse:

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I came to praise Caesar, but I’ve probably just managed to bury him some more. And yet, I will always think not just fondly but at least a little well of Robot Monster. Of course it isn’t a masterpiece – I’m struggling just to get away with a reason to call it not bad. Yet neither is it anything like the worst non-Ed Wood movie ever made. I could name five Nicolas Cage movies with less redeeming value without thinking hard. With a reasonably competent director/crew, with at least a television-sized budget, and ten minutes shorter, Robot Monster could have been a fondly-remembered episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, rather than a casual subject for decades of mockery.

Asphalt (Joe May, 1929)

“We had faces then.”

Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard

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Asphalt is a late silent from Germany’s UFA studio machine, and it spends its early scenes showing off UFA’s massive indoor street sets, much as Lang’s Three Penny Opera more famously does a couple years later. At least I think it’s all/nearly all setbound – I’m no UFA expert, and would appreciate correction if wrong.

Regardless, these early scenes of cars and streets and people filling them prepare you for a certain kind of tale – reinforced by the title itself, superimposed over workmen pounding out fresh asphalt into new/repaired streets. We’re set up to see something about hardscrabble lives, a downmarket city symphony. It’s all misdirection however. The story, of a young traffic cop and the vampish jewel thief/demimondaine he happens to arrest is ultimately an acute proof of Norma Desmond’s assertion. The film is about faces faces faces in closeup closeup closeup.

That beginning, tracing Berlin as day turns to night, is technically marvellous.  It draws a Berlin emanating from our traffic cop in the middle of his intersection as if it were ground zero, and drifts along streets, showing it to be a place of both aggression and cool architectural beauty.

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Lead actor Gustav Frohlich, directing traffic from his pitcher’s mound-like perch, conducting an aria of gunning engines.

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I had to consult a German-English dictionary to figure out what “Strumpfe” meant, because at first I thought it might mean…well…strumpet.  It means stockings, hosiery.  Weimer Berlin wasn’t quite that decadent, at least in the cinema.

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Our first of oh so many medium closeups of Frohlich, as Officer Holk.  He’s immediately familiar to me as the earnest hero of Lang’s Metropolis. He’s about as earnest here, and maybe even more innocent.   He seems to have a real market in playing big saps.  The lady in white is our female lead, Betty Amann.  Her striking, often downright bizarre look is arresting, and May indulges her in a cavalcade of closeups.

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My first thought was, “I wonder what she actually looks like under that pound and a half.”  And that’s just on her eyelashes.  She bats them pretty freely too, and I’m guessing when she did they could feel the wind in Cincinnati.  Betty’s German acting career seems to begin hot on the heels of Louise Brooks’.  Like Brooks, she was an American expat, and it’s hard to imagine producer Erich Pommer wasn’t trying to spin her into Brooks 2.0.  It’s unfortunate it didn’t result in a longer, better-remembered career; along with the in-your-face hair and makeup, she does some surprisingly subtle and naturalistic physical acting in the less rambunctious scenes.

When we meet her, the Lady in White (Else) is visiting a Jeweler’s, and slyly pocketing a diamond while she charms the proprietor.  The shopkeepers tumble to it a moment after she leaves and take to the streets after her.  Traffic cop Holk, being the nearest law, makes the pinch.  Else turns on the waterworks, and the jeweler is willing to let her off, but the law is the law.  Holk takes her in.

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Or almost does.  She cries enough and tells enough of a sob story to get him to take her to her apartment first to collect some papers before booking and jail.  He relents.  Once she gets him in her apartment, she’s got to make her play – if she can seduce the simple guy, there’s no way he can bring her in.  It’s do or die.  The scene that follows is pretty astonishing if you ask me – part seduction, part Greco Roman wrestling.  It begins in the clip below with Holk pacing her sitting room, waiting for her to retrieve her things from her bedroom:

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After their encounter, the cop has returned home to the simple apartment he shares with his salt of the earth, God-fearing parents.  They are obviously a loving pair with great pride in their grown son.  Dad is an officer himself who no doubt helped him get his start in the profession.  We see the effects here:  Holk is torn by guilt about what he’s done, Else is free to reflect with, at the very least, fondness.   She may have had a practical reason for the seduction, but she enjoyed herself all the same. 

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More comparing and contrasting, with some of those great closeups mixed in:  Else is perfectly happy, lives in style, and has hired help to assist with her bath.  Holk tosses and turns in anguish and gets his poor man’s cleanup – dunking his head in a sink.

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Else has sent over Holk’s ID, which he left at her apartment, along with a present of some cigars.  He storms over to throw them back in her face.  It’s pretty obvious that the simply aren’t going to be able to keep their hands off each other, even though both make something of an effort.  Their back and forth, resisting, succumbing, and finally attempts to understand what their genuine mutual feelings might portend take up 14 straight minutes of screen time in her apartment – it’s rather remarkable, and anything that might have seemed old hat about the rudimentary plot is dislodged by genuine, heartfelt, believable romance.  The problems of two people, amounting to something more than a hill of beans. 

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At one point he makes to leave, she sadly gives him his hat, but can’t quite let go of it. Classic.  The scene goes on and on, because they go on and on.  The world has devolved to two people.

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Well, maybe not just two.  Else’s hardened, well-heeled criminal boyfriend returns from a job in Paris and catches them in the middle of…emotional intimacy, I guess you’d call it.

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The shit goes down. Bad things happen. Holk returns to his parents, and tells them he has killed. They react with their respective versions of perfect love, which for dad includes turning his son in to face the music. Look at Frohlich in that last closeup. He’s surely seen and felt more of life in the last 24 hours than he had in the preceeding 24 years, and his face shows it -he suddenly looks like he’s dropped twenty pounds of babyfat and innocence, and there’s no going back.

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Else prepares to prove her love, and worthiness.  It is a far far better thing I do, etc, etc…

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Asphalt has only the barest excuse for a plot – it’s not many films of conventional narrative that try to get by on so little incident.  And that’s its glory.  Asphalt establishes its simple set up of good cop falls for fallen woman as if the question will be who will win – will the good guy redeem the woman , or will the vamp destroy the man?  That question becomes sheerest trivia as the film transcends all that to becomes a treatise on the elemental power of love to spin lives in a heartbeat, to rip rational self-interest aside, to make better people out of anyone, even those who seemed virtuous to begin with.  It is nothing less than a vindication of the human race.  Against all odds or expectations, this builds brick by brick into a work of Poetic Realism that can sit proudly alongside the work of Murnau or Ford.

And, like Norma Desmond, it’s always ready for a closeup.

Please To Enjoy… #6

The Face of Another (Teshigahara, 1966)

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It’s one thing to blog about underappreciated films, or poorly remembered ones, culty things or beloved garbage. Writing about things you find to be real classics, canon-worthy stuff, is altogether different. It’s daunting. I’m far too much the middlebrow to think that I’m going to observe anything particularly new in Face of Another, or even reasonably comprehend/interpret everything it has to offer. All the same, it’s got so many stunner images and ideas that I can’t imagine passing up the chance to play with it a little. And of course, to recommend it.

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To put it as straightforwardly as possible, this is the story of a professional man, an engineer, whose face has been obliterated in an industrial accident. His face is wrapped, Claude Rains/Invisible Man style. His struggle is one of identity, and anger at what has been taken from him – how now does he relate to a world in which he is a monster, how to relate in a marriage when he believes his wife also sees him as a monster? How or whether to have a career, to make accomodation or demand it from others. A path to a different future is offered by a doctor (tellingly a psychiatrist) who has developed methods by which to create a fully-lifelike prosthetic face.

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This is about as existential as narrative film is likely to get, along with Solaris and the similarly themed if spectacularly less successful Vanilla Sky/Close My Eyes. The problem of the mask is whether it’s effect is to allow the wearer to reintegrate into society, or anonymously withdraw from it, and if in fact that’s a choice. The engineer, Okuyama, feels freer with the mask, but it’s simply made him look normal – he had that before, and chose entirely different behaviors. What does a face, false or real, signify about the identity and humanity behind it? Is having a face, any face, our real face, already the perfect disguise?

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Heady stuff. What I respond to firstly in the film is it’s sympathy to and connections with Victorian (and earlier) horror – Picture of Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein, even Invisible Man (no not just for the bandages). Duality, self-image, and internal battles of ids and egos were so much a part of these stories, and no less here. The doctor, who enables so much, becomes reminiscent of the Dr. Frankenstein of certain film versions of the story – although he’s not actively evil, he’s unhealthily fascinated by the nihlist possibilities available to his indentity-free creation, and is hungry to live through his patient – one gets the feeling it may be a trial run for creating a new face/identity for himself.

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Okuyama’s immediate concern is the alienation he feels from his wife. Despite her protestations and unfailing consideration, he is certain she is repulsed by him; she declines his advances in the nicest possible way, so he’s probably right. She’s played by Machiko Kyo, one the key leading ladies of 50s Japan, having been the center of the story of Rashomon for Kurosawa, a handful of big parts for Mizoguchi, including the ghostly Lady Wakasa in Ugetsu, and the actress in Ozu’s Floating Weeds. This is a late non-matronly leading role for her.

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A second, parallel story is introduced regarding a girl with her own facial problems. Teshigahara introduces with a brief use of a scope ratio:
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A gaggle of young men catcall at her and harass her to turn back to them – how this sort of thing could seem anything but horrifying to women I don’t know, but it seems rather common in Japanese cinema, moreso than in American or European films. She does turn and they get more than they bargained for.

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A monster of a different kind. Her counterpointing story of deformity and alienation takes up no more than 10-15% of screentime, yet it does much for the whole film, keeping the subject grounded in reality while the more science-fictional journey and madness of Okuyama plays out.

This girl’s story, told in just a few short periodic strokes, is the real tragedy of the piece, charting her own withdrawal from hurtful society. As we meet her, she works in an insane asylum – perhaps not the most nurturing environment. Although she seems to be practiced in trying not to be hurt by the revulsion of others, her world is one of inherent rejection. She retreats to the relative safety of assisting her brother in his labors. They seem to be family-less young people, with only each other in the world. This isolation also proves unhealthy.

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Having taken his case, the Doctor and Okuyama go in search of a face donor – trolling for poor young men who might be able to listen to a pitch like “We only wish to reproduce your pores and sweat glands” without freaking. Objectively it’s not really that bad, as copying his face will produce a non-lookalike on a different skull, and it’s not like they said, “We’d like to cut your nose off.” Yet somehow “reproduce your pores and sweat glands” manages to sound infinitely creepier. This poor random kid takes their money and they’ve got their gland swag.

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The transformation sequence begins. It is fascinating and quite the technical achievement – it’s a surprisingly convincing illusion, and Teshigahara doesn’t use many cuts – he keeps it right there in front of you.

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At around this time we get our first real view of the actor in the mask, Tatsuya Nakadai. A huge star, he’s a familiar face to anyone whose paid any particular attention to Japanese cinema in the last half-century. Westerners know him as the lead in Ran and Kagemusha for Kurosawa, the owner of the Sword of Doom, Human Condition, When a Woman Ascends The Stairs, Samurai Rebellion, the woodcutter in Kwaidan. He’s indelible for me from the first film I saw him in – Yojimbo, as Toshiro Mifune’s gun-toting nemesis. He’s an actor of great force yet great subtlety, and quite able to project charisma and cool when the part calls for it.

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Trying out various facial hair appliances. Searching for the personality to go with the face.

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Out for a test drive. Here is where the Doctor begins attempting to exact his real price – he wants the emotional details, all of them – what are you feeling, what are you thinking, what does this face make you want to do? Experimental observation, sure, but it’s quite nakedly beyond that. An unhealthy desire to live through his patient and his newfound freedom. For this mask, ostensibly made to allow him to participate freely in society, is also the means to societal freedom – no one knows him, he can go anywhere, do anything, not be identified. Normal social controls don’t apply. The Doctor encourages him to explore the possibilities, and report everything.

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Trying out a smile.

Our man begins to chart out a course – a double life. He rents not one but two apartments in the same building, posing as different people. He needs two because his mask has to come off for part of every day to avoid complications – this allows him to arrive bandaged, change into his mask and slip down the hall to apartment number two. This is the apartment he’s tricking out as his bachelor pad. It’s the multiple-dwellings version of the Mullet – business in the front, party in the back.

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Shopping at the department store for the accoutrements of a second identity. He’s having a great time. Is there any greater sign of independence than buying your own silverware?
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You could have done a version of this with the Doctor as the main character, with a different beginning/endpoint. He’s clearly a man with an agenda, flexible morality, and a lot of secrets (the affair with his nurse not particularly one of them).

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The first time they went to the bar together, Okuyama was sullen, pensive, ill-at-ease. The Doctor was gregarious. Okuyama has taken to his secret life, at a rate and depth that alarms even the ethically vague Doctor. Their moods have reversed as Okuyama’s confidence takes off. Seated at the table, they’ve literally changed places.

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Plan: Seduce own wife with second identity.

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Successful. Too successful. Fury at how quick she was to commit adultery.

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At the same time, a second encounter is occurring: while Okuyama’s alienation has generated anger with the world and a sense of being wronged, the scarred girl is enveloped by sadness and loneliness. She throws herself at her rather introverted brother. Both couplings beget tragedy and violence, one directed outward, one inward.

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Without identity, he feels immune from the controls of society, although if he were paying attention he’d notice that it really doesn’t make that much difference. The empowerment he feels is mostly psychological.

There’s so much to play with and chew on in this film. There are layers I can’t begin to analyze properly, so I won’t even try. Take some of these images presented apropos of nothing I understand:

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The Doctor’s office (always an artificial Brechtian-looking place anyway) with a door open showing a giant head of hair blowing.

And this. Before:

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After:

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Teshigahara’s most famous film is Woman In The Dunes, which, like Face of Another, is based on a novel by Kobo Abe and adapted by the author. For whatever reason, that film didn’t resonate with me as this one does. Perhaps it’s to do with a greater reliance on “in your face” symbology and allegory, perhaps it’s simply because Face tugs so insistently at my fondness for classic horror. Regardless, this gets a strong recommendation.

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Please To Enjoy… #5

Judex (Franju, 1963)

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Over at Moon In The Gutter, Jeremy Richey has declared February his month to note favorite films Missing In Action on Region 1 DVD. This post is intended as a contribution to that.

A qualification: it is possible to get Judex in R1, as a DVD-R. Sinister Cinema makes one available. I would imagine its kinda greymarket at best. Also, having seen their release, I couldn’t help but think “this seems like an excellent film, I sure hope I get to actually see it one day.” In other words, awfully poor print. Sinister provides a useful stopgap service, and thank god there’s people like this who operate on the notion that movies exist to be seen, but in my mind Judex is not really available in R1 in any useful sense. How fortunate then that in R2-land, Masters of Cinema bailed us out last year with a lovely edition (itself a port of a French release).

Franju’s Judex exists, of course, as a reflection of Feuillade’s 1916 Judex. Franju was at least part film historian, helping found the French Cinemateque, so his interest in Feuillade and the first French cinema classics is no great surprise. His first wish was to do Fantomas instead, but circumstance forced him to settle for remaking/revisualizing Judex.

The film is awash with nods both to the cinema of 1916 and to the time itself – there are intertitles, iris fade ins/outs and no small number of wordless scenes. Watching in French without subtitles, you actually lose only a little of real consequence. Judex, as a proto-costumed hero, has his equivalent to the Batcave and all it’s gadgetry, yet it relies on turn of the century technologies.

This is not a rehash of Feuillade or a simple trip down pulp memory lane however – Judex, like Franju’s much more famous Eyes Without a Face, has a romantic’s heart, and pursues visual poetry out of these cheap adventure constructs. This is a lyrical and warm film, two qualities I suspect would be undetectable from the script. Surrealism, too, has something of a home here.

It stands on its own, deserves an R1 release, and with greater visibility would no doubt start popping up on best-of lists.

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A shoutout for Feuillade. Note the decorative yet antique looking credits.

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The camera’s iris opens to begin the film as in many a silent. This is Favraux the banker, a scoundrel who has tricked and thieved his way to wealth and a veneer of respectability. The target of Judex’ justice.

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Judex crashes Favraux’ costume party in this spectacular bird mask. Judex is played by american Channing Pollock, a very successful magician who had only recently taken up acting. Magic is a natural element to make part of Judex’ schtick, and that’s what he does here – one imagines these are some of Pollock’s regular dove tricks.

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This equally-striking bird mask is inhabited by Edith Scob, who owned the titular Eyes Without a Face in Franju’s horror success of a few years earlier. Here she plays Favraux’ innocent daughter Jacqueline. Judex conspires to cause Favraux to drop dead exactly at midnight at his party, just as he had warned.

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Except he’s not dead, just drugged to feign death. Judex has a retinue of assistants who help him steal the body and take it to the Batcave…er, his hideout.

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Channing Pollock, minus bird mask or other disguises.

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Edith Scob as Jacqueline, without her bird mask.

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Diana, the governess-turned kidnapper, murderer, whatever needs doing, played with relish by Francine Berge. Catsuits and domino masks, keeping with the superhero theme. Diana, despite being by action a simple rapacious villain, actually seems rather poignant – there are moments when you see a woman who’s simply not going to accept her lot to be poorer than all these wealthy jerks and has decided she will gut anyone to take it from them. If you could break down “Greed” into subcategories, she might be under a heading called “Rage at Standard Wealth Distribution.”

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Judex uses his internal surveillance system built of a network of mirrors to observe his prisoner.

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He uses a similar system and a projector to make this message appear on the ceiling of his prisoner’s jail cell.

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Never trust a nun.

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Nice touch.

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Another nod to Feuillade.

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Firing up the surveillance device.

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Judex tracks down the baddies.

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In the clutches of Diana!

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The last reel, and as we head into the big finish, this bit of weirdness happens. So the guy on the right is a rather fumbling private detective (wearing a deerstalker!) who weaves throughout the story. He has common cause with Judex and is trying to help, but surmises correctly that he is in trouble at the top of the tall building adjacent. Along comes a straggling wagon of circus performers, including Euro starlet Sylva Koscina (left), an acrobat. The private eye knows her, and with just a sketchy idea of the trouble above, she happily starts climbing the walls to go help Judex.

It may be observed that this doesn’t entirely make sense, or at least is absurdly forced. Yes. There’s a fair amount of that going around, much involving the bumbling detective. Some of that’s no doubt due to shrinking down so much story (Fueillade’s serial was 300 minutes after all), most probably because it’s just that kind of movie – one man’s contrivance is another’s serendipity.

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The acrobat ascends.

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Judex’ men hit the scene and follow suit.

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Acrobat versus Diana, in a catfight on the roof.

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Please To Enjoy…#4

The Dance “One Alone” from Deep In My Heart (Donen, 1954)

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As the musical was such a successful genre for MGM in the 40s, they looked for new and different ways to exploit it. The idea of a review based on the work of a given songwriter or songwriting team wasn’t necessarily new, particularly on stage, but it was appealing to a studio with a flock of musical talent under contract. Instead of a musical starring two or three such people doing 10 songs, you could have 10 or 12 stars combining to do one or two each. So far so good; where things got perilous was when they decided to tie the songs together by turning the films into biographies of the songwriters in question, which they could hang the songs on – “And then Rogers and Hart wrote this, and then they wrote that, etc.”

These were typically not very interesting people to make movies about, and in those areas where maybe they were a little interesting (say, the sexuality of Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter) the films had to ignore or whitewash. There was Til The Clouds Roll By for Jerome Kern songs, Words and Music for Rogers and Hart. The Ziegfeld Follies was along the same lines. By 1954, as the MGM musical was getting a little passe, they were scraping the dramatic bottom of the barrel, trying to make us care about the life of composer Sig Romberg in Deep In My Heart. At least he was dead and didn’t have to watch Jose Ferrer’s cavortings in his name. Frequently the subjects of these things were still living. A lot of the big MGM names that had peopled these films in the past had moved on or had bigger fish to fry at the studio – No Judy Garland, no Fred Astaire. People like Tony Martin and Jane Powell were supposed to take up the slack, but it wasn’t the same. Although he composed some lovely things, much of Romberg’s music sounds a little old fashioned, even within the realm of old Hollywood musicals. Much of it is rendered in the style my wife happily calls “scream singing” – a sort of faux opera approach.

The dancers fare a little better. Gene Kelly appears, hoofing onscreen for the first and only time with his brother Fred. And Cyd Charisse dances a pas de deux with James Mitchell. This is the piece I want to highlight. Ignore the rest of the film if you must – you won’t miss much. But I think this Charisse/Mitchell sequence is one the very top tier achievements of the MGM musical. It’s obviously not as ambitious as half the stuff from Singin’ In The Rain, An American in Paris, The Bandwagon – but the simplicity itself is part of what I feel makes it the equal or near-equal of anything from any of those films.

Simplicity, plus some straightforward excellence in costuming and set, and something quite unexpected – eroticism. Again, this is MGM. This is not not NOT in a million years where you’d expect to see the likes of this. Maybe some hotblooded Mediterranean musical cinema that never quite existed, but not MGM. Romance sure, but not sex – not the studio of the virtually sexless Garland, Astaire, both Powell girls, Kelly, Rooney, Reynolds, O’Connor, and on and on.

Cyd Charisse was the exception. Whenever partnered with Astaire or Kelly, they always looked a little scared to death of her, Astaire especially. She looks like she’d eat them alive, which of course is the vibe they play up and which made her famous in Singin’ In The Rain. She’s partnered here with James Mitchell, who did lots of small dance parts and supporting work in the 50s, but was never what you’d call a star. I always associate him with playing the Chamberlain, Yul Brynner’s main man in The King And I. I’ll bet he wished he could have had a crack at playing the King himself. He’d probably have made a pretty fair job of it. There’s two parts to this number – first Cyd sings “One Alone”, taken from Romberg’s Broadway show and film “Desert Song”. I say she “sings”, but as usual she’s just lip-synching to what someone with the actual skill set had already recorded. The singing part is over quickly, James Mitchell enters and then we get to the business:

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I don’t really know many details of the story for Desert Song, or if it’s representation here is even trying to be faithful. Either way, what’s happening on screen isn’t hard to interpret. The Woman arrives at this grand residence in the desert. She removes her cloak, moves around the place, waiting (which enables the song). The Man arrives, no doubt keeping a date. I suspect their meeting is supposed to be on the downlow.

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Sultry dancing, back and forth. Well, it looks like dancing, but is there much chance it’s representing anything other than fornication?
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Eventually he seems to lose interest in her. He lies back prone on the floor, contemplating the ceiling. If he had a cigarette, he’d undoubtedly be smoking it right now. After a moment’s pause, she seems to accept that. She retrieves her cloak and leaves, back into the desert night.

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I feel wholly on my own rating this as high as I do. I can’t find anyone championing this number as being overly special. And three whole volumes of That’s Entertainment! didn’t come within a million miles of sniffing at it. I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. As luck would have it, I think it probably is art.

 

Please To Enjoy… #3

The Murder of Nancy the Prostitute, from

Oliver Twist (Lean, 1948)
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In professional wrestling, it’s called a faceturn. The etymology of the term is this: good guy wrestlers are referred to backstage as “babyfaces”, or simply “faces”. Bad guys are called “heels.” When a heel suddenly and dramatically turns on his fellow heels in support of a face, he effectively turns into a face himself. A faceturn.

One of the great faceturns in film and I suppose literature is when Nancy, the prostitute common-law wife of the altogether bad Bill Sikes decides to turn on Sikes and her childhood crime mentor Fagin, attempting to rescue young Oliver Twist from their clutches. In David Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist , Nancy is played by Kay Walsh, and it seems her contribution to the film is underrated. She’s hardly the flashiest character in the story, but she may be the most emotionally important one. Readers of the novel probably identify with Oliver, but I suspect part of why that works is that in any novel, you partly conjure the character yourself, and can mentally avoid visualizations that might harm that identification. Trickier in film – an adult viewer has the image of Oliver defined for him, and it is a child, who looks a specific way, and he’s presented over and over. Hard to forget that you are not he. It’s very easy to feel for him and want to help, but unless you have some childhood memory of neglect or privation it may be hard to identify with Movie Oliver. This is where Nancy comes in handy – she’s a grownup, with grownup feelings and foibles. Of the adults in the film, she alone knows both dark and light, the rest being all straight bad’uns n’ good’uns. She presents the moral compass and satisfies our urge to help Oliver.

Now this is all tricky as an acting job and where I say Kay Walsh really helps this version of Oliver Twist succeed so well. She starts out working against Oliver at the request of Sikes/Fagin without a second thought. At some point she puts herself between the boy and his oppressors, and its not much articulated why she does it. Walsh has to sell us on her identification with Oliver, her maternal instincts, her realization that if a child has a path to avoid their life he jolly well should, and her own strength to stand against these possible killers. She has to do this without a lot of words or obvious motivation.

She succeeds. We root for Nancy and she is a plausible film savior for Oliver because Walsh makes her so. When this promptly leads to Bill Sikes coming to kill her, it’s the moral pit of the film. Not anything that happens to Oliver, it’s what happens to Nancy that is the ultimate crime.

Her murder scene is virtuosic work from Lean, his scriptwriter, his editor, everyone really. Ironically Kay Walsh contributes littlish to it, as she doesn’t last for long, and much of what does happen to her isn’t shown. It doesn’t need to be. The character’s moral presence still dominates even as a stiff in a room. This is a big part of where the 60s musical totally fails for me – a fluff Nancy, who’s fate doesn’t really matter for much amid the bouncy songs. Moral judgement is tossed out the window.

The scene is about four minutes long, and strikes me as its own little masterclass. If you want to make a case for Lean, you might just as well start here as soon as any bit of Lawrence of Arabia. Let’s have a look:

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Nancy sleeping in their hovel. She awakens to Bill Sikes looming over her.

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At first she’s happy to see him, this because she actually loves him. She’s managed to not give up his name in her attempts to save Oliver – her work is keeping Bill from doing bad, not injuring him in any way. Then she sees the violence in his eyes.

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She’s dragged from her bed by the hair and hammered to the ground by Sikes’ fist.

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Sikes retrieves a cudgel and swings down on her. This is where Nancy starts to die. Sikes’ dog watches, and here begins one of the great canine performances of all time. Really, the dog is great.

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The dog flings himself at the door and scrapes madly at it, trying to escape the murder scene. He looks like he may kill himself trying to get away. The blows continue.

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The dog keeps tearing, contorting, and a dissolve takes us out into the quiet of night.

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Night gives way as the lampman does his bit. Lean & co. stage an interesting triptych of encroaching day – three matched shots (not quite successive, but close) of new light coming through windows. First the grand stained glass of a church, next a random person’s house in the neighborhood, then the flapping curtains of Sikes’ place.

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Sikes has been sitting there staring at the body all night. The dog…the dog is shaking with fear. This is just a still, so it doesn’t come across, but he’s shaking, and presumably has been for hours. Did I mention the dog is great?

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We get some odd shots, trying to show but not show Nancy’s dead body. They end up being suggestive of dismemberment, making it all the creepier. He covers her with a blanket so he can finally stop staring.

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He regards the traces of her…her little table of a woman’s things, the bed they shared. The guilt is consuming him. Sikes’ motivation in most everything it seems to me is fear. Fear of capture drove his violence against her in the first place, and now guilt and new fear starts to root. For all his menace, Sikes is a very weak fellow.

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The camera pushes in on Sikes’ face, the lighting darkens everywhere but right on his face, the telltale old-time movie sign of internal monologue. He imagines Nancy telling him that Fagin lied , she did no wrong. Now this is sort of true, Fagin at least misled him. But Sikes can’t know that. He’s mentally trying to confer the guilt and responsibility for this murder onto Fagin.

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He fantasizes about killing Fagin with the cudgel, and that beaky fellow lying on the floor dead. But it is not Fagin. It’s still Nancy.

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As Sikes opens the door to leave, the dog bolts out and runs like mad. Sikes heads for his accounting with Fagin, and with Fate.

Wonderful stuff, really.

Please To Enjoy… #2

The Swimmer (Frank Perry)

Admonition about spoilers is heavily in effect.

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At first, the Swimmer is invisible, gliding through the forest past deer and owl, bushes rustling as he passes. Eventually he takes form, like a ghost made corporeal. For people who believe in ghosts, or like to think about them, it is often said the ghosts don’t understand they are dead, they wander through their past as if looking for something or someone, or as if it were still the salad days of their youth.

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He emerges from the woods directly into a backyard, a wealthy one, with a pool. He dives straight in and swims easily yet with strength. After a few laps, he is met – wherever he is, he is welcome.

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They are friends of old, this is their pool. They’ve not seen him for two years, how is he? Fine just fine. Just passing through the neighborhood. The Swimmer is accustomed to this wealth, and he charming, and a man’s man. He is, as Tom Wolfe would have it, a Master of the Universe.

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As he gazes over the neighborhood, and the large houses across it he knows so well, a realization hits him. The houses all have pools, all the way over the ridge and beyond.

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“Pool by pool, they form a river all the way to our house”

“I could swim home,” he tells his friends. They speak pleasantly back at him, but as one might humor a disturbed person.

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Undeterred, he begins (continues?) his Homeric odyssey, going from yard to yard, pool to pool. He encounters old girlfriends, the homes of childhood chums, pool parties, and Gorgons (one party guest is played by Joan Rivers). He exults in his strength, challenging a horse to a footrace. Master of the Universe.

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At one home, the pool is manned by a group of lazing young people. One of them is the now-grown daughter of an old friend. He’s shocked to see her childhood gone. After a swim, she joins him – a companion on the voyage.

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Sure of his own virility, his youth, his command, he plays with her, attempting to impress her with his speed and strength. But he’s not so young, and not so invulnerable, and not so appropriate. Playtime’s over, and she’s going back.

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Even an empty pool is a good place for a swim, for those with imagination.

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Another party, a big one, the kind The Swimmer is used to being invited to and being the life of. This time he’s crashing. The ghost is crashing.

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Battling monsters. The highway in his path, the community pool. This is where the proletariat swim. Proletariat water. Highly chlorinated. Madness. The easy smile has faded. Fear has entered his countenance.

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Maybe the world is not his to Master. Maybe it’s not such a beautiful day for a swim after all. Maybe it’s raining. Maybe some houses belong to the ghosts.

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It wouldn’t take much to dismiss this adaptation of John Cheever’s story (or the original story for that matter) as just far too odd a central conceit, too much to take seriously. But try just a little, won’t you? If it’s difficult, mentally replace Burt Lancaster with GW Bush. Imagine it’s him drifting along as if he owns the place, as if Privilege was a first principal, as if there were no questions or difficulties in life. Then imagine it is he having the veil removed, and being forced to acknowledge that actions have consequence, and that birth and breeding are no protection against reality and responsibility.

There, isn’t that better?

Please To Enjoy… #1

Cobra Woman, 1944 (Siodmak)

This certainly has its following, not least for fans of Maria Montez.  Maria is, I’m led to believe, a minor, esoteric flavor of gay icon.  I’m not sure she’s that compelling, but the film sure is.  Around this time Universal was doing some really lovely technicolor on what must have been a relative shoestring.  The story is a mash-up of The Man in the Iron Mask, She, and Thief of Bagdad.  More pertinently, it is completely wild-ass crazy-eights barking mad.  All Hail King Cobra!

   

Lon Chaney Jr, deep in thought

Lon Chaney Jr, deep in thought

   
   
   
   

Lots of rope swinging in this flick

Lots of rope swinging in this flick

   
   
   
   
   
   
   

LouiseBrooks theme byThemocracy