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Myth Happens

Date: 2015-12-01 05:29
Subject: Stick with me, snooks, and I'll stake you to a carload of hats
Security: Public
Music:Saint Eve, "While the City Sleeps"

Rabbit, rabbit. Let's talk about Phantom Lady (1944).

This is the flawed B-picture, the New York noir with two indelible scenes, a female protagonist with unusual agency, and some maddening script problems. It is almost a very good movie. It was directed by Robert Siodmak from Cornell Woolrich's 1942 novel of the same name and produced by Joan Harrison, a former Hitchcock screenwriter and one of Hollywood's few female producers of the time. The cast is A-list to B-plus and the cinematography takes high-contrast advantage of the nascent noir genre to create evocative, artificial tableaux of a city everyone seems to haunt and hardly anyone seems to live in. The sound work is equally expressionistic, frequently conveying key points from offscreen with dialogue or sound effects alone. We spent most of the intermission trying to figure out how we could have fixed the plot.

The premise is crackerjack. On the outs with his wife, engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) spends the evening at a Broadway revue with a melancholy stranger in a memorable hat (Fay Helm; the hat is credited to Kenneth Hopkins as "Phantom Hat Creator") before returning home to find that his wife has been strangled with one of his own ties. He should have an ironclad alibi. He has an existential nightmare. He doesn't know his date's name; he met her at a bar and she insisted on anonymity. Everyone the police interview, from the bartender who served them to the cabbie who drove them to the theater to the star of the revue who gave the stranger the stink-eye from the stage—they were wearing the same hat—either can't recall her positively enough for an identification or outright denies there was a woman with him at all. His trial is a formality. He's convicted in a montage of jeering cross-examination and silently furious reaction shots of his devoted secretary, played by the excellent Ella Raines. Her name is Carol, but everyone calls her "Kansas" after the home state whose accent she has long left behind; she has a curious, dark-browed, deerlike face whose quiet, scary intensity the film will make much of. Without resources or assistance, she decides to clear the name of the man she loves by finding his mysterious alibi, the "phantom lady" whose absent presence already dominates the film. Eventually she will acquire an ally in the inspector who closed the case against her boss (Thomas Gomez, whom I like wherever I find him), but she never yields center stage to him; the focus remains on her resolve, her courage, her sometimes foolhardiness, and her downright ruthlessness at times. Even when the story starts to disintegrate around her, Raines never melts like a heroine who's ready for her man to step in.

Besides Raines' performance, the film's strength lies in two early excursions into the nighttime underworld of New York where Scott and the phantom lady so briefly crossed paths. In the first, Kansas sets her sights on the bartender who knows more than he told the police. Night after night, she buys a whiskey and water and sits at the far end of his bar, not drinking, not speaking, staring at him until closing time, passionless and terrifying as a Fury. "She's been sitting there all night," he protests to his boss with a nervous strain in his voice, but the man sees only a regular customer, an unaccompanied girl trying to catch the barman's eye for a refill, not the petrifying head of the Gorgon. The night she follows him home, through rain-silvered streets and a deserted elevated station where circles of streetlight isolate hunter and prey like spotlights, her heels clicking inexorably behind his quickening footsteps, she begins to frighten the audience: we can't tell what she wants from him, if it's information or purely vengeance for his part in the framing of the man she loves. She corners him for the first, but she gets the second as lagniappe. Tell me how many seventy-one-year-old movies you've seen where the most dangerous thing on the city's streets is a woman alone and unarmed. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) pointed in this direction with Margaret Tallichet's pursuit of Peter Lorre, but didn't go as far: Jane could be menaced by her quarry when his true nature was revealed. Kansas' never has a chance.

The second setpiece is even stronger. Because Scott remembered the phantom lady catching the eye of the drummer at the revue, Kansas gets the man's information from Inspector Burgess and makes herself over into musician bait, a "hep kitten" in tawdry, slinky black—fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, cheap jewelry, a beauty mark and a mouth full of cracking gum—slung into a front-row seat with one shapely ankle tapping out the time, heavily darkened eyes come-hithering at the grinning little tomcat behind the kit. He turns out to be Cliff Milburn (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a sharp-suited firecracker of a trap drummer with the sexual confidence of a man six inches taller and less prone to ironic character death. He talks a mile a minute and mostly jive; he takes her to a private cellar room where a wild jam session is underway and shows off for her with a sexually charged drum solo that I am amazed got past the censors in '44. Seriously, they can't have been looking at the screen. The jazz quintet whose rhythmic shadows crowd the room even closer and smokier than its cinderblock walls are very hot and very good. Cliff starts with a cocky, promising grin, flashing the sticks like an obvious metaphor; as he picks up the pace, his grin tightens, his face sweats, his eyes widen. Kansas stands over him, laughing, but we cannot hear the sound over Cliff's pyrotechnic frenzy. It is a bravura display. He's as good a drummer as he thinks he is1 and he's building to a climax in every sense of the word. She jerks her head, slides her eyes toward the door. He throws away his sticks, grabs his coat and hat, and follows her swiftly out of the room, pausing only at the door to doff his hat to his fellow musicians as the piano skitters and the bass thrums on. The audience may now smoke their cigarettes if they've brought them.

I regret to report that the film pretty much collapses after this scene. There are two substantial problems with the remainder of Phantom Lady and they are, unfortunately, the identities of the murderer and the eponymous lady herself. The former is glaringly obvious from the moment the character is mentioned in absentia; he's confirmed as soon as he appears, making every succeeding scene a superfluous cat-and-mouse between Kansas and a character whom every law of detective fiction screams that she should know better than to trust. I believe the film wrote itself into this corner, whereas the novel concealed the killer's identity until the climax, but I don't know what the scriptwriter thought he would gain by tipping his hand. It does nothing for the tension and in fact rather undercuts Kansas, whose bullshit detectors have been surprisingly sensitive up to now. I'm not sure who to blame for the film's efforts at criminal psychology, a box of pseudo-psychiatric jargon that leaves Franchot Tone striving manfully with a mixed assortment of facial tics and gazing reverently at his hands as though someone slipped him 'shrooms between takes. The phantom lady herself is built up to such a pitch of nearly supernatural mystery that almost any explanation would underwhelm, but it really doesn't help that the one we get comes so far out of left field that it appears to belong to another genre and, more fatally, bears no thematic relevance to the rest of the plot. The haunted stranger who won't tell anyone their name is as potent a figure of noir as the cynic with a bruised past or the morally ambiguous lover. I'm not saying she should have turned out a femme fatale, but rushthatspeaks and I both independently formed the idea that she was on the run from a noir plot of her own, which seemed such an appropriate doubling of Kansas' quest that it jarred all the more when the script effectively reduced the phantom to a red herring. Lastly, and I realize this is more of a personal preference than a structural complaint, it disappointed me that after two knockout mini-investigations of suborned witnesses, we never got another. I would have paid good money for a real scene between Raines and Aurora Miranda,2 the temperamental revue star who denies ever owning the same hat as anyone else. Instead Tone's Marlow (no relation) comes to dominate the proceedings and he is, frankly, the least interesting character in the picture. I saw better psychopaths last week.

All of this said, the film is worth seeing if you can find it. Kansas is a striking heroine in a genre that tends to allow its bad girls more agency than its good ones, and it is especially entertaining from a contemporary perspective that she is rewarded for her efforts with the plot candy of her love object—Scott is not without personality, but after the first twenty minutes his primary narrative function is to motivate Kansas' heroism. Ella Raines has gone on my list of actresses to pay attention to and Elisha Cook, Jr. is a standout. The basement jazz scene is justly famous and worth the ticket price alone.3 Naturally, to the best of my knowledge, Phantom Lady is not available on DVD in this country. Somebody pester Universal.

Next up, Black Angel (1946). This gig courtesy of my hep backers at Patreon.


1. Credit for Cliff's drumming goes either to Dave Coleman or Buddy Rich, according to IMDb or the rest of the internet. The point is that it's world-class. Five foot five he may be, with a face like a dissipated choirboy, but Cliff is the real thing. Most of Cook's characters only wish they were. It's a nice change, even if it's a short-lived triumph. Rush-That-Speaks and I almost brought an Elisha Cook, Jr. bingo card to the theater on the assumption that whoever he played was going to meet a sticky end—shot, poisoned, sexually demeaned, set up, sent up, probably knifed sometime . . . We'd neglected to include "strangled" on the list of possible fates, but we'd still have been right.

2. Carmen's younger sister. She gets a flamboyantly Hollywood-Latin number called "Chick-ee-Chick" about which probably the less said the better, except that she puts it over like a pro and the ability to carry off ridiculous hats plainly runs in the family. She has a vibrant voice, an expressive face, and I was depressed to come home and find that her most notable appearance on film was Disney's The Three Caballeros (1944).

3. I didn't realize until I was done with this review that it is apparently impossible to mention Phantom Lady in any critical context without discussing the basement jazz scene. I cannot argue with this convention. It was a hell of a thing to see. In the same way that Eli Wallach has been known to serve as a life-changing experience, I recommend the experience of viewing Elisha Cook, Jr. as a dynamo of raw sexual energy. I do not expect it to happen again any time soon. Also, considered as a five-minute musical interlude, it's just some really good hot jazz.

12 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2015-11-29 18:29
Subject: My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer
Security: Public
Music:Timber Timbre, "No Bold Villain"

[I was writing this post at four in the morning and my brain fell over. I finished it just now. Please enjoy several thousand words on film noir. I don't know why I bothered setting myself a minimum wordcount with this project.]

My sleep schedule is a disaster. Tonight rushthatspeaks and I reorganized half the kitchen shelves and then went out for dinner. I am very tired, but I am also very tired of not talking about movies.

The great thing about seeing Strangers on a Train (1951) on the same bill with Double Indemnity (1944), as I did last night at the Brattle with jinian and Rush-That-Speaks, is that as a double feature they deliver two complementary portraits of very different modes of sociopathy. I am not talking about Barbara Stanwyck.

And now I suppose I get the big speech, the one with all the two-dollar words in it.Collapse )

I am afraid this is the somewhat cut-down version of the compare-and-contrast I wanted, but Phantom Lady (1944) and Black Angel (1946) are playing at the Brattle in about an hour and I can't guarantee I won't be thinking about them by the time I come home. I had never seen Strangers on a Train and I thought it was terrific; I had seen Double Indemnity once about eight years ago and I was delighted to see it again. I did not expect the thematic link between the movies, so good job there, Brattle programmer. This dual review brought to you by my perfectly stable backers at Patreon.

14 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2015-11-11 05:30
Subject: I'm a civil engineer, but they changed the government, so I had to go to work
Security: Public
Music:Estelle, "Stronger Than You"

I try not to be that reviewer who swears all the time. I'm not good enough at it. You want primo-grade narrative profanity, read Better Myths. I am more likely to stick to "Flipping Hades Terwilliger!" as an expression of my amazement (and affection for Daniel Pinkwater) than to attempt a roll call of Anglo-Saxon intensifiers. Nevertheless, when I say that I have just finished watching a movie whose heroic climax involves Edward Everett Horton machine-gunning the oncoming Tartar hordes while wearing more eyeliner than the rest of the cast put together, Marlene Dietrich knock-off included, I hope you will all join me in a resounding chorus of "WHAT THE SHIT."

The movie in question is Roar of the Dragon (1932), a pre-Code pulp adventure which plays like a bargain-basement cash-in on Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1933). Instead of Dietrich, we get Danish-born Gwili Andre as the mysterious white woman with elegant cheekbones and a murky past; instead of Clive Brook's Army doctor, masculine top billing goes to Richard Dix's hard-drinking riverboat captain; instead of a train captured by Chinese rebels, the close-quarters setting is a hotel besieged by Manchurian bandits. The guests are the usual assortment of colorful characters, including Dudley Digges as the riverboat's blowhard owner, ZaSu Pitts as a fretful Midwestern matron, Arline Judge as a cornet-playing chorus girl, and Horton as the civil engineer turned hotel clerk whose apprehensive stoop and bemused double-takes are recognizable even in long shot. I can't tell if C. Henry Gordon increases or diminishes the Orientalism playing a Russian in charge of a band of Chinese central casting Tartars, but either way he wants revenge on both Andre and Dix—the one fled his bed, the other bit his ear off during a pre-story, evidently no-holds-barred brawl. To no one's surprise but their own, the initially incompatible leads become an item during the course of the siege, to the point where she volunteers to sacrifice herself sexually to save his life. I have no idea of the film's production history, but it is impossible not to view it in some degree as the Asylum mockbuster of its day. But let's return to Edward Everett Horton.

Horton's sexuality is not a vexed question. All biographical sources I've been able to find on him for years indicate that his long-term partner was Gavin Gordon, whom I saw this spring in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1932). His screen persona, however, was based on a dither of plausible deniability between high-strung ineffectual fussiness and actual effeminacy—in pre-Code films and after, he could be found among the most nervous of nellies, not flaming, but easily flustered, a man whose masculinity was constantly questioned but never definitively debunked. This is the mode Dragon's mild-mannered Busby begins in, a middle-aged makeshift concierge already spooked by the political situation and rattled by hotel guests' demands for information he doesn't have. He's nominally straight, but terrible at it; his diffident declaration of intent toward Judge's Bridgeport1 ("I'm thinking of marrying her") is shot down not only by the girl's preoccupied deflection ("Thinking's awfully bad for people with weak backs"), but by a parting kibitz from Dix's Carson, who has just made a much more confident pass in the same direction ("My, what a rough Daddy you'll make"). When she's assigned care and feeding of a passel of Chinese war orphans, he's the one who discovers a goat on the premises and insists on reserving the milk for the children alone. It takes him half the film to learn to carry a rifle the right way round. I am not joking about the eyeliner. I can't tell if it's meant to make him look careworn, youthful, emo, or what, but the results are the kind of stylized makeup that would have passed without comment in the silent era and in a sound film cause the viewer to wonder if anyone bothers with subtext anymore. Most of Horton's roles would leave him here, stealing scenes with precision-timed bewilderment. Roar of the Dragon doesn't, which is the only reason I am writing about it tonight. He's such a reliable comic actor, I genuinely enjoy seeing him get a character arc: it's the standard milquetoast-to-manhood, but assigning it to an actor of Horton's particular strengths produces some fascinating results.

For starters, he never turns square-jawed. Busby can still undercut himself, even in moments of assertiveness: confronting the riverboat owner over an exceptionally low act of theft, he seethes, "I have a strangely vicious desire to cut you in pieces and use you for bait—if I knew how to fish!" Bridgeport has no trouble throwing him off balance, meeting his admiring "You're like a picture on a magazine cover!" with the cheerfully provoking "No, you're wrong. I'm wearing too many clothes." Having bluffed his way into staying behind as a diversion at the finale, he cringes at Carson's apparent rebuke—"So we all go out here together, eh? What a first-class liar you are!"—until some awkward male bonding over cigarettes makes it clear that the newly sober captain is deeply touched and grateful for the clerk's choice. Even at the apex of his bravery, he still glances nervously around the windy walls of the abandoned hotel; he holds a pistol like it's more talisman than weapon. It is an endearing anxiety rather than a strictly comic one, a weirdly realistic touch among all the boy's own boilerplate.2 I find it harder to believe that his transformation is motivated by love, at least for the socially appropriate character. The dialogue insists on his feelings for Bridgeport, but their sweetest and most natural scene together is a moment of found family rather than a torrid clinch: while she wrangles orphans, he offers to play some music. She expresses indifference, he switches on the radio and gets Irving Berlin's "Always"; looks at her uncertainly until she gives him an approving wink, whereupon he cranks up the volume and she puts her tongue out at him, smiling. Cross-legged on the floor—out of sight of the latticed windows through which Voronsky's snipers have been taking potshots—he looks for once relatively at ease, tucking into a bowl of leftover noodles while Bridgeport settles one orphan for a nap and looks around for another. The tragedy that strikes a few moments later impels him toward the machine gun that started me on this whole mishegos, which is fair enough from the standpoint of the siege, but I can't read it as a romantic act. He dies in Richard Dix's arms. Saying something heterosexual, but still. This entire plotline fascinates me. It delivers such mixed messages and I can't tell which to assign to the writing, the acting, or the interaction of the two. I'm not even sure the finished film knows what it's doing. I'd love to know what Horton thought. I would also like to ask his eyeliner, which deserved a supporting credit of its own.3

I really want to be clear that I am not recommending this movie on its own merits. The plot is a pile of Orientalist action clichés, while the script is full of unintentional punch lines, as when Carson tells Natasha, "You better go inside while I explain to everybody just what a tough spot we're in," and we fade directly to Carson indoors, addressing the assembled guests: "You might as well know, we're in a tough spot."4 On a narrative level, I appreciate that Bridgeport is not a natural mother and her first attempt at establishing a "kindergarten" in the besieged hotel is filled with crying toddlers; on an aesthetic level, that was an entire scene full of crying toddlers and it went on forever. Gwili Andre has bone structure comparable to Dietrich's, but that does not mean she shares the same ability to act. Richard Dix plays a less clean-cut character than he did in The Lost Squadron (1932), which at least gives the audience something to look at that isn't his stalwart jawline, but I still found myself utterly failing to care whether he would get over his alcoholic indifference in time to save his fellow Caucasians. ZaSu Pitts is amusing, but ultimately wasted on her flightily helpless role when I have seen her be just as scatterbrained and much less deadweight in Going Highbrow (1935). I don't even know what to do with the late scene in which a Jewish shopkeeper, attempting to sneak food to the starving hotel guests, is caught by Voronsky's men, tied to a pole, and set afire while alive—I'm sure I wasn't intended to read it as a one-person pogrom, but I still found the relevant thirty seconds uncomfortable to watch. Please understand that I am delighted that this film exists in the world; I am always glad when more survives of an art form than just the canon, or even the acknowledged counterculture secondary gems. The fact that the Golden Age of Hollywood could produce mediocre to dreadful movies is curiously warming to me. It's both more real and more interesting than the glossier alternative. I will still freely admit that I watched Roar of the Dragon because I saw Edward Everett Horton's name in the credits and I pretty much endured the rest of the film in between his scenes. I think my curiosity was rewarded. It certainly showed me something I had never imagined onscreen.

Oh, God, how did I write 1900 words about this movie? I am stopping here. I did not sleep almost at all last night and have spent the day with a very small, very active child. (We took her to Drumlin Farm. The owls and the sheep were especially a hit. Worth it.) This incongruity brought to you by my brave backers at Patreon.


1. The character is listed as "Hortense O'Dare" in the credits, but no one ever calls her anything other than her nickname, after her home city. Occasionally she's "Little Bridgeport," which strikes me as more Dickensian than is ideally the case.

2. And he does get a few nice lines in, as he graduates from perpetually startled straight man to occasional snarker. When the society matron plaintively blames Busby for her stomachache after the third day on starvation rations—"He gave me some chewing gum and I was so hungry, I swallowed it!"—Horton doesn't protest or even double-take, just mutters wearily, "Keep away from sailors. They chew tobacco."

3. I could find very little information on this film beyond IMDb's claim that the supposed source novel does not seem to exist, but I would love to know anything about how Horton was cast in the part. I keep wondering if it was anything like the process by which Peter Lorre ended up starring as the romantic lead in Three Strangers (1946) instead of David Niven, Robert Montgomery, or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

4. Seriously, isn't that one of Leslie Nielsen's lines in Airplane! (1980)? The script isn't incompetent, but after a while I had to conclude that Howard Estabrook had temporarily lost track of his sense of humor, because every few scenes it seemed to have gotten underfoot. I believe it was the tense nighttime standoff in which Voronsky is trying to make his escape with his former lover held as a hostage at gunpoint that just made me give up: Carson growls with time-honored masculine protectiveness, "What are you going to do to Natasha?" and Voronsky snaps back, "Oh, use your imagination."

16 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2015-11-07 03:49
Subject: I may be synthetic, but I'm not stupid
Security: Public
Music:Fatal Microbes, "Violence Grows"

So, that marathon. With rushthatspeaks and derspatchel, I watched twelve hours of horror film last Saturday at the Somerville. Due to life, it's taken me until today to talk about it. It will not be the most coherent marathon report I have ever written, but some weeks notes are as good as it gets.

We went into West of Zanzibar (1928) knowing only that it was the rarest of the prints, a famously lurid revenge tragedy and the next-to-last collaboration between Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, who would die in 1930. Actual warning goes here: the title correctly suggested, but did not fully disclose the incredible levels of racism inherent in the African setting. The natives are an unknowable mass of superstitious primitivism with wild-eyed spooky rituals and almost no names; the black character with the most lines is a beautiful man who looks like a Herb Ritter sculpture when oiled and gleaming, but as far as depth of character goes, he's furniture. The dialogue is insultingly simplistic and the Hollywood voodoo is even more nonsensical than the usual run. And in the middle of all the colonialism is Lon Chaney, giving an arguable performance of a lifetime as a one-time music-hall magician consumed by hatred for the rival who left him paralyzed and tempted his wife away to her ruin, an ivory trader played by Lionel Barrymore—not young, he didn't start acting in film until his thirties and that was in 1911, but younger than I've ever seen him—as the kind of genial asshole who finds the catastrophic misfire of a soul-destroying revenge plot the funniest thing since Harry Langdon. Mary Nolan is very good as the girl whom Chaney would use as a pawn, damaged and cynical, morally the cleanest person in the story; Werner Baxter is bland as the dissipated doctor finding his redemption in her arms. There's a brilliant moment when the film uses the silent form against itself, in order to withhold information from the characters as well as the audience. We appreciated very much that the generic Africans are not so gullible as to accept stage magic as the real thing, but it took way too many pseudo-voodoo rituals to get there. If you want a wrenching, nuanced, arresting performance from Lon Chaney, see this film. If you don't want the painfully racist matrix it's embedded in, that's fair enough.

I believe it was at this point that we got Warner Bros.'s Hair-Raising Hare (1946), with Mel Blanc doing his best Peter Lorre impression and the monster mostly composed of fur, fingernails, and white sneakers that nonetheless reminds me weirdly of Sweetums of the Muppets. A meta joke with shadows in the front row and Bugs Bunny doing his best hairdresser impression: "I'll bet you monsters lead interesting lives." It was delightful.

Everyone who told me that I would love Dwight Frye's Renfield in Dracula (1931) was right. His introduction is a wonderful fakeout—a smart young solicitor traveling through Transylvania, guilelessly asking for directions to the Borgo Pass at midnight, should be Jonathan Harker, co-protagonist and therefore immune to the danger of Dracula's brides or the vampire lord himself. Then, as he flounders his way through an arras of spiderweb, we hear Bela Lugosi's solicitous, self-amused instruction, "The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield," and soon enough he's talking to a coffin in the hold of the doomed Vesta, a wild-eyed maniac whose grin seems to have too many teeth in it for safety. 1931 is still close enough to the silent era that Frye can play with modes of madness: sometimes his Renfield is as staring and theatrical as a refugee from Caligari's asylum, sometimes he's just a nervous man in his shirtsleeves with a weird vocal affect. Every now and then, he's the most normal-sounding person onscreen: "Isn't this a strange conversation for men who aren't crazy?" (I really enjoy the way Renfield just wanders randomly through Seward's house whenever it's plot-convenient. The sanatorium in this movie had the worst security.) I don't know if he's my favorite take on the character, because I really did imprint on Jack Shepherd, but he was very definitely my favorite thing about the movie, an A+ reason to watch it again. Otherwise Dracula is easily the least interesting of the three films I've seen by Tod Browning. Once we return to England, the action is staged very stiffly, with little about the cinematography that's as compelling as some of the character framing in West of Zanzibar or the documentary-expressionist style of Freaks (1932). I'd love to know how it was understood by audiences unfamiliar with the source material, because there are ways in which it plays like the Cliff's notes of Stoker's novel and then there are ways in which it is missing what I would consider crucial plot points, like the eventual fate of Lucy. Helen Chandler's Mina is at her best when partly vampirized, utilizing the fey demeanor so visible in The Last Flight (1931) to imply a character whose humanity is starting to drift. David Manners does what he can with the stupidest Harker-Holmwood ever to decide that leaving town with his vampire girlfriend cannot possibly go wrong. I was indifferent to Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing until we got to his verbal throwdown with Dracula ("Should you escape us, Dracula, we know how to save Miss Mina's soul, if not her life."–"If she dies by day . . . but I shall see that she dies by night"), at which point I decided he was no Peter Cushing, but I'd take him. Quincey Morris is nowhere to be seen, but nobody cares. As for Lugosi himself, I can see why his Dracula was instantly iconic to the point of caricature. David calls his portrayal "suave and dead" and it is not as inhuman as I like my vampires, but it is genuinely weird all the same, with gliding movements and oddly timed phrasing, as if spontaneity is something the undead can no longer command. The print was resurrected via digital cleanup from the only remaining original element, a lavender positive from the Library of Congress, and it looked amazing.

I love The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) very much, all right? I love that it's set around the Salton Sea. I love that the giant prehistoric man-eating snails are radioactive for no other reason than that it's the 1950's. I love that the giant prehistoric man-eating radioactive snails do not in fact resemble snails at all until the second half of the film when someone obviously slapped shells around their globular eyes and clicking mandibles after there were complaints. I have loved Hans Conried since The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) and therefore I will watch any movie in which he gets actual screen time as opposed to a scene-stealing walk-on and it is only occasionally confusing that his Dr. Jess Rogers does not have a Mitteleuropean or even mid-Atlantic accent and is perfectly competent at his job. He gets a lecture about "common molluscs" that has almost nothing to do with the monsters at issue, but contains several useful points of data about predatory land snails. I am fond of the small bit of business Conried does with a beaker and a stirring rod while talking on the phone. Tim Holt is theoretically the hero, but doesn't even know to grab a fire axe off the wall when a giant prehistoric man-eating radioactive snail is menacing him in a laboratory. All three of us were yelling at him as he went for the fire extinguisher instead. Afterward we found out so was the rest of the theater. Gods of B-movies, of titles that promise too much and heroes who deliver too little, of eccentric character turns and endlessly unsubtle special effects, watch over this picture and make sure it is always playing somewhere at a festival or a marathon or a late-night TV channel if those still exist. It is really not as stupid as it could have been. There are some nice character moments, some nice shocks, the scene in which a girl vanishes while night-swimming with her boyfriend is very good and supposedly influenced Spielberg. There's a lot of location footage of the locks of the All-American Canal. The giant prehistoric et cetera et cetera snails are so not a kraken.

Somewhere around here, the discretion of the projectionist delivered unto us a boatload of horror trailers, mostly Roger Corman's Poe series with a judicious admixture of British horror and sci-fi, of which the classiest was the American trailer for Horror of Dracula (1958)—I applauded—and the déclassést was Konga (1961), starring Michael Gough and a terrible gorilla suit. Oh, yes, there was also a trailer for Dinosaurus! (1960), containing some of the worst stop-motion I have seen committed to 35 mm and the most unexpected caveman. I have no plans to see the movie, but the trailer is one of the great comedies of its decade.

For reasons that have much more to do with circumstances in my life than with the content of the film, I found Seconds (1966) startlingly upsetting to watch, which did not prevent me from noticing that James Wong Howe's black-and-white cinematography is imaginative, expressionistic, and disorientingly effective, that I wouldn't be surprised if Rock Hudson is better in the role of Tony Wilson than anywhere else in his career, and that John Frankenheimer must have gone through a very paranoid period in his life, because Seconds and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) are the only films I've seen by him so far and both depend vividly on a clammy sense of pawnhood, that a game is being played around you and everyone else knows the rules. The ending plays out a little more like a particularly nasty episode of The Twilight Zone than I had been expecting, but it is fairly foreshadowed. There is an extended sequence set at a literal bacchanalia on the California coast that I really hope was done with permission from the local SCA. Three actors in the cast looked familiar to me without bringing any roles to mind: I did not expect to have seen them respectively in Brother John (1971), Jaws (1975), and Babylon 5 (1994–1998).

At this juncture we had a thirty-minute dinner break. I spent most of it acquiring my food rather than eating it, which offered me the opportunity to remark that I am apparently the kind of person who is fine with eating through a Giger Alien movie. My chicken shawarma from Noor treated me kindly and did not explode out of my chest at any dramatic moments or at all, really, which I was also fine with.

I am not reasonable when it comes to Lance Henriksen as Bishop in Aliens (1986). I saw the film for the first time a dozen years ago and can't count how many times I've seen it since. It's one of my comfort movies; it was my introduction to the actor and the role that imprinted me on him—soft-spoken, gaunt-faced, with a disconcertingly direct gaze and a vacuum-dry deadpan. A company android, he prefers to be called an "artificial person"; it sounds like corporation-speak or a PC joke, but it turns out to be a very real assertion. He's not a programmable traitor like Ash of the Nostromo, but a self-willed, sentient being who just happens not to be flesh and blood, or at least not the born kind. I've just now realized that I associate him slightly with Elio of Diana Wynne Jones' A Tale of Time City (1987), who "seemed like an ordinary person, only rather smaller and paler than most." Bishop is taller, skinnier, and paler than most. It is impossible to tell his age, if time wore those vertical creases into his face or if they were designed by Weyland-Yutani for maximum personality. He does not ever pass for human, except briefly and accidentally to Ripley: "We always have a synthetic on board." He does "the thing with the knife" when his platoon-mates holler for it, even though it's clearly his embarrassing party trick, and candidly explains his obligation to a variant on Asimov's First Law of Robotics. (It turns out not to be quite true, since if he were utterly incapable of placing human beings in situations where they could come to harm, he would not have been able to leave Newt and Ripley even temporarily alone on the unstable landing platform, but it's a reassuring thing to say.) The subject header of this post is one of his best lines; what I love is the little smile he follows it with, a quick mechanical movement that never reaches his eyes. It could be a glitch in the uncanny valley, like the inhuman speed of the knife trick and the milky blood that gives his artificial nature away, but it doesn't look like one; it looks like an uncertain learned behavior, as if Bishop has learned that joking about his synthetic status can defuse the threat he's sometimes perceived as, but not as reliably as he would like. I like his moments of creepiness, but I also like that the climax of the film essentially proves that these were instances of professional-grade trolling. Also, in this film, there is definitive Sigourney Weaver. I know people keep talking about further Alien sequels, but I'm just as grateful those don't exist as I am there's no such thing as a live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender or a movie version of The Dark Is Rising. We've dodged a lot of bullets over the years, you know?

Going into The Lost Boys (1987), I knew primarily that it was one of the essential vampire films of the 1980's and that it was responsible for establishing certain dynamics in slash fiction that persist to this day. No one had bothered to warn me that it was also hilarious, starting with the fourteen-year-old survivalist vampire hunters who accidentally blow up the plumbing while disposing of a vampire with garlic and holy water (a bathtub full of it, whence perhaps the problem). Not a beat of the '80's is missed, from the inexplicable shirts to the feathered hair to the slow-mo softcore love scenes with plenty of synth. In what other decade could the protagonists attend a mainstream rock concert whose lead singer is a half-naked man in a necklace of steel chain-link playing a saxophone? Pleasantly, besides all the inimitable mise-en-scéne it has an innovative take on vampirism—one to which Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) owes an enormous debt, right down to the visuals—and an assortment of protagonists I actually care about, although the female romantic lead has the same blender problem as in Fright Night (1985). Kiefer Sutherland set a trend with his bleach-spiked hair and his black trenchcoat; Rush-That-Speaks and I agreed that while he would have been no less hot when the film was released, he would have been a lot less mainstream about it. I also appreciate their point that hanging out with vampires in this film means doing the exact same dumb shit as normal teenagers, only with more levitation. We suspected the ending halfway through, then the film appeared to debunk it, then we were right after all: well played, screenwriters. Apparently there are some sequels, but not very good ones, which is fine as this film ends with an untoppable punch line. I really need to see Near Dark (1987) now.

And then we went home and Daylight Savings Time fell back on us, so now it gets dark very soon, but that's not generally relevant at quarter to four in the morning at this latitude. I shall attempt sleep. The horror content is debatable, but it was a great twelve-hour marathon and David the projectionist should get more programming blocks to do with as he pleases. This anthology brought to you by my magnificent backers at Patreon.

31 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2015-10-27 03:13
Subject: I'll send you a photograph of my poetry
Security: Public
Music:Belle & Sebastian, "Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie"

I just finished watching The Last Flight (1931). It's a pre-Code movie, directed by William Dieterle from a script by John Monk Saunders, whose novel Single Lady provided the source material; I rented it from the library mostly because it starred Richard Barthelmess. From e-mail to nineweaving: "Oh, man. I have to get this down for Patreon. That is possibly the single weirdest film I've seen about World War I."

Remember when I said that if the protagonists of The Dawn Patrol (1938) survived, they'd fit right in with Hemingway's lost generation? Meet the cast of The Last Flight, American ex-servicemen drinking away their days in Paris in 1919. All of them were flyers in the war, all of them invalided out with visible and invisible injuries; their doctors have written them off as "spent bullets . . . like dropping a fine Swiss watch on the pavement . . . useless." They never talk about going home. Shep Lambert (David Manners1) has an elegant clownish face and wears dark glasses to hide the nervous twitch in one eye; it goes away if he's drunk enough, so he makes sure he always is. Cary Lockwood (Richard Barthelmess) burned his hands to the bone bringing them both down safely in a flaming plane; less outgoing than his friend, he carries himself with a wary defensiveness, preemptively cold-shouldering pity, mockery, gratitude. Their old comrades are boisterous, folksy Bill (Johnny Mack Brown) and sleepy-eyed Francis (Elliott Nugent), the sharpshooter of the squadron formerly known as "Sudden Death." When they discover a slender, spacey girl (Helen Chandler) standing at the bar of Claridge's with a stranger's false teeth clasped gravely in a champagne glass between her hands, they recognize her as one of their disconnected own: "Her name is Nikki. She holds men's teeth. She sits at the bar and she drinks champagne. Boys, she's going to be a lot of trouble!" Last and least welcome, Frink (Walter Byron) is the sixth wheel of the group, a pushy journalist with a creeper's manners and a moustache like the villain in a melodrama—but so long as he behaves himself, nobody cares enough about him to throw him out. And then, once the script has assembled all of these intriguing characters in the same city, almost nothing happens.

The film is nearly plotless. There's a flurry of activity near the end as several characters self-destruct in linked succession, but few of these interactions feel inevitably driven so much as plausibly stupid. The opening and closing scenes suffer from the need to say something important about the war experience and mostly just come off as sententious. In between, however, The Last Flight reproduces with startling fidelity the experience of spending a lost weekend with five very interesting, very damaged, very drunk people who have no intention of sobering up any time soon. They talk in banter, in-jokes and non sequiturs, ticcing a funny line around the conversation like the hiccups. Absurdism is a competitive sport. No one has any attention span. Someone hears about a fight and everyone rushes out into the hall to see it; someone wants to get away to Lisbon and everyone else piles into the train; a hotel elevator turns into a flight simulator with two different pilots at the controls. The script is pre-Code, so there's a running joke of increasingly outlandish euphemisms for excusing oneself for the bathroom: "He went off to sharpen his skates . . . shave a horse . . . tame an alligator . . . take a Chinese singing lesson."2 Just the quantities of alcohol drunk by all characters at all times would have disqualified it in the days of the Production Code. After the seven-minute mark, I don't think there's anyone onscreen who's sober. Sometimes they're adorable, sometimes they're heartbreaking, sometimes you just want to stuff them all in a drawer and tell them to shut up. In short, they can be exactly as exhausting and vulnerable as real drunk people, and the film doesn't try to corral them into a three-act drama: they simply appear to exist in a narrative as unstructured and impulsive as their deliberately aimless lives. Even for pre-Code cinema, this is a strikingly modern approach—I expect to find it in the French New Wave, not 1930's Hollywood. The recurring mottos of the story are "Who cares?" and "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

And the damage is real, even more so than I expected from other films of the era.3 Francis sets his pocket watch to wake him at regular intervals because otherwise he drifts away into a permanent narcoleptic daze; he says little because he slurs even when more or less sober. Affable Shep is scarily disoriented, forgetting not just days of the week, but calendar dates and cities—"I kind of lose track of things," he apologizes airily, but he was surprised to hear it was June. Bill looks at first like the healthy exception, energetic and hearty as the college football halfback he was before the war, but his impulse control is shot and he's always a shade too loud, too brawling, too eager to prove his prowess. Self-conscious as he is, easily humiliated by his inability to perform simple social tasks with his scarred and stiffened hands, Cary might actually be the most functional of the group, although he too displays a fatal carelessness toward himself. Nikki is unlike any female character I have seen in a long time, if ever. She has a distracted faun's face and no conversational filters; she paints her toenails because it "seemed like a good idea at the time" and peers nearsightedly, too unselfconsciously for affectation, through an antique lorgnette. She runs back to change her shoes before a trip "on account of I can walk faster in red shoes." Her bathtub is full of lily pads and turtles. I can't imagine her in a recent film; the gravitational pull of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl would be too strong. I can't imagine anything less pixie-like than Chandler's sideways, abstracted, curiously self-contained performance. We never learn any more of Nikki's history than her estranged family's wealth and a few disjointed anecdotes of her childhood ("And when I got home, my toes were spoiled"), but she's blown a fuse somewhere just as much as the boys around her; it is impossible to tell her degree of sobriety or inebriation because it makes no difference to whether she will track a conversation or step over it entirely. She's capable of linear interaction—when Shep cautions her that "Cary likes to be alone. He's as brittle as a breadstick. One silly crack from you and he might break up in sections," she responds with immediate decisiveness, "Well, then I don't think he should be left alone." More often she communicates in bright, drifting fragments like "I'll take vanilla" or "So now I don't let anyone kiss me—hard." And yet to describe her as flighty or ditzy or, God forbid, quirky seems existentially wrong. She is the grounding center of the ex-airmen's lives; she's in an eccentric orbit of her own. If she brought any of this essential strangeness to the role of Mina in the 1931 Dracula, I'm going to enjoy that film much more than I expected.

What else do you want to know? The opening credits are militarily stylized, changing titles with each earth-shaking blast of a field gun. The battle sequences in the first few minutes of the film look like a mix of historical footage and excerpts from other WWI pictures—I'm pretty sure I recognized a bombing from The Dawn Patrol. Everyone seemed so declamatory in the early hospital scenes that it took me at least one round of drunken surrealism to warm up to the characters, so give it time; not all of the dialogue is off-kilter gold or at least molybdenum. Some of it is very funny. The very last lines are among the most emotionally pitch-perfect endings I know. Internet research indicates that the film was a critical hit and a commercial flop; it was a passion project of Barthelmess' and I hope he would feel rewarded to know that his efforts created, if not a classic, then at least a cult film. It is weirder than The Sun Also Rises (1926) and way the hell better than The Lost Squadron (1932). This delightful experience brought to you by my helpful backers at Patreon.

1. I'll see him on Saturday as Jonathan Harker in Dracula (1931), but I noticed him last year as the star of Crooner (1932), a fictionalized history of the megaphone crooner craze as a boom-and-bust fame story with fantastically racy jokes. My personal favorite, which wouldn't have flown a few years later: to convey the extraordinary and unprecedented sex appeal of the protagonist's singing style, the camera pans across a nightclub to the honey-melting croon of "Three's a Crowd" and we see, table by table, all the women looking dreamy-eyed and excited, all the men looking resentful and unimpressed, until we reach the dreamy-eyed young man who gushes, "I think he's superb," and the very butch woman next to him who says unimpressedly, "He's lousy."

2. Like, we can argue about the degree to which toilet humor in a movie is a good thing, but I was still surprised at an eighty-four-year-old film containing a scene in which a character is incredibly relieved to discover that the drunk next to him only poured a glass of beer down his leg.

3. I will never pass up an opportunity to recommend William Wellman's Heroes for Sale (1933), where the protagonist gets out of the army with a morphine habit and the film condemns the institutions that smugly punish him for it. I will have to see Barthelmess sometime in one of his silent starring roles, because based on his pre-Code work and Only Angels Have Wings (1939), my current image of him is the go-to guy for fucked-up disillusion.

21 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2015-10-14 04:01
Subject: It's a slaughterhouse—and I'm the butcher
Security: Public
Music:Kris Delmhorst, "You Wear Those Eyes"

I didn't know The Dawn Patrol (1938) was a remake the first time I saw it, six years ago on TCM for Memorial Day. The Oscar-winning 1930 original was Howard Hawks' first sound film, it stars Richard Barthelmess and famously pissed off Howard Hughes1 and someday I will see it for comparison, but it doesn't have Basil Rathbone, so I'm not talking about it tonight. The remake came around again on TCM a few days ago. rushthatspeaks has been very patient about listening to me ever since.

The year is 1915, the setting an RFC aerodrome near the front lines in France. Errol Flynn is billed above the title as Captain Courtney, the daredevil leader of "A" Flight; David Niven seconds him as the puckish, faithful Lieutenant Scott. They fly like they're immortal and drink like there's no tomorrow; all the other pilots they shipped out with are dead and they celebrate their fallen comrades and their own future with fire-eating fatalism, yelling out "Hurrah for the Next Man That Dies." If they beat the odds, they'll be model members of Hemingway's lost generation, directionless and disillusioned—in the meantime, they welcome a captured German pilot into their midst because he may not be able to speak the language, but he understands drinking to the dead. That he shot down at least one of their own makes no difference. They recognize the enemy on the other side of the lines, especially when personified by the undefeatable von Richthofen Richter, a veteran flying ace with a mocking habit of buzzing the airfield after a dogfight and dropping trophies from the British pilots he's downed—boots, goggles, like throwing back a catch too small to keep. Their real hatred is reserved for the commanding officers of their own side, the bureaucratic machine that keeps sending them rookie flyers as cannon fodder in a vicious cycle of attrition. "You're telling me that I'm expected to go out on a job like that with two inexperienced men," Courtney challenges after one especially hopeless briefing, only to be shut down with the terse rejoinder, "Those are the orders." So says squadron commander Major Brand, who gives out each day's suicidal instructions with little expression and less eye contact, very clipped and peremptory, like a pure mouthpiece of the war.2 He's played by Basil Rathbone, which should make him the villain, especially opposite Errol Flynn. He's not the protagonist; that's legitimately the combination of Courtney and Scott, neither of whom is ever offscreen for more than a few minutes in the entire hour-and-three-quarters runtime. He is, naturally, the character I can't stop thinking about.

Even more so than any of his pilots, Brand is on the verge of cracking up. His job is to send green recruits just out of ground school against enemy forces that outclass them in both numbers and combat experience, predictably dooming most of them on their first flight, and the guilt and the responsibility and the endless deadly decision-making are splintering him apart.3 He can't take the dangerous missions himself; he's not allowed. He argues constantly with his superiors to give the new recruits a little time; his requests are constantly denied. He counts the drones of returning engines, knowing there will always be fewer than the number of planes that left; he drinks alone in his office while the rest of the 59th gets blind in the mess, partly out of ostracism, partly so they can't see how fast their commanding officer goes through a bottle; and he doesn't let anyone but his adjutant see him near breaking, so his men despise him as a mindless martinet who waves the new kids off like clockwork to the slaughter, not turning a hair when the casualty lists are read. It's clever casting. The audience has the advantage of meeting him early on in a moment of helpless fury, but come in late and you might take Brand for the cold fish he makes himself look like—that distant, icy carelessness was the hallmark of Rathbone's Marquis St. Evrémonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and he's painfully good at converting Brand's raw nerves into a government-work facsimile of the stiff upper lip. He has a beautiful, almost shy smile, as if he's afraid someone is going to take it away. We don't see it very often.

Fine! Right! Cheerio!Collapse )

I know artists' lives are not their work; it remains impossible for me not to wonder how one informs the other, especially when biography and subject material overlap conspicuously. Major Brand is seen to wear the ribbon of the Military Cross. Rathbone had won the same decoration in 1918 for actions as crazily reckless as anything in The Dawn Patrol, leading daylight raids through no man's land disguised, like Birnam Wood, with branches and leaves. His younger brother had been killed in action the month before. He doesn't sound, two decades later when he talks about his postwar experience, as though he dodged quite as much PTSD as he makes it sound to Photoplay. Of the three principals of The Dawn Patrol, he was the only one with combat experience. I don't want to pretend that I can see more of Rathbone in Brand than he made visible, but I don't want to imagine that acting just happens in a vacuum, either. Anyway, something clicked between the actor and the part: he's third-billed, but he's the one I just wrote 2100 words about. This admiration brought to you by my better-adjusted backers at Patreon.

1. Hughes had been developing the similarly themed Hell's Angels since 1927; he sued Warner Bros. for plagiarism with the result that The Dawn Patrol beat Hell's Angels into theaters by four months and Hughes lost the lawsuit. I haven't seen Hell's Angels myself, but since it was partly directed by James Whale and stars Ben Lyon and Jean Harlow, I expect it's only a matter of time.

2. Major Brand is as far up the chain of command as we ever see. The "brass hats" above him are blaring, blurry voices on the other end of a telephone line, like Colonel Blimp by Charles Schultz. You can make out their dialogue if you concentrate, but it's oddly just as effective if you don't: they aren't speaking the same language anyway.

3. The dark-browed, gangly leader of the first set of new recruits is Lieutenant Russell, played by an uncredited John Rodion—otherwise known as Rodion Rathbone, born 1915, just before his father was called up to the Western Front. He doesn't last one mission, his proud eighteen hours in the air nothing against veteran enemies. "Poor little Cleaver went first—I don't believe he fired a shot. Russell must have gone about the same time. I didn't see." I don't know who in the audience would have caught it at the time, or if the general public was even intended to, but it's a biting in-joke, like subliminal Wilfred Owen: But the old man would not so, but slew his son / And half the seed of Europe, one by one. [edit] According to a 1938 issue of Hollywood, Basil and Rodion were supposed to share a scene, but the experience was so "unnerving" that "Basil blew up in his lines."

4. Obviously the best thing for Brand would be getting sent home where no one needs him to make any decision more serious than how much sugar he wants in his tea—he reminds me of Wimsey in Whose Body? (1923) and Busman's Honeymoon (1937) and I'm not surprised—but getting kicked upstairs at least seems to remove him from his intolerable bind of too much responsibility and too little power and put him somewhere he might have a chance of arguing for less sweepingly wasteful tactics and being listened to. Since it keeps him alive and in presumably better mental health, anyway, I'll take it.

26 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2015-07-17 16:05
Subject: And when that happens—
Security: Public
Music:Manu Dibango, "Dikalo"

Three things make a post, especially if they're all film-themed. That was lucky.

1. I cannot in good conscience recommend Invisible Invaders (1959), which derspatchel and I watched last night at the point where I was so tired that I nearly fell asleep during the anticlimax. It is terrible. It's like some deathly straight version of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)—attracted by humankind's recent experimentation with atomic weapons, invisible aliens from the moon come to Earth and possess the bodies of the dead in order to conquer the living. The budget is minimal. The dialogue is strictly expository, although the filmmakers must have thought it left something to the imagination, because the voiceover not only narrates every moment of downtime between conversations, it overdubs some of the spoken scenes. The internally inconsistent timetable leaves the impression that the entire invasion, occupation, and defense of Earth maybe took place over a long weekend. The characters come in the standard assortment of two scientists, one soldier, and one scientist's beautiful daughter. No prizes for guessing how the romantic triangle resolves. John Carradine makes a memorable cameo as the first of the aliens' hosts, delivering an ultimatum to Earth the day after his burial: "My people will come to your planet and inhabit the bodies of other dead Earthmen. The dead will kill the living and the people of Earth will cease to exist. That is the message you will bring your people." I recognized no one else in the cast, although Rob pointed out John Agar as a stalwart of B-movie sci-fi.

If you care about zombie fiction as a genre, it's almost certainly a valuable early entry. There's one clever scene with a terrified farmer who holds up the protagonists at shotgunpoint on their way to a safe bunker: "You think you're better'n I am, soldier? You think you got a right to live and I ain't? I seen them walking dead things—I seen them! Joe Hannis and his wife drowned two weeks ago. Now they're walking through the fields again, walking and killing! I'll give you three to get out of that car, then I'm shooting." Demonstrating a jaw-dropping failure to understand the concept of a zombie apocalypse, the soldier behind the wheel shoots him instead; a few minutes later, they have one more possessed corpse to deal with. Like the wandering sickness of Things to Come (1936), this brief scene feels like a direct pointer to later zombie traditions: there's the survival horror, the horror of recognizing mindless versions of familiar faces, the creepy efficiency of an invading force whose defeated enemies become its newest recruits. It goes by in a flash; none of these themes will appear again, being overtaken by the requirement for our heroes to find a way to destroy or at least repel the invaders. The focus is on the intruders from space, not the revenants from the earth. It's also worth noting that the film's undead are not the ravening kind—they are strictly vehicles for their alien inhabitants, no brains or other fuel required to keep running. Mostly we see them engaged in acts of industrial sabotage and radio broadcasting, although a shot of stiff-limbed, sunken-eyed, expressionless (and conservatively dressed) "creatures" converging on the bunker certainly looks like tryouts for Night of the Living Dead (1968).

I imagine it is clear by this point that I am not describing a lost classic or even an underrated curio in Invisible Invaders; it is 67 minutes long and I don't know how they got that much out of it. Nonetheless, it does contain one glorious moment for which I suggest everyone watch this slightly fuzzy online version. It occurs after a minute and a half and to get the full effect you should watch from the starry credits through the supremely leaden scene-setting. I make no claims except that I burst out laughing so hard I actually scratched up my throat. Nothing else in the film is as good, but it doesn't need to be. This opportunity brought to you by my long-suffering backers at Patreon.

2. In better science fiction news, a Kino Blu-Ray of The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) is the universe's way of telling me that it loves me and wants me to watch more Hans Conried. I caught the film on TCM in 2010 and fell in love; it's set around the Salton Sea, its monsters are giant prehistoric sea snails, and its positively portrayed scientist is Conried's Dr. Jess Rogers, cranky and competent. I don't care that the monsters don't challenge the world so much as they vampirize some unsuspecting swimmers in southern California. It's a monster movie without a total idiot plot and there is some surprisingly decent character work in between the scream scenes. (It's also a nice touch that nobody really cares when the monsters turn out to be radioactive, because it's not as though huge carnivorous non-radioactive sea snails getting into the All-American Canal would be such a good idea, either.) I'd especially like to see it again knowing that Spielberg is supposed to have drawn inspiration from it for Jaws (1975), a detail I could not have evaluated for myself at the time. Anyway, if you ever wanted to hear Hans Conried deliver a lecture about snails, this is your film. Come for the B-picture, stay for the pedantry. It's always worked for me.

3. I must visit the library to retrieve a DVD of William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which I plan to watch with [personal profile] skygiants tonight. This is the direct result of reading Mark Harris' Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014), which I glossed here and Skygiants reviews much more extensively here. I have a mental backlog of about three movies for writeup right now, but I really will try to say at least something about this one.

I wish my head did not hurt so much. I've had a much worse headache than usual since the Sunday of Readercon and I am very definitely bored with it by now.

11 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2015-06-30 18:06
Subject: Time holds us together. And time's stronger than a rope
Security: Public
Music:Nai Bonnet, "The Seventh Veil"

I slept almost ten hours last night. It was great. I'm exhausted anyway, but I hope to repeat the exploit tonight. I dreamed of being offered a job at a used book store that specialized in Lovecraftiana, but the interviewer kept trying to put his arm around my waist and other manifestly inappropriate displays of interest, so I finally turned the job down flat. I woke and related the dream to derspatchel, who immediately responded, "Tentacles! Tentacles!" I've never had esprit de l'escalier about a dream before.

Since I've been thinking about it since my last film post: briefly, Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952). Rob and I caught it on TCM a few months ago because it starred Marlene Dietrich and we were hoping it would be better than Western Union (1941). It very definitely was. It was also pretty strange.

I must warn you in advance that I cannot explain the singing narrator. In theory, I'm all for this device: shades of Brecht and Weill's Moritatensänger, plus the thriving American folk tradition of murder ballads, of which Rancho Notorious certainly qualifies as one. In practice, it works out a lot more like Gene Autry. But even the mellow baritone and the dramatically strumming guitar cannot cheapen the full-throttle tragedy of this surprisingly nasty Western—"the old, old story of hate, murder, and revenge."

The time is the 1870's; the starting place, Wyoming. Arthur Kennedy stars as a young ranch hand whose fiancée is raped and murdered during a robbery; he turns himself into an outlaw and a double agent to find the man who did it. Dietrich and Mel Ferrer fill out the other two points of the triangle as a wolf-couple, she a former dance hall girl turned bandit queen of the Southwest, he her hard-bitten, quixotically romantic gunslinger consort.1 She owns a horse ranch near the Mexican border, named "Chuck-a-Luck" after the roulette-like game of chance that she played once at a significant moment in her life; it's a legitimate business, but it's also a hideout for any outlaw willing to fork over ten percent of his loot to Dietrich's Altar Keane, a figure of almost outrageous legend. If you ever wanted your introductory sight of Dietrich to be while literally riding a guy like a horse across a barroom floor, this is the movie for you. Ferrer's roving pistoleer Frenchy is the only man she's ever loved rather than fucked or fucked over, but he's never quite sure if he's just getting a longer run alongside her than all the other rubes; for his part he's possessively devoted, so much so that he threatens to kill her if she leaves him and in the same breath can't imagine surviving her death. Kennedy's Vern Haskell makes himself seductively available to Altar in order to draw out the identity of his man among the current tenants of Chuck-a-Luck, but it's not love she feels for him so much as a kind of wistful recognition. Frenchy correctly perceives the younger man as a threat to his mutual reign with Altar, but mistakes him for an ordinary sexual rival rather than a cold-blooded mole with an agenda. When the rising tension finally explodes, it's with much more emotional violence than I was expecting. The body count is less stunning than the aftermath.

Lang directed three Westerns. I haven't seen The Return of Frank James (1940) and I've made my feelings about Western Union clear,2 but Rancho Notorious lands every one of its operatic punches in a fascinating blend of artifice and grit. I don't care if it was made entirely on studio sets, it gets an amazing claustrophobic evocation of the Western mythos curdling out of painted sunsets and adobe-washed walls. There are no gunfights in the conventional sense; the climactic duel is a verse in a ballad and Vern's quest for vengeance comes down to a man too cowardly to draw on an armed opponent (though he thought nothing of gut-shooting a girl he'd brutally raped3). There's a fistfight that looks for all the world as though it were filmed with a handheld camera, in which case it's the earliest of its type that I've seen, and it is such a violent slugfest that the picture goes out of focus as the camera slews to follow the blows. Fair-haired, sharp-faced Kennedy has a look of James Cagney, whose brother he actually played in his 1940 film debut; onstage he originated four roles for Arthur Miller and I think he must have been a barnstorming John Proctor, because he has a disturbing, nervy energy that coils underneath Vern's quick smile. He looks like a wicked boy, but he's carved out more of his heart than even hardboiled Altar Keane. I have difficulty imagining the film in a later decade, because I can't imagine other actors in two of the three principal roles, but I didn't know that Westerns that deliberately anti-romantic—mythological, yes, but there's nothing remotely noble about any of the men crashing at Chuck-a-Luck—were being filmed as early as 1952. See it if you get the chance; I'm sure its Technicolor would benefit from a big screen. That was not exactly a brief description. This digression sponsored by my fantastic backers at Patreon.

1. I don't blame Fritz Lang for this, but it was difficult for me not to view them as a kind of het remix of Chess and Rook from Gemma Files' Hexslinger series. If that's an incentive for you to check out Rancho Notorious, I say go for it.

2. That said, it interests me that both Western Union and Rancho Notorious can be described as films noirs—give Vern an underworld to navigate instead of a frontier and he'd make himself just as dreadfully at home—but the latter is not simply a noir redressed in Western style. It would not be possible for Altar and Frenchy to exist in New York or L.A. or Chicago, even if they could thrive as a mobster and her moll, because it is central to both their legends and their lives that they can disappear into the vast spaces of the land, not the snaky twists of a city. That's such a crucial, dangerous piece of the Western myth—the land where there's space for everyone, except the people who lived there first.

3. We learn very little about Gloria Henry's Beth Forbes in her few minutes onscreen before the refrigerator door swings open, but we know she fought: she marked her man. Lang's last sight of her trails from her closed eyes across her bruised shoulder, down her arm in its torn sleeve until the camera reaches her hand, loosely curled, bloodied nails still sticky and wet. The doctor says soberly, "She wasn't spared anything."

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Date: 2015-06-29 16:37
Subject: All I want is to enter my house justified
Security: Public
Music:Peter Bellamy, "Song of the Red War-Boat"

[The following post was begun around two in the morning and then my brain hit a wall. I dreamed of a haunting that had something to do with subways and marigolds. A few days ago I saw a car crossing the Alewife Brook Parkway wreathed in yellow and orange flowers and wondered if it was for a wedding, but I don't think that was where it came from.]

I got six hours of sleep last night, so of course tonight I stayed awake for my second midnight movie in a row. I am nowhere near as articulate as I would like to be right now. On the bright side, I don't have to feel bad for Randolph Scott anymore. I last saw him in Fritz Lang's Western Union (1941), a movie I truly cannot recommend to anyone except fans of embarrassing racist humor.1 On the recommendation of David the projectionist, I just watched Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962), Scott's last film and his favorite of a thirty-four-year career. He might have been on to something.

The thing that makes Ride the High Country difficult to describe is the way it changes over its runtime, as if we were watching the Western genre itself evolve in ninety-four minutes; it sets itself up like a simpler and much more familiar kind of movie than it closes as. Sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century, aging former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea, unshowy and really good) is hired to safeguard a shipment of gold from the mining camp of Coarsegold to the town of Hornitos. It's comedown work from his heyday as a town-tamer, but it's better than he's had in years; he's still a tall man, still a strong man, but his hair is grey and his clothes are frayed and he needs to put on spectacles in private to examine the fine print of his contract with the bank. Riding amiably up the streets of Hornitos, he's all but run over by a newfangled motor car, the classic symbol of progress and modern speed. An aggrieved policeman shouting, "Can't you see you're in the way? Watch out, old-timer!" sounds like the film stating its thesis in the first thirty seconds. (Just in case we didn't get it, the president of the bank was expecting a much younger man. Steve responds gravely, "I used to be.") Steve's past achievements are unquestionable, but his future is dubious. The obvious direction for the film is an exploration of the changing face of the West as personified by one man's crisis. The four days into the high Sierras and back will be the crucible: will Steve still have what it takes to get the gold safely to Hornitos, and if he doesn't, what does that mean for the way of life which he embodies—strong, stoic, decent, hard-won?

But that's not it at all. Almost as soon as this pattern settles in the audience's mind, the film begins to bend away from it, almost aimlessly; it doesn't undermine its own clichés so much as lose interest in them. We can start with Scott, playing beautifully against type2 as Steve's former deputy Gil Westrum, these days a carnival con man passing himself off as the unbeatable "Oregon Kid" with a nickel-palming patter and false whiskers straight out of Buffalo Bill's Wild Central Casting. His lean good looks have weathered into a droll grey fox's face, rake-browed and curiously difficult to read for all his amiable disposition and cynical humor; he is not trustworthy and neither is he the villain of the piece, though for a while it looks like the story might be drifting that way, positioning the once-fast friends on opposite sides of the moral divide. Between the two of them falls Gil's young sidekick, cocky, callow Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), who races a mean camel but doesn't know how to rein in his own impulsive behaviors. Are we in for a psychomachia, then, with Steve and Gil playing good and bad angels to the undecided soul? By the time the party halts for the night at the farmhouse of repressively religious Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong) and his rebellious daughter Elsa (Mariette Hartley), there are Bible quotes flying quick and fast over the dinner table, but the man of God is even less of a role model than sly Gil, who follows up a compliment on Elsa's cooking with a straight-faced glance at her father: "Appetite, Chapter 1." And by the time Elsa is being married to her miner fiancé and his four lascivious brothers in a raucous, parodic ceremony that plays like the brutal takedown Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) really had coming,3 we are very nearly in a different movie altogether, as jaggedly plotted as real life where curveballs have nothing to do with dramatic irony and violence is not something performed by firing blanks at twenty paces. The plot doesn't lose sight of its original threads. There's a showdown at the climax, and a resolution to the questions of Gil's honesty and Steve's steadfastness and Heck's uncertain maturity, and we even know by the end whether those eleven thousand dollars in gold will get back to Hornitos; this isn't the Western L'avventura (1960). But the emotional tone is very different by then, and for that matter so is the cinematography, and Ride the High Country transitions so reasonably from one style to another that only in hindsight does it become clear how much more complex a world the characters inhabit by the finale than they did at the outset. Against that wider backdrop, the ostensible goal is almost an afterthought.

I knew going in that Peckinpah had changed the original ending of the film. I didn't have any hints as to how. You just forgot it for a while, that's all.Collapse )

I might change my opinion when I've watched more widely in the genre, but I find myself thinking of Ride the High Country as a half-revisionist Western—it's not a total deconstruction, but it's not uncritical, either. Its violence is not graphic, but it's deliberately not bloodless; it is sympathetic to its female character's restricted range of bad options; it does not romanticize its lawlessness. It's an autumnal movie, the landscape through which its characters ride shivering aspen-gold and wind-scoured blue skies. In his one moment of lucidity, the alcoholic judge who performs Elsa's wedding speaks touchingly of the hard work and rewards of a good marriage, which he likens to "a rare animal . . . You see, people change. That's important for you to know at the beginning. People change." So do stories, sometimes even while you're watching them. This meditation sponsored by my patient backers at Patreon.

1. Seriously, I had to see Rancho Notorious (1952) before I stopped feeling uncomfortable about the concept of a Lang Western. Remind me to talk about that movie, too; it has an inexplicable theme song, but it's great.

2. He switched roles with McCrea.

3. With his clean-cut smile and his startled delight at Elsa's arrival, James Drury's Billy Hammond looks like the diamond in the rough of his unwashed, leering clan, but no amount of feminine influence is going to civilize any of them into chivalrous dancers. The grotesquerie of Elsa's wedding in Coarsegold tells her exactly what will be expected of her as Billy's wife—a bride-bed in the local brothel, a madam for a maid of honor and four prostitutes for flower girls, and four grinning brothers-in-law more than willing to supply the deflowering when her new-wedded husband drunkenly knocks himself out before he can do more than tear her dress and slap her around for trying to fight him off. I find Elsa a curiously opaque character for all that she's the catalyst for the second half of the film, but it's a point in the script's favor that we are not encouraged to despise her either for trying to escape her father by marrying or for trying to escape her marriage once its horrific nature becomes clear. It is the moral thing for Steve to take her with him when he leaves Coarsegold, never mind that she's bound legally to Billy and the miner's court found in her favor only thanks to some judicious strong-arming from Gil. It went some way toward amending the earlier scene where Heck gets way closer to date rape than makes me feel kindly toward a character and Elsa apologizes afterward for leading him on and derspatchel and I shouted at the screen.

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Date: 2015-05-09 04:48
Subject: You're not much to look at, but you do have a way of showing up when you're needed
Security: Public
Music:CW Stoneking, "Seven Nation Army"

William A. Wellman's Night Nurse (1931) was on TCM a few nights ago, so I got to show it to derspatchel. I love this movie like comfort food; I saw it for the first time in 2010 when I was discovering pre-Code Hollywood and I don't care that the first half is a social realist picture about the nursing profession and the second half is a crime melodrama with all the stops pulled out from drug addiction to child endangerment, I will watch it whenever it's on and encourage others around me to do the same. It's 77 minutes long and it packs the plot in like dynamite. Where to start?

Cast, first of all. Twenty-four-year-old Barbara Stanwyck carries the show as Lora Hart, a stone-broke, freshly orphaned high school dropout determined to succeed in the medical profession despite her handicaps of education and upbringing. She's smart, compassionate, tougher than her idealism first suggests and more canny, too. As Lora's fast friend and foil, Joan Blondell's disenchanted, gum-chewing Maloney provides a more jaundiced view of the field: "I was afraid the hospital would burn down before I could get into it. Now I have to watch myself with matches." Well in advance of stardom (and his iconic mustache), Clark Gable does what he can with the film's heavy, a saturnine thug who wears his job description—"Nick the chauffeur"—like an underworld epithet, and Ben Lyon's romantic hero is a Jewish bootlegger.1 Other character actors orbit the action and they are all exactly who they need to be.

I've said often enough that I really enjoy pre-Code movies. I like their pace, their energy, their weird mix of sensationalism and realism; I like how progressive and subversive many of them now appear simply by depicting a world that is more than the strictly delineated sum of middle-American moral approbation. (See discussion with [personal profile] skygiants here, including thumbnail reviews of two more movies by Wellman.) Not every one is a gem. This year alone we've seen some amazing failures. She Had to Say Yes (1933) is a guttingly direct indictment of double standards and sexual objectification that blows its kneecaps off at the last minute by trying to wrangle a happy ending out of a choice of two evils. The Purchase Price (1932) wastes the promising hook of a marriage of convenience falling guardedly in love on a slog of agricultural obstacles. I can't recommend Rio Rita (1929) for much more than the vaudeville double act of Wheeler and Woolsey, the staging of some musical numbers by Florenz Ziegfeld, and the final reel in two-strip Technicolor. And while it is excruciatingly true that all kinds of representation crashed and burned with the enforcement of the Hays Code, the years before 1934 were not all a paradise of diversity—for every refreshingly radical take on race and gender, there's an equal chance of a casually demeaning ethnic joke or a sexual stereotype taken for granted. I am still fascinated by what these films were trying to do. Or simply the zeitgeist they were running with, unexamined: however it works out, whatever the lines being crossed, many of these films are about transgression.

Night Nurse is no exception. Lora's time as a trainee nurse nearly constitutes an educational film as it follows the daily grind of a teaching hospital from the emergency room to the maternity ward to the operating theater, demystifying without disparaging the profession as it goes. Interns play practical jokes, bedpans need to be emptied, mothers of all ethnicities cradle their children with love, probationers sneak home after curfew on their nights off and criminals need patching up just like regular citizens. Graduating as full-fledged nurses, Lora and Maloney take the Florence Nightingale Pledge. Note the lines about hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care. The tension between these two promises will form the narrative drive of the film's second half.

Assigned by the hospital to help care for a pair of little girls recently treated for anemia and malnutrition, Lora takes over the night shift in a swanky household and finds herself in a Prohibition-era take on the Gothic novel: the housekeeper (Blanche Friderici) is repressive and frightened, the mother (Charlotte Merriam) is a giddily neglectful socialite who passes her days and nights in a drunken stupor of parties, and the smarmy, twitchy doctor (Ralf Harolde) in charge of the case has either ulterior motives or the worst case of resting dope fiend face I've seen since Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). In place of the Byronic hero, we have Gable's Nick, a slicked-back sneerer whose brute-force sexuality briefly misleads the audience into thinking he might be a diamond in the rough (spoiler: he's just rough). And the horrid secret at the core of the house is barely hidden at all: the children aren't getting better at home. They're getting worse. They cry with hunger, they miss their mother, they're frightened of Nick. Lora isn't stupid; she knows at once that "those poor little kids are starving—anyone can see it in their faces! And if somebody doesn't do something, they won't last another month!" and neither a clip on the chin from Nick nor a threat of professional ruin from Dr. Ranger will deter her from reporting it to the authorities. The trouble is that the authorities in this situation are the rest of the medical profession and a charmed circle of courtesy and institutional power protects even a "rotten doctor" like Ranger. He's a big-shot physician with society connections, Lora is an inexperienced nurse on her first case—who does she think his colleagues will side with, if she threatens to embarrass them with her whistle-blowing? She's a nurse, a subordinate. She's supposed to keep her head down, keep her observations to herself, and obey the doctor's orders. But when playing by the rules means consenting to murder, Lora will have to learn to disregard the phony morality of "professional ethics" in favor of the real responsibility of her profession, saving lives.

As for the romance, I promised a heroic bootlegger and Night Nurse delivers. They meet cute in the ER where she treats him for a gunshot wound and doesn't file a report with the police. By way of thanks, he sends her a bottle of rye before her final exam (assisting at an operation that goes wrong, a gripping little mini-drama in itself) and a congratulatory wreath at her graduation, big as a gangster's funeral. When she runs into him between deliveries at a drugstore, he invites her to share a soda and utterly fails to convince either of them that he's given up the business. We don't even learn his name until their last scene together; until then, he calls her "My Pal" and she calls him "Hey, Bootlegger!" They are last seen driving a car together in happily screwy collaboration: she shifts and he steers. He's no knight in shining armor, but he's smart and he's dependable and he always has her back. Even loyal, streetwise Maloney warns Lora not to rock the boat and kindly administrator Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger in a mostly dramatic role with two nicely timed comic moments) advises her not to go to the police until she can prove malpractice or malice. The career criminal listens to everything Lora tells him, no matter how crazy it sounds, and unhesitatingly does what she asks.

The ending may be the sweetest instance of vigilante justice I've seen on a screen. I know a couple of guys.Collapse ) It's a happy ending. It dovetails the subversiveness of both the dramatic and the romantic plots perfectly. Wellman couldn't have gotten away with it three years later. I suspect he couldn't have gotten away with most of the movie.

There's so much in this film to talk about, I could be here all night. I don't want to spoil too much of the bravura scene in which Lora confronts the children's incapable mother, in the course of which she roundhouses a boozy, grabby hanger-on and sneaks profanity past the censors solely through delivery, but it's another boost to Night Nurse's insubordinate credentials: motherhood is certainly not sacred and sometimes a girl doesn't need rescuing. You can also tell the film is pre-Code because the script takes every opportunity for Stanwyck and Blondell to undress in front of one another. At one point they snuggle in bed together. Fine by me. The rest you'll have to see for yourself; it's worth it. I have to sleep, which I hope will prove similarly rewarding. This review sponsored by my fantastic backers at Patreon.

1. Okay, I cannot prove that he's Jewish, but he's named Mortie and when he needs to get milk in a hurry, he goes to a kosher delicatessen. He also breaks into said delicatessen, but it's the middle of the night and an emergency and he's out of practice with legitimate trade. I am extremely fond of him. I like to think he ended up like Joseph Linsey.

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Date: 2015-04-30 23:10
Subject: Have you ever heard of such a thing as a death mask?
Security: Public
Music:Cataldo, "Wedding Cake"

Does anyone know the earliest appearance of the trope of the mad artist whose sculptures contain the bodies of his murdered victims? The earliest example I've encountered personally is Dorothy L. Sayers' "The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers," but 1928 seems a late start for such a visceral image of horror. An unliving appearance of life is uncanny enough; conjecturing further that it's a dead thing embodying such perfect mimicry is just nightmare fuel. Penny dreadfuls? Something in Poe I've forgotten? Something in Hawthorne I haven't read?

This question brought to you by belated meditation on Michael Curtiz's Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which I watched on TCM with derspatchel a week ago. It was a lost film for nearly forty years, eclipsed by its prestigious 3-D remake House of Wax (1953) starring Vincent Price; I have the impression the later film is a classic creepshow, but the original is, like so many other pre-Code movies, really odd in ways I didn't know I was waiting to see.

The story starts off in solid Gothic territory. In 1921 London, a struggling genius in wax sculpture receives a promise of patronage from the Royal Academy of Arts on the same night his unscrupulous partner decides their highbrow, neglected museum isn't worth more than the insurance money it would recoup if accidentally burned to the ground; horrified, the sculptor tries to stop him, but the fire starts anyway, the well-seasoned old building goes up like a torch, and the sculptor is trapped among his flaming, melting creations. Especially since the waxworks are all played by carefully made-up actors in tableaux vivant, the sudden switch to practical effects—watching their painted faces cave and liquefy, their wet wax limbs slough from their bodies—is like starting a movie with the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And then we flash forward and across genres to New Year's 1933 in New York City, where plucky and also cheerfully drunk girl reporter Florence (Glenda Farrell, one of the fastest-talking human beings it has ever been my privilege to hear rattle off newsroom slang) is in the process of getting fired by her editor Jim (Frank McHugh, witheringly impatient and so young he doesn't even have a mustache) for not bringing enough real news in. He won't find out just how much until the last reel, but her latest story is a lulu—the body of beautiful Joan Gale, a high-profile suicide now being reconsidered as a murder, has gone missing from the morgue and Florence doesn't think the prime suspect, wealthy ex-boyfriend George Winton (Gavin Gordon, whom I'd only known previously as Edward Everett Horton's partner), is either clever enough or perverted enough to have done it. Jim cynically retorts that proving a man's innocence doesn't sell newspapers, but the audience knows she's right; we've already seen a black-clad figure with a face like Freddy Krueger rise from underneath a morgue sheet, bundle the corpse like a burial at sea, and lever it out the window into the waiting arms of accomplices, including one who's—thank you, pre-Code—hurting for his fix pretty hard. Over on the other side of the plot, meanwhile, Florence's roommate Charlotte (Fay Wray, two weeks away from scream queen immortality in King Kong) is walking out with clean-cut Ralph (Allen Vincent), a young modernist sculptor currently apprenticed to the mysterious Mr. Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill, sonorously Euro-ambiguous), a wheelchair-bound genius who claims to be recreating his masterwork, a world-class collection of waxworks tragically lost through misadventure. His hands are too scarred to sculpt anymore, so instead he directs the work of Ralph and a jittery, cagey Englishman by the name of "Professor" Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe, all five o'clock shadow and hollow eyes and Dickensian woollen mufflers) with a massive deaf-mute named Hugo (Matthew Betz, I am afraid I have nothing to say about him) for muscle. Florence thinks there's something weird about this setup. The audience thinks there's something weird about this setup. Ralph and Charlotte are as oblivious as horny teenagers in a slasher flick.

I wouldn't call anything about Mystery of the Wax Museum restrained, but it's a delightfully sideways approach to a shudder-pulp premise. The plot proceeds like a crime thriller, with Florence putting together stray facts (eight bodies snatched in the last eighteen months) with eerie coincidences (Igor's Joan of Arc looks exactly like Joan Gale, so much so that Florence instantly concludes he must have worked from a cast of her stolen body) and good old-fashioned legwork while almost inadvertently romancing the bowled-over George, who has never met anyone like this wisecracking dynamo of a modern woman in his trust-fund baby's life. The audience has the advantage of the title, the prologue, and scenes like the theft from the morgue, so we can guess shiveringly at what the characters have yet to suspect, but we're not so far ahead that they look stupid for not connecting the dots sooner, and the film doesn't show so much of its hand that there's nowhere left to escalate. When the finale kicks into full-bore Grand Guignol, it's earned every mad-scientist, monster's-lair, tip-of-the-Phantom's-hat moment of it. But it's also a whirlwind through the gleefully seedier side of 1930's journalism, complete with literal ambulance-chasing, and the dialogue is trippingly, dizzily screwball. Florence and Jim practically have their own idiolect compounded of equal parts affection, exasperation, and oneupsmanship. "Hello, light of my life," she greets him with saccharine effusion; he responds with equal heartiness, "Well, well, Prussic acid!" He sketches her as Mickey Mouse tilting at windmills and she sails into his office with a plummy "As I live and breathe and wear spats, the prince!" When she blows him a raspberry over the phone, he retorts, "A cow does that and gives milk besides." There's nothing they can't turn into banter, from Florence sighing to a sympathetic cop, "I'm people which the old year saw out . . . I got to make news even if I have to bite a dog," to Jim answering the subject header's question with a deadpan "I used to be married to one" (and before that information can even sink in, Florence briskly tops it: "And it came to life and divorced you, I know all about that"). They're an inevitable couple possibly because neither of them will ever meet anyone else as reflexively sarcastic in their lives. George's million-dollar sincerity doesn't stand a chance.

And it's pre-Code horror, so it's anything goes where early gore effects are concerned. The unmasking moment doesn't quite unseat Lon Chaney, but it offers a commendable challenge, especially after an hour's build-up of half-seen shadow-shots. The gruesome secret of the waxworks is suggested rather than shown outright, but there's still only one ending available when a giant vat of wax is bubbling beneath expressionist catwalks and there's a madman on the loose. Elsewhere in the world that would vanish from the silver screen within the next year, "Professor" Darcy very obviously has a PhD in Dope and the cops rely on his addiction to break his story. George keeps a bootlegger on retainer. Florence asks a police sergeant, "How's your sex life?" and when she sees him reading Naughty Stories, makes a sympathetic tsk-tsk. To Jim, she fumes, "You may be the world to your mother, but you're a—" (Our tender sensibilities are saved by the ring of a telephone.) There's the simple fact that I can't remember the last time I saw a heroine like Farrell's Florence, the rakish reporter who lives off coffee and booze and never sleeps unless someone tells her to; she looks good even hungover and she has no scruples in pursuit of a story and it's a shame she and James Cagney never worked together, because you can tell she'd hit it off with Picture Snatcher's Danny Kean. I am afraid that Fay Wray's sweet-natured damsel in distress, despite garnering all sorts of accolades from reviewers over the decades, barely registered for me next to Farrell's fireworks.

I should mention lastly that the entire thing is filmed in two-strip Technicolor, which renders the primary palette of the film in blues, greens, and pinks; it looks hand-colored in an effectively unreal way. It was the last feature film made with the process before three-strip Technicolor came in. I never acclimated to it in the sense of finding it natural, but as an atmospheric choice it definitely heightens the lurid air of the piece. Its New York City seems poised to run like watercolors or dissolve into the pinkish vinegar of deteriorating silver nitrate film. Even realistic interiors like Jim's office seesaw between blue velvet shadows and peach-colored lighting spots. Florence's silky pistachio ice cream pajamas come off well, though.

I really like pre-Code movies. It took decades for American cinema to get this weird again.

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13 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2014-09-22 22:59
Subject: You and the others think me bloodless—nerveless—don't you?
Security: Public
Music:Patti O'Doors, "Tommy's Lot"

Last night I discovered a Tumblr dedicated entirely to Leslie Howard. To the immense surprise of everyone reading this journal, I'm sure, it made me very happy. (Seriously, I have no idea what's going on at that trial, but those reaction shots are genius.) I'd been looking for pictures of him young and I found them. The upper left-hand one has to be Howard in 1914 or '15; he's in uniform and he was out of the Army with shell-shock by 1916. That is a twenty-one-year-old who did not look old enough to buy his own drinks. Here he is a quarter-century later, directing Pimpernel Smith (1941). And looking at these gifs from Roy Del Ruth's Captured! (1933), I was reminded that it is yet another movie I never wrote about—although at least it was only in 2011 that I caught it on TCM. Other movies have been languishing longer. The Petrified Forest (1936), I know you're looking at me.

I said once to ashlyme that I really thought Leslie Howard has been unfairly remembered for the most conventional of his movies (Gone with the Wind (1939), also easily the least interesting of his roles) when in reality he starred in some really weird stuff. So tonight's hit of vintage WTF is Captured!, a pre-Code war movie that's such a strange mix of melodrama and grit, it's not a bad shorthand for World War I.

We start right in with both: in a P.O.W. camp behind German lines where the new intake—British, American, Russian, French—is being ordered in the night rain, the mud, and the glaring electric lights to empty their pockets, strip, and get deloused. It's efficient, unglamorous, disorienting, depersonalizing. (A strategically diagonal rough-hewn beam obscures most of the relevant bits in the long shot of the shower, but it's still a lot of naked guys for a Warner Bros. picture. If you ever wanted to know what Leslie Howard looked like in the shower, this is the film for you. He's kind of weedy. Watch me mind.) When a battle-fatigued young lieutenant snatches a gun from one of the guards, his suicide triggers a full-scale riot that leaves a shocking number of characters to whom we've just been introduced dead and the rest confined to a medievally filthy cellar, not even allowed aboveground for exercise. After three weeks at each other's throats, Howard's Captain Allison is barely able to hold his men together. Then again, he's not doing such a great job with himself.

For an actor so often described as dreamy or sensitive, and so willing to look like a fool or an eccentric for the sake of the script, I find it curious that I have never especially associated Howard with vulnerability in the same way I do Peter Cushing, or Alex Jennings, or lately Peter Capaldi; it's not that his characters are stuffed shirts or cast-iron—it's often the point that they're not—but they're coping more often than not. They have defenses. Henry Higgins has his armor of prickly arrogance, Percy Blakeney his fashionable drawling mask; Alan Squier is a self-deconstructing cynic and Atterbury Dodd is an enormous nerd and doing just fine that way. Fred Allison has a five o'clock shadow, a dirty uniform with the jacket buttoned wrong, and the drawn look of someone who can't remember when last he slept and probably only remembers the last time he ate because it made him feel sick. His body language always gives him away, distracted half-finished gestures and a kind of nervous apathy, as if he's trying very hard not to care about anything and it only works when he doesn't want it to. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. ruffles his hair with affectionate exasperation and cuffs him lightly—the same old Fred, all nerves and down on himself. He's heartsick for his wife, clinging to the one letter she sent him before he was shot down, fingering over and over his memories of her face, her voice, the way she felt in his arms for such a little while, tormented by her silence ever since. When he bargains for the men to be allowed to work with their hands for the sake of their health, the project he chooses for himself is a little model of the house he bought her the day before he was called up. "I met her, married her, and left for the front—all in six days." And she doesn't write to him anymore, because she's in love with Fairbanks' Digby, and she writes to him as often as the Red Cross will deliver her letters.

(We meet her, briefly. She's not a monster. She's not even unsympathetically portrayed. She married a man who loved her desperately in the heady, precipitous whirl of wartime and was regretting it even before Jack Digby came on the scene. She doesn't know how to tell Allison. She doesn't know whether she should. It might be needlessly cruel: what if he comes back and everything changes between them? What if he dies before the war ends and the last thing he knew on earth was despair? What if he doesn't die and nothing changes and she's trapped?)

I have less to say about Fairbanks because Digby is a simpler role—Allison's foil, dashing and youthful, not a fatalist—but it is a nice touch that he is not a cavalier cheater. He's genuinely concerned about his old friend and commanding officer and it twists him in knots to hear Allison plaintively ask him to describe again the night he took Monica to the theater—how did she look? Was she happy? What was she wearing? He wants every detail of their time together and there's too much Digby cannot tell him. Guilt makes him standoffish and Allison takes it as further reason to retreat. This isn't a situation that can be solved with poly, because Margaret Lindsay's Monica no longer wants her husband even in name (and I don't know if Digby wants anyone but her), but it's a believable way for friendship and love to go wrong.

And then a rape-murder—explicitly named as such, because pre-Code—throws a wrench sideways into this tense, subdued, emotional plot and it shifts abruptly from a study in the stresses of wartime to a moral dilemma with nastily immediate consequences and then again into a heroic finish. It's one of those movies that feels in retrospect as though someone shoved two or three different novellas into the same seventy minutes and didn't waste much time making sure they all fit. I like that Digby's jailbreak is prompted almost less by a sense of honor or the obligations of a prisoner of war than by the intolerable guilt of being around trusting, depressed Allison, but I really have my doubts about the ability of your average P.O.W. to steal a plane from a nearby airfield and fly straight back to England. The ending sets itself up for brutal tragedy and then swerves into adventure mode at the last minute. But even when it's barreling through genres like it's flipping pages in a magazine, the film is full of casually handled, thought-provoking moments—they are its most redeeming feature after Howard's performance. After the initial, brutal treatment of the surviving prisoners, they are granted better conditions when Allison gives his parole to Paul Lukas' Oberst Karl Ehrlich, the new commandant whose Oxford-educated courtesy is a foretaste of La grande illusion (1937) or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). He treats the prisoners humanely, knows an honorable enemy when he sees one, and even speaks fondly of England; it takes Allison a moment, but he recognizes the older man's name from a register of fencing champions at his college. They both went to Balliol. (OH FOR GOD'S SAKE LESLIE HOWARD JUST PLAY PETER WIMSEY ALREADY.) All the German dialogue is in German, untranslated, and mostly delivered by native speakers. When the two sides meet to hand over a prisoner in no-man's-land, the script is fully aware of the nonsensical formalities of war, politely ceasing to blow one another's brains out for five minutes so that a man can be executed by the book instead of splattered at random across the wires. (A British soldier and his German counterpart share a cigarette, mutually incomprehensible except by gestures and the standing agreement to see one another at Christmas: "Bit of a conference out there, what?"–"Well, you know how it is.") Close shots of battle are intercut with eerily plausible footage of the front lines. German soldiers on watch read the papers for the political cartoons. And just to recap, naked Leslie Howard and nuanced characterization of an unfaithful woman, because pre-Code. I remain skeptical about the ending, but I remain skeptical about a lot of things.

I don't believe this movie is available on the internet. It wasn't on DVD the last time I looked. My best hope for seeing it again is the rather wistful theory that the HFA will do another pre-Code festival and include it because it has name value coming out its ears. Mostly I recommend it for Leslie Howard and the irregular realism of the wartime setting, which is alternately sentimental and two-fisted and way the hell nastier than I expected to see onscreen for another forty years. And I remember liking some of the cinematography, especially in the early scenes. There might have been a better story out of the same premise; Captured! is the one we got. I'm glad of it.

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Date: 2014-03-23 02:36
Subject: But he certainly sustained the illusion with a remarkable grace
Security: Public
Music:The Divine Comedy, "The Complete Banker"

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is a confection, but a curiously elegiac one. Nested within three frames of time like an especially complex mille-feuille (the pastry metaphors are impossible to avoid; there's a plot point with macarons), the story builds an extraordinary depth of remembrance around a main plot so elaborately zany, it enjoys a murder mystery, a prison break, and the trade secrets of the hotel business while still finding time for a funicular, a romance, some truly awful shag carpet, more than one chase scene, balalaikas, and the outbreak of World War II. There's a man blamed for murder right out of Hitchcock, but he did steal the pricelessly famous painting and he knows its value on the black market, too. There's more than one MacGuffin. The ideal soundbite for this film is "the Lubitsch touch with a lot more people saying 'fuck'." Wes Anderson isn't Ernst Lubitsch, of course, nor is he even Mel Brooks, but I didn't expect him even to contemplate addressing the historical shadows which fall just out of frame of the Republic of Zubrowska in 1932, the Grand Budapest Hotel itself perched like a pristine cake topper on a diagonal of mountains so painstakingly detailed, they can't be anything but models and mattes. It's all brightly colored and meticulously poised and centrally framed and sideways-tracked and scene slots neatly into scene as efficiently as the staff of the hotel in their daily procession and yet none of it is insubstantial; it is the always lost, always nostalgic past of elegance and civility and decadence and discretion and we know exactly when it came to a very sharp stop, because Zubrowska is subject to the same historical trends as its Mitteleuropean neighbors, Orsinia, Bandrika, and we remember what was happening there in the '30's, don't we. We meet the hotel for the first time in 1968, all Soviet-bloc slap-over of its Fabergé balconies and gilded elevator cages. Watching the movie flirt through genres with all its airy social slapstick and madcap anachronism is the process of—not recovering, because it's not coming back, but realizing what once was. The film knows there are some realities that no amount of retelling can make over into a great escape or a grand affair, black-and-white and fixed as newsreel footage. It knows also that some things are never gone out of the world so long as someone knows their story. We're told this point-blank, by the very structure at the start; it still manages to sneak up on the viewer somehow. And in between there is a lot of very funny dialogue, some surprising gore, and a performance I'm sorry Ralph Fiennes won't win anything for, because it is perfectly, heartfeltly artificial in a way that mostly went out with the Golden Age of Hollywood. There is nothing realistic about M. Gustave, but you recognize him instantly. There's some Powell and Pressburger in this movie, too—the historical look-back of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the feverish projections of Black Narcissus (1947). Anton Walbrook wouldn't have played the concierge with his fastidious perfume and explosive profanity, but I have no doubt Gustave could have gotten front-row tickets to the Ballet Lermontov on the night.

(Some time after coming home, I realized that the film also reminded me of the children's opera Brundibár, which I saw at Yale in aaaagh 2006; I am still trying to parse quite why. I think it might be something about Adrian Brody's Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis in his black leather greatcoat and his moustache which he might as well have been twirling, confronting Gustave with high-school jock trash-talk and smashing a terrifically lesbian piece of degenerate art (if it's not Schiele, it's a great pastiche). He's not a stand-in—he can't be—but he recalls. There are two kinds of danger in this film: the kind that can be fooled and dodged, and history. I wasn't expecting the latter.)

That's two Wes Andersons in a row I've really, really liked. Maybe he's evolving.

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Date: 2013-10-03 22:03
Subject: You can't talk Latin much. It's not like French
Security: Public
Music:Jello Biafra & Mojo Nixon, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal"

Having finished arguing with pharmacies, and generally feeling like hell, I decided to watch Waterfront (1950), which I'd discovered on International Talk Like a Pirate Day and then not seen because the internet promptly went down for the rest of the day.

It's a quick little twist of a movie, with a melodrama plot and lots of location shooting. Robert Newton's name is first after the title, but he's not the protagonist; that's probably Avis Scott as Nora McCabe, daughter of a merchant sailor who abandoned his family in 1919 and fourteen years later blows back into their lives without remorse or warning, dragging in his wake a messy snarl of drunkenness and trouble with the law. Grown up to fend for herself, Nora's a sharp-tongued, self-reliant young woman who runs more of the household than her wistful mother, her younger sister hoping to marry her way out of the tenements, or their bright youngest brother learning Latin on a scholarship. She knew her father was snowing her all those years ago when he kissed her through the school gates and promised to return; now that he's back, she stares at him like something out of a horror movie, this aging man with his peppery grey hair and the same warm, unreliable grin. Newton's very good in the part, a less sympathetic take on some of the wayward types he's played (cf. The Desert Rats' Tom Bartlett). Confronted by his daughter, Peter McCabe is full of airy reassurances and confiding winks, but his temper scratches nastily to the surface when he doesn't get the loving reunion he wanted and in a fit of spite he goes very nearly from his wife's bedroom to a neighbor's bed. His long-separated spouse can speak kindly of him—"He never really had a chance, poor Peter. Taken away from school and sent to sea before he was George Alexander's age"—but the film doesn't make it an excuse for the monumental callousness with which he really seems to think he can just resume his former presence in their lives. For this reason I suppose Waterfront might be classifiable as a women's picture: the men are the catalysts, but the women are not the scenery. There's a poignant late moment between Peter and the son he never knew about, as he very gently and diffidently offers the boy a tobacco tin that came from his own father, plainly feeling it a very common return for two lines' declamation from the Aeneid. The film still closes on Nora and her new husband, the next generation that matters. Richard Burton is so young I didn't recognize him until his second or third scene, slender, smile-lined and lanky, with lofting dark hair; he can demonstrate to Nora that not all sailors go out with the tide and never come back, but after two years on the dole he can't convince himself he's still a fit match for her. It frustrates her that he insists on waiting to marry until she's no longer supporting them both, but when calamity strikes and he wants to offer his name as a statement of solidarity, she sets him straight as to her priorities: "It's knowing I've got you, Ben." And the very last shot isn't of any human thing at all, but the shipyards of Liverpool, the ships on the Mersey coming in, going out; it amazes me how many stories understand that the sea is under everything, it's what always and doesn't change. I think the film fails the kitchen sink test on the voices alone (almost no one makes any attempt at a regional accent, Lancashire native Kathleen Harrison mystifyingly included), but the cinematography is beautifully documentary of Liverpool's docks and bridges and knows how to turn as expressive as film noir at the right moments. Whatever this genre is, I think its defining entry is still It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), but I'm not sorry I saw this one. Seriously, worth it for the docklands.

I would be a lot more enthusiastic about the new BFI Player premiering on my birthday if I thought it would work in my country. I spent considerable time this afternoon determining that half the things I want to watch starring Robert Donat can't be found on the internet, let alone DVD. Even TCM doesn't seem to have heard of The Cure for Love (1949).

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