Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bride of Frankenstein, the classic 1935 sequel to James Whale’s Frankenstein, once more directed by Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the iconic monster and Colin Clive as his creator, as well as featuring Elsa Lanchester and Ernest Thesiger in new roles.  Though it did have its detractors, it was mostly seen as a triumph even upon its initial release, and it is widely hailed today as one of the few movie sequels to surpass the original, not only representing the artistic pinnacle of Universal’s cycle of horror films, but considered by many to be the defining masterwork of Whale’s short career.

After a sumptuous prologue in which Mary Shelley- author of the original Frankenstein novel, for those who don’t know- regales her husband Percy and their friend Lord Byron with the continuation of her macabre tale, Bride of Frankenstein picks up where the first film left off, at the smoldering wreckage of the windmill in which, after throwing his creator to an almost certain death, the monster has presumably been burned alive.  As the mob which had trapped him there disperses, the parents of a child he had murdered linger to assure themselves of the creature’s demise, only to make the fatal discovery that, having found refuge in the mill’s flooded basement, he has survived after all.  Meanwhile, after being transported back to his baronial castle, Dr. Frankenstein is also found to have survived, much to the joy of his fiancée Elizabeth, who vows to nurse him back to full health so that they may finally celebrate the wedding postponed by the rampage of his marauding creation.  His recuperation is interrupted by a visit from his former professor, Dr. Pretorius, who reveals that his own experiments in the creation of life have also met with success and insists that the two join forces in order to continue the work; Frankenstein, despite the horrific experiences that resulted from his previous efforts, is fascinated and drawn in by the possibilities.  In the outside world, the monster wanders the countryside, seeking safe haven and experiencing disastrous encounters with terrified townspeople.  Eventually captured and imprisoned, he breaks his chains and escapes into the woods, where he finally finds refuge with a lonely blind hermit, who treats him with kindness and teaches him to speak and to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.  This idyllic respite is short-lived, however; a pair of hunters discover the creature, the hermit’s cottage is accidentally set ablaze in the ensuing struggle, and the forlorn fugitive flees as his new friend is led away to safety by the interlopers.  With the entire countryside on his heels, the monster hides away in a dilapidated crypt, where he unexpectedly encounters none other than Dr. Pretorius.  The scientist befriends him, and promises that, with his help, he can persuade Dr. Frankenstein to make a new creature, a female that will at last offer the lonely outcast the companionship for which he longs.  When the good doctor, newly married and about to embark on his honeymoon, refuses to cooperate, Pretorius instructs the monster to abduct Elizabeth, and promises Frankenstein her safe return upon the completion of the new creation.  Though he has been forced into participation, the doctor becomes enthusiastic about the project in spite of himself, and soon- thanks to some unsavory assistance procured secretly by Pretorius to find a suitable heart for the new creature- the experiment reaches its successful fruition.  The original monster’s intended mate, however, has a mind of her own, an unexpected development which leads to disastrous complications.

Following the success of the original Frankenstein in 1931, Universal was eager to produce a sequel; they publicized their intention to make one almost immediately, but director Whale was uninterested in returning to the material, feeling that he had exhausted the possibilities with his first effort.  It took several years for the pieces to come together, during which time the filmmaker was persuaded to helm the project as part of a package deal- he was given the chance to direct another film in which he was interested (the now-virtually-forgotten One More River) in exchange for accepting the assignment on the Frankenstein sequel, over which he was also promised absolute artistic control- and work commenced at last on the long-awaited film.  Whale believed, however, that a sequel would be unable to surpass his original movie, so he decided to take a different approach; seeking to turn the film into a black comedy, he rejected several scripts before settling on an adaptation by John Balderston (who had adapted the first film for the screen) of an episode in the original novel in which Frankenstein is coerced into building a mate for his creation.  Another writer, William Hurlbut, was brought in to add the macabre touches of humor desired by Whale, and it was ultimately his screenplay from which Bride of Frankenstein was made; it is clear, however, that he worked in close collaboration with the director, for the film bears Whale’s unmistakable stamp on every frame.

With his background in design and direction for the theatre and his taste for the techniques of German Expressionism, James Whale was an ideal choice as a creator of gothic horror films, something Universal- and its chief executive, Carl Laemmle, Jr.- fully appreciated; the director himself, however, was bored with the genre by the time he made Bride, and frustrated with being pigeonholed into the category of “horror director.”  This conflict seems to have created the perfect foundation for Whale’s precocious creativity to manifest itself on film.  With the rare artistic freedom that was his price for doing the job, he turned the project into something more interesting for himself than just another A-list shocker.  His movie is rich with subversive subtext, taking the accepted conventions of horror melodrama and slyly turning them inside out; he infuses the plot with sly social commentary, finding a sense of the absurd in every scenario and exploiting it for dry comic effect even as he takes delight in its horrific elements.  The representatives of decency and normality are presented as grotesque caricatures, exhibiting ignorance, intolerance, hypocrisy and cruelty at every turn, while the film’s outsiders are treated with dignity and sympathy; whereas in the original film, Frankenstein himself is the main protagonist, a misguided but well-intentioned visionary who takes on the role of Prometheus, in Bride of Frankenstein there can be no mistake about the fact that it is the monster who is our hero.  The angry mobs- a cliché ripe for satire even in 1935- are here the enemy, and the unfortunate victims of the monster’s wrath are merely collateral damage in a reactionary war against the unknown and misunderstood.  As for the doctor himself, he is now an overwrought, uptight coward, denying his true nature to pose as a bastion of decent society; he has been supplanted instead by Pretorius, a figure of dubious motivation but possessed of an undeniable charm which makes us like him despite the shadier aspects of his character.  Pretorius is clearly bent on the destruction of the status quo, and given the unflattering portrait we are given of the society around him, such a goal cannot help but seem reasonably understandable; thus he, like the lonesome creature he befriends and ultimately exploits, becomes a focus for audience identification.

Whale’s film is filled with deliciously subtle wit, even in its most horrifying scenes- Pretorius is a major source of the verbal comedy, although other characters deliver some intentionally unintentional zingers, such as the stodgy burgomaster’s assertion that it’s time for decent men and their wives to be in bed.  This kind of tongue-in-cheek naughtiness is largely responsible for the film’s status as a “camp” classic, which further has given it a reputation for having a heavy homosexual subtext.  Whale was openly gay, and other members of his cast and crew were either known or rumored also to be so; it is not surprising that a connection could be made between the movie’s dominant theme of social ostracism and an expression of gay experience in 1930s culture, and the film’s ironic tone and anti-social perspective certainly suggest an alternative sensibility.  The most obviously gay element, of course, is the prominence of Dr. Pretorius, whose arch attitude and fey demeanor go beyond the level of the typical codified “sissy” characters of the period to make him clearly identifiable as gay to all but the least sophisticated audiences, even in 1935.  Many of Whale’s contemporaries have vehemently dismissed the notion that he deliberately intended the film’s content to be read as “gay,” either overtly or by inference; watching Bride of Frankenstein, however, it is hard to imagine that a director of such obvious intelligence and command of his art would be unaware of the implications inherent in many of the movie’s situations.  Perhaps it is an overstatement, based on a retro-fitting of modern ideas, to interpret (for example) the extended sequence of the monster’s relationship with the blind hermit as an allegory for same-sex unions; but it seems equally unlikely to think that Whale and his associates were not aware of the obvious metaphor of an “unnatural monster” being persecuted and driven to the fringes of society to find acceptance.  Of course, social isolation is a universal experience, and one of Bride‘s great strengths is the clarity with which it is portrayed; Whale’s acute personal connection to the monster’s plight no doubt played an important role in his ability to bring it to the screen with such powerful resonance.  Like all great artists, he drew inspiration from his own psyche to infuse his work with a conviction and authenticity that is accessible to all.

Whether or not the supposed gay subtext was intentional, Bride of Frankenstein contains a considerable amount of sexual innuendo which most definitely was meant to be there.  Nevertheless, these elements were not the source of the film’s difficulty with the Hays Office; rather, the censors objected to the film’s heavy use of religious iconography and its extreme (for the time) violence.  Whale loaded his movie with crosses and crucifixes, at one point even featuring a scene in which the monster, captured by the irate villagers, is lashed to a post and raised is an unmistakably Christ-like pose before being loaded into a cart for transport to a jail cell; while much of this material remains, the Hays censors insisted on the removal of some even more overt scenes which they deemed to be blasphemous.  The director was known by his colleagues to be irreligious, but even so it is doubtful he intended disrespect by including these aspects in the film; more likely, it was a pointed observation on the irony of the decidedly un-Christian treatment visited on the monster by the supposedly righteous mob, and perhaps also, subtly, an inversion of the Christ story, in which a being raised from the dead is persecuted and rejected by an fearful and inhospitable populace.  As for the violence, it probably goes without saying that it is hard to see, by today’s standards, how there could be any objection to the few brief moments in which the monster dispatches yet another irate villager; there is no visible bloodshed, we are given no gruesome close-ups or buckets of gore, and most of the killings are over before we even realize they are happening.  Still, the body count in Bride of Frankenstein is considerably higher than that of the original film, and quick as they may be, some of the murders are admittedly disturbing on a psychic level that has nothing to do with the gross-out factor which has today replaced the deeper shocks favored by horror filmmakers of old.  Consequently, extensive cutting was necessary to obtain a passing certification from the Hays Office, and at least one new scene had to be hurriedly added before release in order to bridge the story gaps created by these edits.  Thanks to Hollywood’s self-imposed decency standards, therefore, Whale did not quite achieve the complete artistic control he had been offered; indeed, the studio also reneged on its promise in one key instance, demanding a happy ending (and one which might facilitate the possibility of yet another sequel) to replace the one Whale shot, in which (“spoiler” alert) all the principal characters perished.  Consequently, new footage was shot at the last minute, depicting the escape of Dr. Frankenstein and Elizabeth (who is technically, of course, the actual title character of the film); however, due to budgetary constraints, it was not possible to reshoot already finished footage of the exploding laboratory, so that in the final version, the good doctor can still be seen pressed against the wall as the room collapses into rubble.  Though this was contrary to the director’s plan, there is a certain ambiguity to the hollowness of this tacked on reprieve, which evokes questions of how this hopelessly scarred couple can ever hope to free themselves of the nightmarish experiences they have lived through- particularly the doctor, already a visibly broken man, who was at least partly responsible for the preceding events having ever taken place.  In any case, the survival of these two characters does nothing to alleviate the sense of tragedy which permeates the film’s final moments; if anything, it underscores the sadness we feel at the fate of the film’s true protagonist.

Analytical discussion aside, there is much to praise in Bride of Frankenstein; Universal considered it one of their most important productions, having established a lucrative domination of the horror market and fully anticipating a major hit with the eagerly awaited continuation of one of their most popular films.  Consequently, the production values are sumptuous, from the elegant period decor and costumes of the Romantic Era prologue to the elaborate blend of gothic futurism that dominates the laboratory in the movie’s climactic scenes.  The special effects were top-notch for their time, and black-and-white cinematography (by John J. Mescall) is a glorious example of the bygone aesthetic of light and shadow that made films of this era such a magnificent, ethereal beauty.  Franz Waxman’s eerie, unresolved score provides a darkly romantic atmosphere throughout and drives the story relentlessly towards its cataclysmic finale.  Whale’s skill as a director manifests itself not only through his overseeing and coordination of all these elements, but in his edgy visual style; with rapid cutting, extreme angles, and a highly mobile camera, he manages to build a film that keeps the viewer breathlessly off balance, ensuring that it works as a horror movie independently of the black comedy that simultaneously exists for those audiences savvy enough to see it.

To paraphrase the ending credits, a good cast is worth mentioning, and no discussion of Bride of Frankenstein would be complete without mention of its star, Boris Karloff, whose fame and popularity were so great at the time that he was billed simply by his last name.  The pathos which he brought, somewhat unexpectedly, to his portrayal of the monster in the original film, is here brought to the front and center of the proceedings, and he provides genuine heart to the story, which prevents the loopy comedy from undermining the movie’s seriousness and keeps the sensationalism of the horror elements from overpowering its deeper message.  It is well-known that the actor objected to the creature’s development of speech within this movie, feeling that it would create an awkward and jarring effect that might alienate the audience- or worse, make them laugh; even so, he rose to the occasion well, delivering his stilted, remedial dialogue with as much conviction and sincerity as he performed the physicality of the monster.  The addition of speaking did have a somewhat unfortunate side effect, in that Karloff was unable to remove his dental plate as he had in Frankenstein, which meant that the formerly sunken-cheeked monster had a fuller face this time around; but the iconic makeup (designed by the uncredited Jack Pierce) was adapted to reflect the damage caused by the windmill fire that ended the original film, so the change was perhaps less noticeable than it might have been.  As for Colin Clive, the other returnee from the first film, his severe alcoholism had progressed considerably, and its ravages were plainly visible onscreen- the actor looks considerably older this time around, and his distraught, unfocused persona is a far cry from the clear-eyed drive and passion of his former appearance as Dr. Frankenstein.  His deterioration was doubtless made all the more evident by the fact that he broke his leg in a horseback riding accident shortly after filming began, requiring him to be seated for most of his scenes and in excruciating pain for the ones in which it was not possible.  Though this was obviously a tragic state of affairs for Clive, who would die at the age of 37 just a few months after the release of Bride, it gave him a decidedly convincing edge in his nerve-wracked, tormented performance as the unfortunate doctor.  Replacing Mae Clarke, who was battling health problems and unable to return as the hapless Elizabeth, was 17-year-old Valerie Hobson, whose melodramatic performance, while hardly memorable, adds an appropriate touch of the hysterical to the mix; and the aforementioned Ernest Thesiger, an English stage actor of considerable reputation who was a friend of Whale’s, makes one of the most memorable appearances in the history of horror as Dr. Pretorius, dripping with prissy irony and presenting a veneer of good-natured gentility which magnifies, rather than masks, the malevolent intent behind it.  As for the justly famous appearance by Elsa Lanchester as the monster’s would-be mate, it is without question the film’s electrifying highlight- not just because of the iconic design of the character, with her Nefertiti-inspired lightning bolt hairstyle, but because of the actress’ brilliant, jerky performance (which she said was based on angry swans), punctuated by shrill shrieks, deadly hissing, and other sub-human vocalizations.  Often overlooked, however, is Lanchester’s other performance as Mary Shelley in the film’s opening scenes; she sets the tone for the entire movie, offering up a demure and delicate persona with the unmistakable glimmer of a twisted and demonic imagination underneath it.  Rounding out the cast is the delightful Una O’Connor, as Frankenstein’s busybody housemaid, whose encounter with the monster early on is another of the film’s highlights; she provides comic relief, of course, but there is an undercurrent of ugliness within her character that continually reminds us of the small-minded baseness of the common throng.

Bride of Frankensteinin (which was referred to in publicity material with “The” in front of the title, though the word is absent in the credits), by today’s standards, is not a scary movie.  Modern audiences expect much more gruesome and explicit shocks, and the lingering Victorian morality which pervades horror movies of the past now seems quaint and laughable.  Nevertheless, it is, by any standards, a superb movie.  Once its conditions are accepted, it offers a compelling and surprisingly affecting story while laughing with us at the ridiculous conceits the genre requires.  Regardless of whether Whale intended it or not, it contains a rich subtext that reflects both his personal experiences and the larger social fabric of the time, and touches on a universal nerve that is timeless in its relevance.  Most importantly, it contains a treasure of rich, indelible images that transcend the material itself to become icons of the popular cultural imagination.  On top of all that, it is what Whale himself declared it would be: a “hoot.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026138/

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Gods and Monsters (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gods and Monsters, the 1998 drama by Bill Condon about the final days of legendary film director James Whale- the man responsible for, among other things, the iconic 1931 Frankenstein and its 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Based on a novel, Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, it offers a speculative scenario about the events surrounding Whale’s mysterious death in his own swimming pool at 67, years after his retirement from Hollywood, and enjoyed much critical acclaim- particularly for the performances of Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave, and for Condon’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay- as well as achieving a relatively impressive amount of popular success (for an independently-produced, non-blockbuster feature, that is) due to the appeal of its subject matter for fans of the classic horror genre, its exploration of one of Old Hollywood’s most notorious and enduring mysteries, and- undoubtedly- the presence of then-heartthrob Brendan Fraser in the co-starring role.

Whale’s 1957 drowning took place a decade after his departure from active filmmaking, a choice taken after studio interference made it increasingly difficult for him to realize his edgy and slyly subversive vision in his work; though he maintained his Hollywood residence and was still well-known by his friends and former colleagues in the industry, his name had slipped into obscurity within the larger public consciousness. After a series of strokes left him weakened both physically and mentally, plagued by excruciating, near-constant headaches and prone to blackouts and periods of disorientation, he became a near recluse in his home; Gods and Monsters uses this period as a springboard into its narrative, blending fact with fiction to present an imagined reconstruction of the director’s last few weeks.  Isolated in his Hollywood home, Whale fills his time drawing and painting, tended by his German housekeeper, Hanna, who is fiercely devoted to her employer despite her vehement- and vocal- disapproval of his open homosexuality. Bored, fighting depression, and haunted by memories of his youth and his Hollywood heyday, his interest is piqued by the arrival of a new gardener- Clayton Boone, a young, virile and handsome ex-marine. Though Clayton is reluctant at first, he is persuaded by Whale to sit for him, posing for sketches and reminiscing about the director’s past experiences; despite the derision of his blue collar friends and his own homophobic insecurities, he is drawn into an uneasy friendship, partly by his employer’s former fame and glory, but also increasingly by the connection that develops between them. Whale’s condition, however, continues to deteriorate, and his new relationship with Clayton triggers more and more painful memories- of his poverty-stricken childhood, of the tragic loss of his first love in the trenches of WWI, and of his former days as a filmmaker; in his torment, he attempts to manipulate the young man into providing relief for his suffering- but the results of this scheme take a different form than either of them might foresee.

Bram’s novel- and therefore, Condon’s screenplay- takes several flights of fancy from the real story surrounding Whale’s demise, most significantly in the creation of Clayton, an entirely fictitious character (though he may have parallels with a chauffeur brought back by Whale from one of his trips to Europe, several years before the events depicted here). In real life, when the director’s body was found floating in his swimming pool, a suicide note was also found; it was, however, kept undisclosed by Whale’s longtime partner, producer David Lewis, until shortly before his own death 30 years later. Whale’s grieving lover made this decision out of respect, wishing to avoid the scandal and stigma that so often accompanies celebrity suicide- especially in the 1950s- but the absence of a note fueled years of whispered speculation about what had really happened.  Although the drowning had been ruled a suicide, rumors of foul play continued to emerge until the revelation of the note put an end, at last, to the mystery. By the time of Bram’s novel, the truth had long been out, but enough unanswered questions remained to warrant ongoing interest in this morbid Hollywood legend, and the fabricated (but plausible) relationship between Whale and Clayton provided a means of reconciling the facts of the case with the kind of salacious gossip which grew around it.

Condon’s movie, however, is no mere piece of sensationalistic pseudo-biographical fluff; though he takes a rather straightforward approach to telling his story, he infuses it along the way with subtle but thought-provoking explorations of larger themes and social issues- attitudes towards class and sexuality, the long-term damage of war on those who fight in it, and the isolation that results from striving to be extraordinary in an ordinary world.  Layered into the mix are also some observational parallels between Whale’s life and his most famous creations, with his own isolation and status as an outcast reflecting that of the misbegotten monster of Frankenstein as well as the famous Dr. Pretorius of Bride, and his relationship with Clayton echoing both Pretorius and Dr. Frankenstein himself.  All these and more provide fodder for Condon’s character-driven psychodrama, and though it comes in the guise of a Hollywood tell-all, Gods and Monsters cleverly rides a deeper undercurrent, emerging through dialogue and the well-placed interpolation of Whale’s brief-but-vivid flashbacks, which we scarcely even notice until its cumulative power hits us in the bittersweet final scenes. It’s the kind of unassuming filmmaking that is often overlooked, but it makes the difference between a genuinely affecting movie and just another pretentious, self-important “prestige picture.”

These thematic conceits may be an important factor in Gods and Monsters, but it’s a film that works splendidly on the more immediate level of storytelling as well; it’s not big on action- the plot reveals itself more through the development of the characters and their relationships than through events- but it nevertheless captivates us and keeps us engaged as it unfolds what is ultimately a sweetly sad portrait of an unorthodox and unlikely relationship between two misfits, and the unexpected gifts it bestows upon them both. One of the primary reasons it sustains our interest, of course, is the work of its fine cast, led by the brilliant Ian McKellen as Whale. Long one of the foremost thespians on the English- and, sometimes, New York- stage, at the time of Gods and Monsters he had yet to achieve the international screen stardom that would come with his portrayal of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his performance here deservedly garnered him universal acclaim and numerous award nominations; his own natural elegance and charm, as well as his wickedly sly sensibilities, blend into the persona of the troubled director and infuse him with the air of a genteel and lovably eccentric (if somehow vaguely dangerous) man of depth and humor, but he also captures the inner turmoil and confusion that allows this stately veneer to transform suddenly into ugliness and rage.  Providing a rougher, more youthful energy is Brendan Fraser, who also brings his natural personality to the role of Clayton, making it clear from early on that his brutish facade conceals a more sensitive nature than he wishes to reveal. The chemistry he displays with McKellen is palpable and infectious- the two actors became close offscreen, as well- and if his acting skills are not quite the equal of his co-star’s (few can lay claim to that level of ability), he more than makes up for it in heart, and together they are well up to the task of carrying the film.  Rounding out the principal trio is Lynn Redgrave, another English veteran, as the hard-working and hard-edged Hanna, who accomplishes the remarkable feat of embodying what amounts to an over-the-top caricature- an earthier, more modern version, perhaps, of Una O’Connor’s shrilly opinionated housekeeper in Bride of Frankenstein– while still finding the deep humanity that makes her a compelling and viable participant in the story rather than simple comic relief.  Spouting admonishments in a harsh German accent, her expressive face oozes unconcealed disapproval all along the way, but she exudes compassion behind every grotesque grimace; it was, sadly, to be one of her final screen appearances, but for many it was her crowning performance, and it provides a necessary grounding force to the drama.

For those seeking an exposé of Old Hollywood’s dirty secrets or an extensive recreation of its environment, Gods and Monsters is likely to be a disappointment; most of its action takes place within the confines of Whale’s timelessly elegant household, and though the costume and scenic designers have done a fine job of appointing it with the appropriate trappings of the period, these elements take a back seat to the emotional and psychological landscape that is Condon’s main focus.  Even so, there is a short but meticulously realized flashback to the set of Bride of Frankenstein, in which we see Whale in his creative prime, staging the iconic scene of the female monster’s unmasking; and late in the film there is an extended excursion to a garden party honoring the visiting Princess Margaret, hosted by Whale’s fellow gay filmmaker, George Cukor.  In this sequence we are given a brief-but-potent glimpse at the politics of gay Hollywood, where the famously open Whale is treated with wary discomfort by his former colleagues- who, while not exactly closeted, are careful to maintain the semblance of proprietary conformism- and the once respected director is only of interest as a curiosity of the past, posing with his former “monsters” for photos of an uncomfortable and unwanted reunion.  It is at once a nostalgic look at a bygone era and a pointed reminder of Hollywood’s shallow and eternal fickleness.

For obvious reasons, Gods and Monsters has a strong appeal for gay audiences, centered as it is on one of classic cinema’s most well-known homosexual figures; but while Whale’s sexuality is decidedly germane to the plot, and plays a major part in the psychic makeup of his character and the journey he takes, it is not, ultimately, the main concern of Condon’s film.  Rather, like the period accoutrements which establish the movie’s backdrop of time and place, the issue serves as a factor to inform and color the proceedings, which are finally about the universal human need for connection- to the past, to the future, to other human beings, and to one’s own true self.  In a world which relentlessly strives to define us according to the lingering standards of a rigid status quo, those who are different- and we are all different, at heart- face the isolation and shame that comes with the stigma of not fitting in; in this way, at least, Gods and Monsters has much in common with Whale’s aforementioned cinematic masterpieces, which derived much of their power from the outcast monster’s search for acceptance and companionship.  As Condon attempts to make clear, however, Whale is no monster, no matter how much he feels like one, and neither is Clayton; rather, they are misunderstood, great-hearted men, trapped by the conditions of their lives into a cage from which they yearn to be released.  Through their strange communion, they each find the strength they need to free themselves- not from each other, but from within.  It’s a surprisingly spiritual message for a film about an unrepentantly irreligious and iconoclastic artist, but it is the kind of humanistic spirituality that springs from real life experience rather than the esoteric dogma of religious orthodoxy, and it gives the movie an all-encompassing appeal and makes it an accessible, moving experience for any audience- gay or straight, believer or atheist, intellectual or Average Joe.

It’s impossible to say whether James Whale himself would be pleased with Gods and Monsters; though it makes no effort (beypnd a few deliberately constructed fantasy and dream sequences) to emulate his own directorial style- which was full of expressionistic light and shadow, dramatic angles and editing, and a rapid, restlessly fluid camera- it does share his macabre wit and dark sense of irony, and its sympathy most definitely lies- as did his- with those outside the norm, for whom the inhabitants of the everyday world appear hypocritical and cruel.  However, just as Condon’s movie is not really about Hollywood, sexuality, or the 1950s, it is not about James Whale the artist, either; though it uses him as its central character, and uses thematic ties to his work to help tell its story, it could be about any one of us, facing the end alone and desperate for a kindred spirit to help make sense of the fears, the regrets, the doubts and the sorrows that make up the history of our lives.  It doesn’t sound very cheerful, but it offers up some food for thought and reminds us all of the importance of making contact- and thanks to Bill Condon and his magnificent cast, it’s also a lot more fun than you might think.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120684/

Lunacy/Sileni (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Lunacy (Šílení), a darkly comic 2005 horror film by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer; based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and drawing inspiration from the writing and philosophies of the Marquis de Sade, its an odd, quirky and disturbing foray into the horror genre by a director known for his odd, quirky and disturbing movies, featuring his trademark mixture of macabre puppetry and animation as well as his usual surrealist influences.  Like most of Švankmajer’s work, it initially received little attention outside of Europe (and the few remaining “art house” theaters), but it has since found an audience, alongside the rest of his canon, among the ranks of his loyal international cult following.

Though it begins, ostensibly, in a present day-setting, the story is quickly drawn anachronistically into the 18th Century, as its protagonist, Jean, is befriended by a wealthy and mysterious marquis (in full period garb) who travels by horse-drawn coach and is attended by a mute servant.  Jean is plagued by recurring nightmares in which two leering goons accost him in his sleep and attempt to forcibly restrain him with a straight jacket; after one such dream causes him to destroy his hotel room in a somnambulant struggle, the marquis comes to his aid by paying for the damages, and then invites the young man to travel with him to his home.  Jean soon discovers, however, that his new benefactor possesses a cruel streak; during his stay he is subjected to cruel pranks- including a bizarre and secretive nocturnal interment- and surreptitiously witnesses a blasphemous ritual in which God and morality are denounced and a young woman in chains is beaten and raped.  Eventually, he accompanies his host to a local asylum, where he is persuaded to remain as a voluntary patient in order to receive treatment for his nighttime disturbances.  His agreement to this arrangement, however, is in reality spurred by the presence there of the girl abused in the black mass, whom he fears to be trapped within the sinister machinations of the marquis and his friend who runs the institution.  Vowing to rescue her and expose the sadistic purposes of her captors, he sets about discovering the hidden truth of the hospital- a place where the inmates and staff are virtually indistinguishable, where chaos and debauchery seem to rampage unchecked, and where a dark secret lies hidden behind the walls, waiting to be set free.

Švankmajer (who provides a spoken introduction to the film in which he plainly states its purpose and emphatically proclaims it not to be “a work of art”) draws the  inspiration for his narrative from Poe’s stories, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and The Premature Burial, but the underlying thematic premise is derived from the views espoused by the notorious Marquis de Sade- upon whom the film’s primary antagonist is clearly based.  The argument of both the real and fictional marquis- that man is a product of nature, cruel and carnal by design, and that notions of God and morality are false constructs based in fear and designed to impose control over the weak and foolish- is the central idea which fuels the story, alongside the added intellectual exploration of two opposing methods to governing the insane: absolute control and absolute freedom.  As to the latter, the director states unequivocally in his prologue that the state of the modern world is a combination of the worst aspects of each of these methods, but- apart from this rather glib assessment- his film offers no real support for this theory beyond the extrapolations that can be made from the allegorical elements of the scenario.  Regarding man’s bestiality, however, Švankmajer gives us plenty of meat- literally.  Providing a sort of running commentary to the action are short segments, produced with the filmmaker’s familiar stop-motion techniques, featuring slabs of raw meat animated into performing various activities reminiscent of basic instinctual behavior- such as eating, fighting, and sexual intercourse-  continually reinforcing the idea of humanity as mere senseless flesh driven by primal impulses.  These vignettes, intercut with the main action, also serve to give Lunacy much of its “creep” factor, though as always in Švankmajer’s films, there is good amount of tongue-in-cheek humor that makes us grin even as we cringe.  On a less abstract level, within the narrative proper, the idea of man’s natural urge towards sex and cruelty is illustrated repeatedly in scenes best left for the viewer to discover for himself, with Jean and his enigmatic damsel-in-distress as the only representatives of sanity- as equated to decency, that is.  However, in keeping with the film’s source material, not to mention its creator’s penchant for surrealism, it is never exactly clear that our assumptions are true, and the question of what constitutes sanity- or decency, for that matter- is one which Lunacy leaves unanswered, choosing rather to provide cynical observation on the basic state of humanity.

Švankmajer has built his unique reputation with decades of imaginative filmmaking, blending live action with animation in ways that are at once deceptively simple and devilishly clever.  Influenced by an early career in puppet theatre, he has brought his traditional stagecraft sensibilities into his cinematic language, establishing himself as a genuine auteur with his shorts and feature films that incorporate not only the aforementioned stop-motion techniques, but claymation, a mixture of realistic and stylized scenery as well as puppets and live actors (and sometimes live actors dressed as puppets), and a generally theatrical style possessed of unmistakably ancient roots that stretch back to the Commedia dell’Arte and beyond.  Lunacy, however, like many of his recent works, utilizes a greater proportion of more-or-less straightforward live action footage; indeed, apart from the previously described meat-in-motion sequences, it contains relatively little of Švankmajer’s familiar visual trickery.  This is not to say the movie is short on the director’s usual delight in showmanship; throughout the story are numerous sequences that clearly draw from his love for the stage- the black mass, viewed from the perspective of an unseen audience (Jean peering through a window), is blatantly theatrical, and a tableau vivant of Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple is later staged by the marquis at the asylum, a nod to the historical de Sade’s direction of plays featuring other inmates when he was at Charenton asylum- as well as to Marat/Sade, the famous avant-garde dramatization of those real-life “productions.”  In addition, the trappings of theatre are scattered throughout the film- costumes, wigs, false facial hair- and the marquis’ entire persona seems to be a sort of performance, as if he is always centerstage in the theatre of his own life.  All of this plays into Švankmajer’s eternal fascination with illusion and the tricks of perception that allow us to be deceived by our own minds, which in turn fits neatly into the Poe-inspired horror scenario, hinging as it does on this very idea; further, the subject matter gives Lunacy‘s theatricality the specific flavor of true Grand Guignol, a style named for the 19th Century Parisian theatre that popularized the staging of horror spectacles, steeped in gore and blasphemy, known for inducing a kind of sexual response to their sensationalistic thrills- which is, of course, highly appropriate in a piece so infused with the spirit of De Sade.

Lunacy is not, of course, a play, and though it borrows much from the theatrical milieu, it also revels in its cinematic nature.  Švankmajer’s understanding of his medium is absolute; he directs with the confidence- even the cockiness- of someone like Hitchcock or Kubrick, delighting in his offbeat style and audaciously presenting his subversive ideas with imagery that is as indelible as it is absurd.  That Lunacy is a self-proclaimed horror film makes little difference in the director’s approach; the choices and tactics he employs are no more horrific than those in any given Švankmajer film, and indeed, he shows considerable restraint here, leaving many things to the imagination that might, with a different director behind the camera, be exploited for their full shock potential.  Providing shock has never been of interest to Švankmajer; rather, he prefers to unsettle us, to disturb the comfort of our psyches by inundating it with the illogical and the impossible, simulating the peculiar flow of a dreamlike consciousness where the contradictory makes perfect sense and the ordinary seems unnatural and menacing.  He creates a hallucinatory landscape in which the demons of our imagination appear before our eyes in all their unexpected familiarity, and because he is so good at doing so, the things he doesn’t show us are all the more potent.

Lunacy, like all of Švankmajer’s films, is ultimately beyond the realm of standard criticism; it exists as a thing unto itself, and to this whimsically macabre visionary’s loyal legion of acolytes, it is one more perfect creation in a body of work that, thankfully, continues to grow.  That said, however, watching his effort at a bona fide horror film (though truthfully, in my view, all of his work could be classed as such) is something of a disappointment.  Given the genre into which he has ventured, one might expect a hitherto unseen level of grotesquery, if not in outright terror and gore, at least in the ferociousness of his approach; but although the film contains several highly effective set pieces (the aforementioned black mass- with its mixture of the arcane, the blasphemous, and the erotic- pushes a lot of buttons for those uncomfortable with such improprieties, and the entire premature burial sequence is a mini-masterpiece of evoking chills with atmospheric story-telling) and it maintains a palpable sense of dread and impending doom throughout, it seems strangely subdued- particularly given its influences from Poe and de Sade, neither of whom could be called masters of restraint. It’s true that the film is meant to be comedic as well, albeit in the darkest sense; but again, this can be said of most of Śvankmajer’s work.  Furthermore, his narrative- despite the anachronisms, non-sequiturs, and other occasionally jarring surrealist ornamentation- is uncharacteristically straightforward, linear, and grounded in a relatively concrete reality (with the exception of the ongoing interpolation of animated meat, that is).  Taken on the whole, Lunacy is less engaging than his Faust, and less disturbing than his Lewis Carroll adaptation, Alice, both of which push the limits of our preconceived boundaries with more enthusiasm and, consequently, linger in our memories far more pervasively.

Comparisons with his other work aside, Švankmajer’s horror film is still an impressively imaginative piece of work, capturing in its unorthodox framework both the delirious psychic instability that makes Poe’s stories feel like a fever dream and the perverse thrill that lies at the heart of de Sade’s nihilistic hedonism.  It’s not terrifying- though parts of it may cause faint hearts to beat faster- and its eventual conclusion is predictable for anyone who even a passing familiarity with the conceits of horror fiction; nevertheless, it succeeds better, both on an intellectual and a deeply primal level, than most of the formulaic, shock-oriented thrillers churned out by the mainstream film industry in its pursuit of teenage dollars.  Of course, its bizarre stylization may prevent many casual audiences from finding it appealing; Švankmajer’s movies are not for every taste, certainly, though in truth, Lunacy may be more accessible than much of his more directly avant-garde work.  As for those with more eclectic tastes, those who are already indoctrinated into the peculiar joys of this Czech master may find, as I did, that Lunacy fails to generate the same deliciously mind-twisting effects as some of his other projects- though doubtless there will be those, with whom it strikes a particular chord, who will quickly adopt it as a new favorite; those adventurous cinema enthusiasts who have yet to see a Švankmajer film, however, are likely to find it a pleasant introduction to a strange and darkly wondrous world unlike anything they have seen before.  It’s as good an introduction as any, and if it leaves you wanting more, you can take comfort in the fact that a five-decade body of work exists, awaiting your discovery.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0407236/

Far From Heaven (2002)

Today’s cinema adventure: Far From Heaven, the 2002 drama by writer/director Todd Haynes, which revisits the high-gloss style of late-1950s Hollywood melodramas in order to tell a story of social prejudice and dirty secrets surrounding an ideal, picture-perfect family in mid-century suburbia.  Acclaimed by critics and nominated for scores of awards, it represented Haynes’ breakthrough as a top-level filmmaker and brought him his greatest commercial success to date.  Particularly notable for its visual style- including radiant cinematography and meticulously realized period details- and the performance of Julianne Moore in the central role of a housewife whose ideal life begins to crumble around her, it is also considered an important breakthrough in the acceptance of independently produced films in the mainstream industry and something of a milestone in the continuing struggle to include gay and lesbian subject matter in movies aimed at a wider audience.

Set in the suburbs of Connecticut in 1956, Far From Heaven tells the story of Cathy Whitaker, a model housewife and mother in a seemingly perfect upper middle-class home.  Her marriage to Frank, a successful sales executive, is happy and fulfilling, and she is a prominent member of the town’s well-to-do women’s social circle.  She enjoys a blissfully elegant existence in her fashionable home, tended by Sybil, a black maid whom she treats- more or less- as an equal; the only aspect of her life that is less-than-ideal is the fact that Frank’s long hours at the office increasingly keep him away from home well into the night, but she is understanding and supportive of his efforts to keep his family well-provided-for.  One evening when he is again stuck at work, Cathy decides to surprise her husband by bringing him a dinner plate from home; when she arrives, however, it is she who receives the biggest surprise, for she discovers Frank locked in a passionate kiss with another man.  Later, at home, her deeply mortified husband haltingly admits to her that he has had “problems” in the past but until recently has believed himself to be over them.  He agrees to see a psychiatrist and undertake therapy to “cure” him of his homosexual impulses.  Nevertheless, as time passes, his refusal to discuss his ongoing treatment and his increasing emotional absence from their relationship- as well as his noticeably heavy drinking- begin to take their toll on their marriage; meanwhile, she finds an unexpected connection with her new gardener, Raymond, an educated black widower struggling to raise a daughter on his own.  As their friendship develops, however, Cathy’s society friends begin to take notice, and she finds herself being shunned for crossing the line between races- an unacceptable social taboo which results in the ostracism of Raymond within his own community, as well.  Facing condemnation from her former friends, no longer sure of her marriage, and growing to recognize the previously unthinkable truth about the nature of her feelings for Raymond, Cathy finds herself isolated and increasingly disillusioned by the hollow facade of her so-called perfect life, but in order to preserve her family she must make the difficult choice between following her own heart or conforming to social expectations.

Haynes, known for his highly stylized approach to filmmaking, wrote Far From Heaven as both a tribute to and a reinvention of the lavish domestic melodramas of the late 1950s, popular films which often featured controversial social issues as complications in their stories of idyllic middle-American life.  In keeping with this, his screenplay features the kind of artificial-sounding, slightly over-the-top dialogue found in these slick documents of mid-century morality; but he has updated the subject matter, throwing the spotlight onto the kind of issues that- though deeply pertinent in that age of prosperous conformism- were too hot to handle for film studios still bound by a decency code that prohibited depictions of anything outside the accepted social “norm.”  Consequently, Haynes has made a sort of “what if?” scenario come to life with Far From Heaven; he has painstakingly crafted a film that recreates the look and feel of those he is emulating, but which directly addresses the pertinent issues which could only be hinted at during the era in which they were made.  In other words, he has made the movie that many filmmakers of the time doubtless wished they could have made, but were simply unable.  Mining most specifically from the work of Douglas Sirk, whose big-screen soap operas, particularly All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life, provide the inspiration and the model for Far From Heaven, he peels off the layers of coded euphemism and sugar-coated insulation to reveal the ugly specter of prejudice at the heart of this pretty-picture existence.  In the suburban diorama he presents, the real emotional landscape beneath the pristine and well-ordered surface is made visible; he gives us a world where deviation from the accepted mold is a source of deep shame and scandal, where a “real man” believes that having sexual feelings for his own gender must be a psychological disorder, and where a woman’s friendship with her black maid is seen as admirably progressive but socializing in public with a black man is an affront to decency.

Haynes’ direction is impeccable; he lovingly conjures the form and substance of his chosen genre with absolute accuracy, and yet infuses the whole with his own particular style, subtly edgy and highly contemporary.  There is an eye towards the use of symbolism- Frank’s job is selling advertising and his company’s own marketing features a portrait of himself and his wife in the comfort of their ideal modern home, underscoring the theme of presenting an artificial image for public consumption, and there is a frequent presence of mirrors and other sources of reflection or visual duplication- but these elements are present mostly to support a more direct communication of his themes, revealed through his dialogue and his storytelling.  The outward form of his film adheres to the cinematic language of the movies by which it was inspired- the familiar standards of visual composition, leisurely tracking shots, slow cross-fades or blackouts between scenes, tilted camera angles to indicate that the world is slipping out of balance- without the use of more modernistic techniques such as rapid cutting or varying film speeds; one of Haynes’ most prominent traits as a filmmaker is his gift as a stylistic mimic, and he uses it to great advantage here.  His deep understanding of the milieu in which he is working permits him to utilize its techniques in the service of his personal vision- an expression of the painful longings buried within this bygone era, and a reminder that, sanitized nostalgia aside, the simpler times so fondly remembered in the popular imagination were rife with hypocrisy, ignorance, fear, and heartbreaking dysfunction.  More importantly, by presenting so clearly the outdated mores of the past, Haynes shows us not only how far we’ve come, but also- somewhat discomfortingly- how far we have yet to go.  In observing the attitudes toward race and sexuality variously represented by the characters in the film, we are forced to examine our own relationship with these questions; we are not so far removed from a time when gay bars were hidden establishments behind an unmarked door in an alley or when interracial couples were not free to appear in public together, and the mistrust and prejudice surrounding such matters are still a nagging blot in the heart of our cultural identity.  Though our own world may be a little closer than the one shown here, it is still, for too many of us, “far from heaven.”

The conceit of making a neo-Sirk melodrama, in less ambitious hands, might have resulted in a pale shadow of the original luster undeniably present in those earlier films, but Haynes takes it very seriously, and he takes it all the way; Far From Heaven is built like a piece of retro-fitted classic architecture, incorporating modern advancements into a structure made from the original raw materials and designs.  The film was shot using with contemporary camera equipment, but utilizing the same lens filters and incandescent lighting that would have been employed in the 1950s, allowing cinematographer Edward Lachman to provide a luminous authenticity that perfectly captures the look of the period.  Haynes also worked extensively with his designers to develop a color palette that matched the flavor of the era, infusing the sets and props with a rainbow of pastels and deep hues that likewise encapsulates the sensibilities of the time; most noticeable, perhaps, are the costumes of Sandy Powell, whose stunning designs incorporate not only the colors and lines of ’50s fashion, but the fabrics and textures as well, giving Far From Heaven a sense of realism that is often missing from such period films, which all too often look like an affected caricature of their era rather than a genuine expression of contemporaneous tastes.  To complete the illusion, Haynes went so far as to enlist the great film composer Elmer Bernstein, whose music graced many of the most well-remembered movies of the actual period, to write the score; his lush orchestral accompaniment lends an unmistakable air of authenticity to the proceedings, as well as voicing the passion, the yearning, and the menace inherent in the story.  It was to be Bernstein’s final work- he passed away shortly after completing it- but it stands as one of his finest.

Just as he takes the outward form of his project seriously, Haynes is careful to maintain its inner integrity; here again, he differentiates Far From Heaven from the countless other movies derived from mid-century sensibility by choosing to treat it without the irony that so often pervades contemporary takes on the period.  It is true that the film’s imagery often includes signage or other items which offer subtle commentary on the action or subtext, but this is irony in a different, more literary sense, an artistic device used extensively by directors dating back to the earliest days of cinema and thoroughly in keeping with the style of the actual works the filmmaker emulates.  To avoid inserting contemporary attitudes and judgments into the piece- particularly considering the use of stylized, melodramatic language in the movie’s dialogue- requires a delicacy and skill in the way it is handled by its players, an almost theatrical need to affect a heightened artifice without being disingenuous; one of the greatest blessings of Far From Heaven is that it has a superb cast that is more than equal to that challenge.  It almost goes without saying that the film’s star, the always-glorious Julianne Moore, gives a sublime performance as Cathy, offering up an utterly captivating journey from precious naïveté to worldly disillusionment; her embodiment of Donna Reed perfection is utterly sincere, and yet she gives us a glimmer of the more complex soul that emerges throughout the narrative, as she gradually pares away the layers of socially conditioned conformity to reveal the mature, fully aware woman she has become by the bittersweet final scene.  A more surprising and revelatory performance, however, comes from Dennis Quaid, as husband Frank; always a solid and dependable presence, the actor here breaks from all expectations- while simultaneously using them to great effect- with his portrait of a gay man trapped into the respectably straight, cookie-cutter existence dictated by convention; his exaggeratedly gregarious joviality rings no more false than that of any of his colleagues or cohorts- their world, after all, is a place where a show of male emotion is a sign of weakness and crippling imperfection- but when he is alone, his torment and shame are palpable, seething from within and racking his entire being.  His struggle is all the more painful to watch because his role in the story is that of the unfaithful husband, failing in his duty to home and family because of what his society deems a moral failing, and we as an audience are conditioned to disapprove of his behavior and his choices; Quaid plays it with absolute integrity, forcing us to confront our own preconceived notions by showing us the ugliness of his anger and resentment- but also making it clear that they arise from the conflict between his true nature and his protective mask.  Because he resists the temptation to soften his portrayal by playing for our sympathy, the unfolding emotional wreckage rings completely true, eliciting audience empathy far more than any forced Hollywood sentimentality could manage to do; his scene with Moore following the revelation of his secret shame- a choked, mutually humiliating exchange of faltering half-sentences and defensive body language- is one of the most devastating depictions of a breaking relationship in recent screen memory, and the understanding each actor has for their character in these moments allows us to feel the pain of both throughout the rest of the movie.

Though Far From Heaven ultimately belongs to its two stars, the remainder of the cast is equally superb.  Dennis Haysbert as Raymond brings a refreshingly genuine aura of class to his portrayal of a confident, kind, and sophisticated gentleman, determined to live as he deserves despite the social dictates that surround the color of his skin- though thanks to his later role as the television spokesman for Allstate, it’s sometimes hard to watch him without thinking of insurance.  Patricia Clarkson, as Cathy’s best friend and confidante Eleanor, tackles the delicate and thankless task of providing a sympathetic foil for Moore while having, ultimately, to represent the well-meaning but narrow-minded hypocrisy that permeated the time; she acquits herself admirably, making her character understandable, if not quite sympathetic.  Viola Davis, in an early role as Sybil, Cathy’s maid, has little to do beyond adding her quietly dignified presence to the proceedings, but she does so with grace and charisma, managing to make a strong and eminently likable impression with a minimum of spoken lines.  Finally, mention should be made of James Rebhorn, as the psychiatrist from whom Frank seeks “conversion” therapy, who has a memorable turn in his single scene; also resisting the urge to play a stereotype he presents the good doctor as friendly, kind and professional, a sympathetic- if inscrutable- figure who offers at least the suggestion of a more progressive attitude towards alternative sexuality.

Far From Heaven was a critical darling upon its release, and garnered more than 100 nominations for film awards worldwide, including 4 Oscars.  With its reverent use of classic filmmaking style and technique, it’s easy to see why critics and film scholars would find it so rewarding, and much of the praise and commentary it has generated has been centered on this aspect of the movie; but for those less interested in cinematic heritage than with entertainment value, does it provide a worthwhile time investment on its own merits?  The answer is a resounding yes; Haynes use of the classic mise-en-scène is geared entirely towards making an intelligent, modern film with a compelling, thought-provoking story, and the work of its cast and crew is never anything less than top-notch.  Whether or not you have knowledge or experience of the Sirk-ian ’50s tearjerkers from which it is derived, it is a beautiful film to look at, and even those who normally disdain weepy melodrama will find its approach to be restrained and dignified, devoid of the hokey manipulation that so often mars such stories.  Perhaps its greatest importance lies, however, in the snapshot it gives of a time and place in our not-too-distant past, when a dominant culture was freely allowed to discriminate and disenfranchise those who cannot conform to its carefully-guarded status quo; it’s a reminder of the human cost of hate and ignorance, and a warning to those who take for granted the social advancements of the past half-century- as well as an indictment against the all-too-many in today’s world who still cling to the outdated views of the not-so-golden past.  On a less profound level, it is also a gift for the legion of social “outsiders” who, like its director, grew up loving the movies to which it pays homage, and longed for one that spoke directly to the concerns pertinent in their own lives; Far From Heaven is that movie, and thanks to Todd Haynes, it is everything we could have hoped it would be.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0297884/

Vertigo (1958)

Today’s cinema adventure: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the 1958 psychological mystery that recently replaced Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in the #1 spot on Sight and Sound Magazine’s influential once-a-decade list of the best films ever made. Initially considered a disappointing entry to the Hitchcock canon, at the time of its release it received mixed reviews and barely broke even at the box office- an exception to the usual popularity and success enjoyed by the director’s films. Though Hitchcock himself cited it as one of his personal favorites among his films, it remained largely ignored by his admirers, even during the major reevaluation of his work by a new generation of critics that recognized the director as a true cinematic artist instead of merely a maker of popular entertainment. However, when it was withdrawn from circulation in the 1970s (along with four other titles for which Hitchcock had bought back the rights, intending them as an asset to be passed to his daughter upon his death), its reputation soared, and when it once again became available in 1983 it enjoyed a highly successful theatrical re-release and sweeping critical acclaim. In ensuing years, it has been cited by many as Hitchcock’s masterpiece (a view clearly held by the critics who vote in the Sight and Sound poll); but dissenting voices have argued that it is a flawed, over-rated, self-conscious exercise in pure technique, lacking the director’s usual polished storytelling and sense of humor. In view of this controversy (renewed and exacerbated by its recent promotion to the coveted #1 spot) I couldn’t resist the opportunity to chime in with my assessment- particularly given my own fascination with and appreciation for the work of Hitchcock, surely one of the single most important and influential filmmakers in history, whose innovations and techniques helped to shape the cinematic art form and continue to do so today.

Vertigo, prominently and famously set in San Francisco, is the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, a former police detective who has opted for an early retirement after his crippling fear of heights led to the death of a fellow officer during a rooftop pursuit. As he struggles to overcome the trauma- and his resultant guilt and depression- with the help of his best friend (and one-time fiancée), “Midge” Wood, he is approached by a former acquaintance, one Gavin Elster, to undertake a private investigation; Elster fears that his wife’s erratic behavior and mysterious wanderings are signs of a growing mental instability which may jeopardize her safety, and after some persuasion, Ferguson agrees to take the case. He follows the coldly beautiful Madeleine Elster on her seemingly aimless, trancelike meanderings around the city, gradually discovering that she has become obsessed with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who descended into madness and suicide after being abandoned by her wealthy lover; the fascination becomes more ominous when he learns from Elster that Madeleine is unaware of her own relation to the late Carlotta- or of anything about her- which has led him to suspect she has become possessed by the tragic woman’s restless spirit. Refusing to believe in ghosts (and developing his own obsessions), Ferguson continues to tail Madeleine, until, on one of her endless daily excursions, she abruptly jumps into San Francisco Bay. Forced to come to her rescue, he becomes personally involved with her; determined to help her discover the real cause of her strange psychological condition, he begins to accompany the troubled beauty on her obsessive expeditions, and the two develop a powerful attraction that quickly blossoms into an affair.  Now deeply enmeshed in a mystery- one which has taken on a new urgency with his feelings for Madeleine- Ferguson struggles to uncover the sinister cause of her strange compulsions, even as the diabolical secret of her connection to Carlotta threatens to bring on a tragedy that will once again shatter his own life.

The screenplay for Vertigo is based on D’Entre les morts, a novel by French authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose previous work, Celle qui n’était plus, had been unsuccessfully pursued by Hitchcock before being filmed by director Henri-Georges Clouzot as his masterpiece, Les Diaboliques. Though not written directly by Hitchcock, the script was prepared, as with most of the director’s films, under his strict and meticulous guidelines; an early version by playwright Maxwell Anderson was rejected outright, and a second draft by Alec Coppel was completely rewritten by Samuel Taylor- who worked exclusively from the director’s detailed synopsis to create the screenplay which was eventually used.  The resulting scenario, not surprisingly, is rife with classic Hitchcockian elements; most prominent, of course, is the focus on an icy blonde woman who irresistibly lures the hero into a web of illusion and deceit. Vertigo may be Hitchcock’s most personal statement on film in the sense that he uses the slow unwinding of its plot to explore in depth the themes which run throughout his other works. The simultaneous adulation and mistrust of women, the cynical view of romance, the Freudian emphasis on sexuality (the sexual subtext throughout is palpable, at times shockingly overt for a film produced at the time), the psychological connection between sex and death, and- perhaps most importantly- the obsessive fascination with image and illusion and the manipulation of these things to obscure the truth; all these are present, and magnified from their usual level of underlying texture to become the main concern of the film.  In “Scottie” Ferguson’s desperate attempt to fix his broken psyche by rescuing another tormented soul, he becomes fixated on Madeleine Elster as an object of desire; his sexual attraction merges with his efforts to conquer his fears and she comes to represent for him a return to wholeness- to attain her would be to repair his damaged life. However, his perception of her is flawed, partly by deliberate obfuscation, yes, but also by his own self-delusion, and his insistence on making her into his own fantasy threatens to drag him into the very madness from which he believes he is saving her- and also to blind him to the woman she really is.  It’s a dark journey, even for Hitchcock, and offers a grim counterpoint to the idealized love affairs that were so popularly portrayed in many of the glossy and sentimental romantic melodramas of the same era.

This decidedly bleak depiction of love may be one of the keys to why Vertigo failed to capture Hitchcock’s loyal followers upon its first release. His most popular formula was always a blend of romance, humor, and suspense, tinged with darkness, perhaps- even the director’s most likable characters were possessed of a few unpleasant quirks, and his villains were often more sympathetic (or at least more charming) than his heroes- but ultimately reinforcing the traditional Hollywood message that love conquers all, in the end. Vertigo was a marked departure from this tradition, even going so far as to use the audience’s expectations to lure them into the psychological trap its creator had planned,  The film’s first scene- after the expository opening in which we see the tragic rooftop incident that ends its protagonist’s police career and establishes the necessary premise of his paralyzing acrophobia- lulls us into the comfort of familiar Hitchcock territory with the playfully flirtatious banter between Ferguson and his erstwhile girlfriend Midge as he lounges in her apartment; our hero seems down-to-earth, well-adjusted and pleasant, and the tone is decidedly light- indeed, almost jarringly light, considering the gruesome events we have just witnessed.  In true Hitchcock fashion, the scene takes a foreboding turn toward the end, revealing the truth that all is not as well as it seems; but unlike most of his previous work, the ensuing drama never brings us back to the light.  Instead, the mystery into which we are pulled- part ghost story, part psychodrama- takes us deeper and deeper into uncomfortable territory, as we witness Ferguson’s spiral into desperation and obsession; as the film progresses, his banter with Midge becomes increasingly tense and forced as their unreconciled relationship falls apart, and his determination to conquer his inner demons seems more and more like denial. Though the plot is ostensibly centered on solving the mystery of Madeleine Elster, we are really watching the slow and inevitable disintegration of a man who refuses to face the truth about himself- and is therefore incapable of seeing the truth of the situation into which he has been drawn. Hitchcock’s well-known device of the “MacGuffin” (a supposedly important object or situation in the plot that is ultimately irrelevant to the film’s true purpose) is here taken to perhaps its extreme; the entire plot is in fact only a vehicle for the director to delve into the dark corners of the flawed human psyche.

That the mystery story is unimportant is made clear by the fact that Hitchcock solves it for us two-thirds of the way through- another reason for contemporaneous dissatisfaction with the movie; herein, however, lies the brilliance of the piece, for it is in the final section that the true, disturbing power of Vertigo emerges. It is difficult to discuss these scenes without giving away key story points for those yet to see the film, but suffice to say that Hitchcock uses the situation he has craftily set up in order to present an unsettling pageant of dysfunction between two people, each pursuing a fantasy (one of the past, one of the future) and deluding themselves about the true nature of their relationship, marked by psychological abuse, unhealthy fetishization, emotional isolation, and denial of the underlying issues that fuel this twisted romance.  It’s brutal to watch; we know it cannot possibly end well, and that it probably shouldn’t, but because Hitchcock is a master of transferring sympathies we desperately hope- along with these emotionally crippled characters- that it will.

From a technical filmmaking standpoint, there can be no argument against the greatness of Vertigo.  Hitchcock was at the peak of his powers here, with the means at his disposal to accomplish his vision to its utmost perfection. He tells his tale visually, with the eye for angles and composition that made him justly renowned, a fluid camera that pulls our eye subtly but unwaveringly to what he wants us to see, and an uncanny skill for timing and editing that manipulates our emotions irresistibly. He incorporates numerous subliminal means to underscore his true intentions; there is an omnipresent motif of spiraling patterns- not only in the story and in the visual design, but also in the magnificently lush, iconic score by favorite collaborator Bernard Herrmann- that continually reinforces his dominant theme of obsession, a state of mind in which endless repetition and revolution around a central focal point are the key characteristics; a heavy use of reflections to emphasize the interplay between illusion and reality (particularly with regard to identity, another important theme which is further supported by the fact that virtually all of the key characters are called by a different name from their given one); and, of course, the favorite technique of using point-of-view shots to help us identify with the characters onscreen- and, more to the point, to make us into voyeurs.

Always one to strive for full coordination of all elements towards a cohesive whole, Hitchcock’s vision extends through the work of his collaborators, never more clearly than in Vertigo.  To begin with, the legendary graphic artist Saul Bass, who also designed the movie’s classic advertising imagery, contributes a sharp and stylish opening credits sequence, establishing the spiraling motif that permeates the film.  Then there is the aforementioned score by Herrmann, a masterpiece of jangled nerves, relentless tension, melancholy longing, and spectacular release; echoing the strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde– another tale of doomed romance- but possessed of the composer’s own unmistakable aural style and distinctively struck in the modernist sound of the mid-20th Century, it is one of the most recognizable pieces of film music ever written- and one of the most effective.  The cinematography of Robert Burks is a masterpiece of late ’50s gloss, capturing not just the mood and atmosphere of the era but of San Francisco- indeed, the extensive location footage provides a dazzling view of the famous local scenery, such that Vertigo could serve as a travelogue for the city; in addition, his exploitation of various qualities of light, from the shimmering haze of a sunny churchyard to the murky gloom of a redwood forest, creates an almost dreamlike immediacy to the images on the screen.  Perhaps most noticeably, there is the stunning use of color throughout the film, painstakingly created by Burks, art directors Henry Bumstead and Hal Pereira, set decorators Sam Comer and Frank McKelvy, and costume designer Edith Head; thanks to their work (and Hitchcock’s meticulous guidance), Vertigo is possibly the most striking example of symbolic color coordination on film- from the dramatic contrast between Madeleine’s blue wrap and the red wallpaper in Ernie’s restaurant, to the jarring dissonance of her blond hair and her classic gray suit, to the surreal neon blue that bathes her apartment at night, the film delivers a magnificently lush palette of bold and subtle hues that elicit primal responses from beginning to end.  This effect is all the more powerful since a 1996 digital restoration (one of the first to be undertaken) returned the movie to its original, pristine condition after years of neglect had left it faded and almost monochromatic.  Having seen both an old print and the restored version, I can tell you it’s like watching a completely different movie, and it makes the greatest imaginable difference in the film’s overall power. Of course, any discussion of Vertigo would be incomplete without a mention of its special effects work, which includes the superb matte effects used to create several important sequences (most notably the bell tower at the mission where both of the film’s climaxes take place), the much-imitated nightmare sequence designed by John Ferren, and the famous “Vertigo Zoom,” used here for the first of countless times, in which a disorienting effect is achieved by simultaneously zooming in on a focal point and pulling back the camera.

Besides all these invaluable contributions, Vertigo benefits from the work of its cast.  Hitchcock, in later interviews, attempted to explain his film’s relative failure by attributing it to the disparity in age between his leading player, James Stewart, and the 26-year-younger Kim Novak, as well as unfairly- and inaccurately- claiming that Stewart had passed his prime and his popularity had waned (the actor actually enjoyed several more years of considerable box office success following his work in Vertigo); it’s true that Stewart may have been a factor in the public’s disappointing reaction to the film, but if so, it had to do with the fact that his character here is a far cry from the light, easy-going persona with which he was associated.  His previous work with Hitchcock had often pushed the boundaries of his gee-whiz image, as had numerous other of his later roles, but with John “Scottie” Ferguson, Stewart’s lovable personality was turned inside out; the good-natured, lackadaisical charm serves as a mask for a morose, deeply troubled psyche, full of self-loathing and capable of great cruelty.  Despite the fact that the actor’s many loyal fans had difficulty accepting him as such a flawed individual, in retrospect it is clear that Vertigo represents one of his finest onscreen achievements; he embraces Ferguson’s bitter darkness whole-heartedly, without attempting to soften it by resorting to sentimentality.  Playing on his own image, he offers a disturbing portrait of a man whose decency and humanity are eroded by depression and obsession, and his haunting performance is the driving strength of the movie- it’s impossible to imagine another actor in the role.  His co-star, Kim Novak, was not Hitchcock’s first choice for the complicated part of Madeleine- he had initially cast the young Vera Miles, who appeared in his previous film, The Wrong Man, but delays in the shooting schedule led to her having to drop out due to pregnancy- but, again, its now hard to picture anyone but Novak as the cool, mysterious, and ethereal focus of the hero’s- and the film’s- compulsive attention.  The director also later criticized Novak’s work, saying that, in retrospect, he felt she was miscast; and others have complained that she frequently seems uncomfortable, stilted and artificial.  Given the nature of her role, however (and once more I am limited by a desire not to provide any “spoilers” for those who haven’t seen the movie), these qualities seem completely apt.  Madeleine, like Ferguson, is hiding her true nature; and Novak ultimately lets us see that underlying her artifice is a sadness and vulnerability that make her heartbreakingly compelling as a tragic heroine.  She is particularly effective in the film’s final third, allowing her warmth- and her real desperation- to come through.

The supporting cast is led by Barbara Bel Geddes, as Midge, Ferguson’s gal-pal, who- though seemingly more solid and straightforward than the two leads- hides her own not-so-secret feelings for her former flame with an act of sly sophistication and smartly casual cynicism; she provides much-needed comic relief, but her own obsession- which leads to serious errors in judgment- is unveiled throughout, tempering the humor with an increasingly uncomfortable sense of emotional panic.  In addition, she represents Ferguson’s last link to the larger world outside of his fixations, and when she exits the film, with the literal slamming of a door and a slow, sad walk down a bleak and empty corridor, her absence is significantly felt; thanks to Bel Geddes’ understated, textured performance, Midge becomes one of the most memorable personifications of the glasses-wearing, “unwanted” woman so frequently found in Hitchcock’s work.  Tom Helmore, as Elster, seems the sad, impotent milquetoast in his few scenes (a characterization which ultimately adds yet another layer to the mysterious plot), and the rest of the cast- which includes some familiar character actors (Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Lee Patrick, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne) along with several unknowns- essay their deceptively small roles with just the right amount of appropriate attitude to further Hitchcock’s subtle psychological manipulation.

It should be obvious by now that I have a lot to say about Vertigo; this is no surprise, because almost everyone who sees it- critic, scholar, or movie fan- has a lot to say about this strange and beautiful film.  It has been suggested that one of the reasons it enjoys such adulation from cinema literati is, in fact, that there is so much to say about it- it is unquestionably a work of art, visually stunning and laden with layers upon layers of symbolism, subtext, and psychology.  Watching Vertigo is strongly reminiscent of viewing a painting in motion, not only because of the richness of its visuals but because of the seemingly endless amount of detail on the screen, each piece of which bears some significance to the film’s overall meaning- or rather, meanings, because like all great art, it opens itself to a multitude of interpretations.  From this standpoint, it certainly qualifies, as much as any of the other contenders, for the honor of being named as the best film of all time.  However, many less-admiring critics have pointed out that, on the more immediate level of pure entertainment, Vertigo fails to accomplish its purpose; the intricate plot is confusing, hampered by a lack of real action, bogged down by clumsy exposition, and hampered by long, uneventful sequences (such as the interminable scenes of Ferguson following Madeleine through the city in his car) that slow the pace to a crawl.  In addition, the story contains details that not only prove to be ultimately irrelevant but, indeed, make no sense; and once the mystery is solved, the central conceit on which the film’s final developments depend is so far-fetched as to pre-empt the willing suspension of disbelief required to make it work.  From my own memory of seeing Vertigo for the first time, I can freely say that all these points affected my reaction to it; die-hard Hitchcock fan as I was (and am), I could not help but be disappointed.  Yet there was a fascination for me here which I could not explain- a nagging feeling that there was something I had missed.  It was years later before I came back to it, but when I did- free from the need to follow a story I already knew- I discovered that to see Vertigo once is not to see it at all.  Dozens of viewings later, I am still discovering it.

Consider this fair warning, then- for the casual viewer, the charms of this much-hyped classic may prove to be invisible.  For those who choose to venture a second look, however, Vertigo begins to unfold itself and display its hidden majesty.  Like the beautiful woman at its center, it is not what it seems- beneath its cold and problematic exterior lies a rich and complex trove of treasures that yields new wonders upon each return visit.  You may not agree with the assessment of Sight and Sound that it is the greatest movie ever made- I can’t say that I do, either- but you would be hard-pressed to find another film which packs so much into such a deceptively simple package.  It is doubtful that Hitchcock- master though he was- consciously intended to create the myriad resonant details which arise throughout his arguable masterpiece; he second-guessed himself frequently during its making, and, indeed, wanted to make changes that were prevented by studio demands- perhaps a rare instance in which such interference resulted in a better movie.  The endless analysis to which this, like all Hitchcock films, has been subjected, would no doubt baffle and amuse a director who, after all, was just trying to make a good movie; nevertheless, as with all great art, the content of the canvas may yield more than even its creator can suspect.  Vertigo reveals much about the depths from which it came, perhaps more than its director could even recognize; it is, in this way, the quintessential Hitchcock film, in which virtually all of the filmmaker’s perennial obsessions were given full expression.  Other of his works may be more entertaining, more frightening, more believable, and more polished- but this one is undoubtedly the most personal, and as such, it is the key to Hitchcock’s universe, in all its darkly beautiful glory.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052357/

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 epic about the controversial military hero who led a successful rebellion by the Arabs as part of the British campaign against their Turkish occupiers during WWI. It’s a film that won 7 Academy Awards, made a star of Peter O’Toole, and is widely proclaimed as the masterwork of its director, David Lean. It’s also my favorite movie. Indeed, my love for it is so deeply rooted that it would be laughable for me to attempt anything like an objective review. However, it would also be unthinkable for me to have a blog dedicated to my passion for movies and not to write about my all-time favorite film; so today’s cinema adventure will be a list of the five reasons why Lawrence of Arabia is the greatest movie ever made. Forgive me in advance: I may gush.

1. The cinematography. The process of making Lawrence of Arabia took place over a grueling three-year period on location in Jordan, Morocco, and Spain. The conditions were punishing, with the cast and crew enduring the extremity of the elements for a longer period than was taken by the historical events depicted in the film. Nevertheless, cinematographer Freddie Young, using the massive and unwieldy cameras required for the film’s 70mm CinemaScope presentation, was able to capture the beauty and majesty of the desert setting to an extent unequalled before or since. The full character of the land is here to see: from the intricate rivulets of blowing sand that make the pristine dunes into a tapestry of constantly changing patterns, to the vast scope of a landscape that seemingly transforms an army of mounted warriors to the size and significance of ants, to the myriad of colors and textures that exist within the deceptively monotonous veneer. By transferring all these subtle details to the screen, Young successfully allows the desert to serve as far more than the mere backdrop it might have been in a lesser film; it plays a full-fledged role in the drama, with the constant assertion of its presence and its ever-shifting mood exerting a continual influence on the actions and the fate of the characters. In a way, Lawrence of Arabia could be characterized as a love story between its eponymous hero and the desert itself; thanks to Freddie Young, the chemistry between them is palpable.

2. The music. French composer Maurice Jarre was not the first choice for the task of creating musical accompaniment for Lean’s epic; he was virtually unknown at the time and was only approached when William Walton (elder statesman of British film composers) and Malcolm Arnold (who had worked with Lean on the highly successful Bridge on the River Kwai) were unavailable. To say he rose to the challenge is an understatement. His sweeping symphonic score is haunting and multi-faceted, from the magisterial strains of the now-familiar main theme to the rousing military marches interpolated throughout, providing the perfect complement to the enigmatic figure at the center of the story and the diverse, turbulent situation that surrounds him. Jarre’s accomplishment was made even more remarkable by the fact that he was only given two weeks to write the entire score; he also reportedly took over leading the orchestra for most of the recording sessions when credited conductor Adrian Boult was unable to coordinate his timing with the cues required by the film’s editing. It was not only the beginning of a long and prolific career as a prominent film composer, but also of a continuing work relationship with Lean that lasted for the rest of the director’s life.

3. The screenplay. Producer Sam Spiegel talked Lawrence’s younger brother into selling him the rights to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s own published memoir, to use as the basis for the film. A screenplay was written by Michael Wilson that centered on the political and military aspects of the story, but Lean was unhappy with that focus. Playwright Robert Bolt was brought in to rewrite the script instead as an examination of Lawrence himself. The result is a layered and intelligent portrait of one of the century’s most controversial heroes, presenting him as a contradictory figure- an egotist plagued by self-doubt, torn between loyalty to his country and love for the Arab cause, uncomfortable with his own people, haunted by his ignoble origins, and determined to write his own destiny. Bold for its time, the script overtly implies his homosexuality, depicts his torture and presumptive rape at the hands of a sadistic Turkish commander, portrays his sadomasochistic tendencies and includes his eager participation in the bloody massacre of a retreating enemy column. Yet despite this in-depth treatment, and though he is described variously by other characters throughout as everything from a “monster” to a “genius,” he remains as much a mystery at the end as he is at the beginning- and the film’s most urgent question, as voiced to Lawrence across the Suez Canal by a stranger in black near the end of its first act, remains unanswered- “Who are you?” Don’t assume, however, that this microscopic attention to its central character means that Lawrence of Arabia avoids the other subjects that factor into his story; not content to take a simple us-against-them perspective about war, the film presents a shrewdly cynical picture of the complicated agendas being shaped by both the British and their Arabian allies-of-convenience, offering insight on a historical period that laid the foundation for a complex and volatile Middle Eastern political arena that still exists today. Its treatment of the realities of warfare reveals the horror and tragedy that lie beneath the illusion of excitement and glory. Within its sweeping scope, it explores the larger theme of destiny vs. self-determination, not with lofty philosophical discourse, but through the course of events that arise in its story- calling into question whether history is shaped by men whose actions determine it, or whether the men are in fact shaped by the events which determine their actions, indeed whether they ultimately have any more significance or influence than pawns on a cosmic chessboard. In short, Lawrence of Arabia is an epic of the largest stature, encompassing important ideas, momentous events and literally thousands of people- but it is also the intimate, personal story of a single man and his journey of self-discovery. Thanks to the brilliantly literate and insightful work of Mr. Bolt, it works on both levels.

4. The performances. For the leading role, Lean’s first choice was Albert Finney, then a relatively unknown actor, and producer Spiegel wanted Marlon Brando. Both declined, and another unknown actor was eventually chosen- Peter O’Toole. It was the perfect match of actor and role. O’Toole completely owns Lawrence, commanding the screen with his flamboyant charisma and his piercing intensity. He conveys all the complexities discussed above without softening any of it for the sake of audience sympathy, and yet by virtue of his sheer honesty and commitment, his deliciously ironic humor, and- perhaps most of all- his underlying humanity, he makes this maddening, difficult, arrogant man into someone we can admire, pity, identify with, and yes, even like. He is surrounded by a superb all-star cast of international actors, all delivering some of the best performances of their careers. Alec Guinness, one of Lean’s favorite collaborators, plays Prince Feisal, leader of the Arab rebel forces and heir presumptive to their throne, who transitions from warrior to diplomat over the course of the film, and shows us the qualities of both in each. Every word he utters is laden with significance and layered with multiple meanings, and not one of them seems contrived or forced. Anthony Quinn embodies a lion of the desert as Auda abu Tayi, a shrewd and ferocious chieftain who initially allies himself with Lawrence’s rebel army primarily for personal profit, but whose loyalty and support are unwavering. He, too, captures the multiple facets of a potentially despicable character and makes them beautiful, turning Auda into both a lovable rogue and a force to be reckoned with. Omar Sharif, also then an unknown, at least outside of his native Egypt, is magnetic as Sherif Ali, another tribal leader, who clashes with Lawrence early on only to become his trusted comrade and closest friend- and perhaps more. Sleekly handsome, his intelligence and sensitivity make Ali an ideal counterpoint to the earthiness of Auda, and the chemistry he displays with O’Toole is tangible, clearly establishing the subtext that makes their characters’ relationship feel unmistakably like the film’s romantic subplot. Jack Hawkins is deceptively straightforward as General Allenby, the chief commander of British forces in the Arabian campaign, making his bemused, stiff-upper-lip demeanor an effective mask for the calculated, strategic thinking with which he manipulates Lawrence- as well as a shield against the uncomfortable moral implications of his Machiavellian tactics. Veteran character actor Claude Rains delivers one of the film’s most delightful and memorable performances as Mr. Dryden, a composite figure designed to represent the diplomatic forces at work behind the scenes and to serve as a sort of mentor to the younger Lawrence; oozing with mischievous charm, he wears the obvious duplicity of his role in the proceedings like a comfortable shroud, providing contrast with Allenby, and giving the impression of an expert puppet-master proudly enjoying his handiwork. As Col. Brighton, the liaison between the British military authority and the Arab forces, Anthony Quayle gives us the stolid presence of a career soldier, honorable, loyal, brave and more than a little dull- though not unintelligent; he makes an excellent foil for Lawrence’s dazzling shine, and provides a necessary and refreshing flavor of the ordinary. Arthur Kennedy brings a distinctively American perspective to the tale as Jackson Bentley, a cynical Chicago news reporter who documents Lawrence’s campaigns and makes him an international hero- and also serves as a kind of Greek chorus, providing a more objective viewpoint to the action and giving voice to the outrage evoked by the perspective of an outsider. Jose Ferrer makes a brief but unforgettable contribution as the sadistic Turkish Bey who interrogates and tortures Lawrence, exuding an oily, jaded dissipation as he gradually makes it clear that his intentions are not military but sexual in nature; somehow, even this dark character elicits a glimmer of sympathetic humanity as Ferrer embodies him with the full weight of his circumstance, making us feel the frustration and dehumanizing detachment that arise from his duties and his isolation. I could continue down the list of actors, all the way to the extras who provide stunning impressions in their few seconds of screen time, but you get the idea.

5. The direction. By the time he made Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean was already respected for both his technical skill and his aesthetic vision, but this film would elevate him to the ranks of a genuine master, eventually to be held in the same esteem as auteurs like Hitchcock, Fellini and Kurosawa. It’s easy to understand why. Lean constructs his film with a keen instinct for visual storytelling, establishing complicated situations, relationships, and thematic elements, packing an entire scene’s worth of exposition into a single, elegantly composed shot. He makes every location an integral part of the action, whether it is the powerful, ever-changing desert landscape, the interior of a tent swaying uneasily in the breeze, or the austere and museum-like halls of the military headquarters. His command of the imagery is not just limited to artful composition; with the abilities derived from working as an editor throughout his early film career (a role which he continued to personally undertake when he moved into the director’s chair), he meticulously pieces together all of his remarkable footage to create this epic true-life adventure in a way that conveys all the subtleties of both the global and personal levels of the story even when he is painting in broad strokes, and never feels slow for a second, despite the film’s notorious running time of nearly 4 hours. It’s no wonder, then, that Lawrence of Arabia has provided an inspirational blueprint for directors ranging from Stephen Spielberg to David Lynch; Lean’s perfectionism is obvious in every frame, and with it he crafts a movie of dazzling complexity out of simple, economical building blocks put together in just the right way. It’s a textbook example of great filmmaking, and even if Lawrence had been Lean’s only great film (which it certainly was not) it would be enough to ensure his place on the short list of the greatest directors of the 20th Century.

It’s only fair to point out that the movie has had its detractors over the years. Lawrence’s brother deeply regretted selling the rights to the story after seeing the film, protesting that the man portrayed in Lean’s vision bore no resemblance to the one he knew in life (though others who knew Lawrence said the film’s depiction was accurate, if somewhat exaggerated); in addition, the family of chieftain Auda abu Tayi pursued legal action against Columbia Studios over the movie’s representation of him as driven by a desire for personal gain, and the family of General Allenby also lodged formal complaints. Newsman Lowell Thomas (whose coverage of Lawrence and his desert campaign were responsible for making him and his exploits famous) called the movie “pretentious and false,” disparaging its accuracy, and many historians have taken exception to its mixture of fact and fiction; real people are mixed together with fictional composites, events are chronologically rearranged for dramatic purposes, some important occurrences are omitted entirely while complete fabrications are given pivotal significance, and some of the true politics surrounding this important chapter in world history have been significantly altered in order to facilitate Lean’s storytelling agenda. These criticisms are all undeniably valid, from a certain perspective- after all, a movie which purports to offer a true presentation of historical facts would do well to stick to those facts with a minimum of artistic license. However, Lawrence of Arabia is not such a movie. It’s not a documentary, nor is it really even a biographical drama; it is a work of fiction, based on a true story, yes, but not merely a regurgitation of documented information. Lean and screenwriter Bolt are more interested in exploring the personal and political facets of human experience than in offering a retrospective of facts, and they follow in the footsteps of many other artists- Shakespeare among them- by altering the historical truth in order to get at the more intangible truths inside it. It may not offer up a fair portrait of its hero- or any of its other characters, real or imagined, and it may not be a reliable document of what really happened on the Arabian Peninsula in 1917-18, but it is a compelling study of human strength and frailty, an insightful commentary on political and social interaction, and a gripping saga of high adventure in an exotic time and place. Criticizing it for being inaccurate is the equivalent of criticizing a painting for not being a photograph.

Of course, there are those who dislike Lawrence of Arabia for reasons other than its historical inaccuracies. Those too young to remember when movies were shown with an intermission may quail at its length- even theater owners of its time protested, prompting the unfortunate cutting of several scenes, only some of which have since been able to be restored. Others have criticized it as male-centric, citing its lack of feminine presence (no women have speaking roles, and indeed, few females appear onscreen at all); and many have protested, variously, its perceived negative portrayal of native Arabs and its use of western actors in most of the major Arab roles- even Omar Sharif, an Egyptian, was an objectionable choice in many parts of the Middle East. Some have called the film “shallow” (an unbelievable criticism, in my view) or “Imperialist” (equally ludicrous), and still others have simply dismissed it as the outdated product of a bygone era. To these opinions, I can only say that everyone is entitled to their personal tastes, though for those who see the film as having an anti-Arab bias I would have to point out that its portrayal of westerners is hardly complementary, either. For those of us who love Lawrence of Arabia, however, its heartening to know we are in good company- its a film that consistently places in the top ten of most lists of the greatest movies of all time, and the contributions of almost all of its participants is widely considered among the finest work in their respective careers.

If you are among those who have yet to see Lawrence of Arabia, there couldn’t be a better time than now. In honor of the film’s 50th anniversary, a painstaking digital restoration has been prepared, returning it to a level of beauty that reportedly even surpasses its pristine, original magnificence. This new version has been screened at several major film festivals and will enjoy a one-day-only theatrical release today (October 4, 2012). If you are lucky enough to be able to get to one of these big-screen presentations, I guarantee you will enjoy an unforgettable cinematic experience. If you can’t make it, though, take heart; it will be released on BluRay for home viewing soon (its already available in the UK), and given the film’s enduring popularity and reputation, you can be assured it will make frequent returns to the big screen- where it was truly meant to be seen and where its full power reveals itself in ways unimaginable in your living room, no matter how sophisticated your equipment may be- for many years to come. If you are anything like me (and if you are reading this, odds are good that you probably are) you will jump at the chance to see it this way, whenever possible. If nothing else, it will remind you that movies, which all too often serve as mere distractions for us in this era of easy access and rapid downloads, are at their best when they are an event- and there are few films more deserving to be treated as an event than Lawrence of Arabia.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056172/

 

Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored

For its 50th Anniversary, David Lean’s Oscar-wining masterpiece has been restored to better than its original glory and is being screened for one day only at theaters across the U.S.  This stunningly beautiful movie can only be fully appreciated on the big screen, so if you are free this Thursday (Oct. 4, 2012) and you are reasonably close to one of the locations, I strongly advise you to jump on this rare opportunity to see it the way it was meant to be seen.  You can get tickets at the website below!  Maybe I’ll see you there!

Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored.