LGBTQ HORROR FILMS FOR A HAUNTING HALLOWEEN

Today’s Cinema Adventure is a list of suggested viewing for the Spooky Season.

Halloween (sometimes referred to as “Gay Christmas”) is on its way, and it’s a great time of year to turn off the lights, settle in on the couch with that special someone, and put on a really scary movie.  Unfortunately, though the genre seems tailor-made for it, there are woefully few horror films aimed at LGBTQ audiences – sure, there’s always “Rocky Horror,” or “The Hunger,” or the blatantly homoerotic “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” but let’s face it, we’ve all seen those plenty of times.

So if you’re looking for something different this season, I’ve put together a list of alternate choices representing the queer presence in cinema – maybe not overtly, in some cases, but certainly in their subtext and sensibilities.

 

THE CLASSIC:

Bride of Frankenstein
“Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) – You won’t find a gayer horror film from Hollywood’s Silver Age than this legendary masterpiece.  After playing it straight with the first “Frankenstein” movie, out director James Whale pulled out all the gay stops for the sequel.  From the metaphor of a hated monster who only wants to be loved, to the presence of the deliciously queer Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, it’s a prime example of a slyly subversive subtext inserted between the lines of a mainstream narrative – and also one of the best monster movies of its classic era.

The Haunting“The Haunting” (1963) – Even if seems tame by today’s standards, director Robert Wise’s adaptation of a short novel by Shirley Jackson is still renowned for the way it uses mood, atmosphere, and suggestion to generate chills.  More to the point for LGBTQ audiences is the presence of Claire Bloom as an openly lesbian character (Claire Bloom), whose sympathetic portrayal is devoid of the dark, predatory overtones that go hand-in-hand with such characters in other pre-Stonewall films.  For those with a taste for brainy, psychological horror movies, this one is essential viewing.

 

THE CAMPY:

Warhols Dracula“Blood for Dracula” AKA “Andy Warhol’s Dracula” (1974) – Although there is nothing explicitly queer about the plot of this cheaply-produced French-Italian opus, the influence of director Paul Morrissey and the presence of quintessential “trade” pin-up boy Joe Dallesandro – not to mention Warhol as producer, though as usual he had little involvement in the actual making of the movie – make it intrinsically gay.  The ridiculous plot, in which the famous Count (Udo Kier) is dying due to a shortage of virgins from whom to suck the blood he needs to survive, is a flimsy excuse for loads of gore and nudity.  Sure, it’s trash – but with Warhol’s name above the title, you can convince yourself that it’s art.

Phantom of the Paradise.jpg“Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) – Again, the plot isn’t gay, and in this case neither was the director (Brian DePalma).  Even so, the level of over-the-top glitz and orgiastic glam makes this bizarre horror-rock-musical a camp-fest of the highest order.  Starring unlikely 70s sensation Paul Williams as a Satanic music producer who ensnares a disfigured composer and a beautiful singer (Jessica Harper) into creating a rock-and-roll opera based on the story of Faust, it also features Gerrit Graham as a flamboyant glam-rocker named Beef and a whole bevy of beautiful young bodies as it re-imagines “The Phantom of the Opera” with a few touches of “Dorian Gray” thrown in for good measure.  Sure, the pre-disco song score (also by Williams) may not have as much modern gay-appeal as some viewers might like, but it’s worth getting over that for the overwrought silliness of the whole thing.

 

THE CREEPY:

The Fourth Man“The Fourth Man (De vierde man)” (1983) – This one isn’t exactly horror, but it’s unsettling vibe is far more likely to make you squirm than most of the so-called fright flicks that try to scare you with ghouls and gore.  Crafted by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (years before he gave us a different kind of horror with “Showgirls”), it’s the sexy tale of an alcoholic writer who becomes involved with an icy blonde, despite visions of the Virgin Mary warning him that she might be a killer.  Things get more complicated when he finds himself attracted to her other boyfriend – and the visions get a lot hotter.  More suspenseful than scary, but you’ll still be wary of scissors for awhile afterwards.

Stranger by the Lake“Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac)” (2013) – This brooding French thriller plays out under bright sunlight, but it’s still probably the scariest movie on the list.  A young man spends his summer at a lakeside beach where gay men come to cruise, witnesses a murder, and finds himself drawn into a romance with the killer.  It’s all very Hitchcockian, and director Alain Guiraudie manipulates our sympathies just like the Master himself.  Yes, it features full-frontal nudity and some fairly explicit sex scenes – but it also delivers a slow-building thrill ride which leaves you with a lingering sense of unease.

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Witchfinder General – U.S. Title: The Conqueror Worm (1968)

Witchfinder General (poster)Conqueror Worm (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Witchfinder General (released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm), the 1968 historical horror drama directed by short-lived filmmaker Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century lawyer who used his self-appointed position as a prosecutor against sorcery and witchcraft to fuel a reign of terror across the countryside of Eastern Britain during the English Civil War.  Produced on a modest budget by Britain’s Tigon Studio, in partnership with American International Pictures (the U.S. company renowned for its success in churning out cheap exploitation films for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd), it was largely deplored by English critics for its then-excessive depictions of sadistic torture and violence and dismissed by American critics as insignificant and mindless pulp; nevertheless, it enjoyed considerable box office success on both sides of the Atlantic and was soon championed by a handful of critics as an underrated gem.  No doubt bolstered by the fact that its young director died of an accidental overdose of prescribed barbiturates and alcohol less than a year after its release, the film gained a sizable cult following and influenced a number of important horror movies over the next decade, and it is now regarded by many critics and enthusiasts as one of the best representatives of its genre.

Based on a little-known novel by Ronald Bassett, Witchfinder General is set in 1645, in the midst of the tumultuous war between the British Monarchy and the rebellious Parliamentary Party.  With bloody fighting going on across England and a lack of central governmental control, a state of near-anarchy prevails- particularly in the small rural villages which dot the countryside.  In the rebel-controlled region of East Anglia, an unscrupulous lawyer named Matthew Hopkins takes advantage of the chaotic atmosphere- and the puritanical fervor that exists in the area’s isolated, superstitious communities- by offering his services as a hunter of witches and sorcerers, extracting a steep fee from local magistrates in exchange for forcing confessions from suspected servants of the Devil and carrying out their subsequent execution.  With his unsavory assistant, John Stearne, he carries out sadistic torture and punishment upon the unfortunate accused, using his self-proclaimed power to terrorize and blackmail his way from town to town.  In the Suffolk village of Brandeston, he carries out one such persecution against the town priest, a kindly soul named John Lowes, from whose niece, Susan, he elicits sexual favors in exchange for showing mercy; when she is raped by Stearnes, Hopkins loses interest, and proceeds to torture and execute the old man- despite his previous promises- before leaving town to continue his bloody campaign and abandoning the devastated Susan to suffer the torment and ridicule of the locals.  Shortly thereafter, her fiancé Richard Marshall, a promising and heroic young soldier in the Parliamentary army, arrives to discover what has taken place; horrified and enraged, he “marries” Susan by his own authority in the desecrated town church, vows to extract vengeance on Hopkins and Stearne for their crimes against her, and sends her to another village, Lavenham, to await him.  Tracking the two scoundrels to the next town, he confronts Stearne in a tavern, but the henchman manages to escape and warn his master that they are being pursued.  Bound to return to duty with his regiment, Marshall must temporarily abandon his quest for justice; meanwhile, his quarry make their way to none other than the town of Leavenham.  There, as they perpetrate their usual horrific cruelty and murder in the name of justice, they discover the relocated Susan, and realizing that her young husband must sooner or later arrive to join her, the two scheme to turn him into a victim of their bogus inquisition before he can strike against them, setting the stage for a grisly final confrontation.

Director Reeves had previously been responsible for two well-received low-budget horror films, Revenge of the Blood Beast and The Sorcerer; he was hired to make Witchfinder General by Tigon executive Tony Tenser, who had read Bassett’s novel before publication and thought it would make the basis for a powerful film.  Reeves enlisted lifelong friend and previous collaborator Tom Baker to co-write the screenplay, but their first two attempts were rejected by the British censorship board on the basis of the heavy inclusion of graphic violence and torture.  The third draft, substantially tamed down, was approved; even so, the finished film still required so much editing before the board would permit its release that Reeves walked away from it, refusing to make any more cuts himself and leaving the studio to make the final extractions.  In America, censorship was not an issue, and the movie was released more or less intact, but the controversy over its gruesome content almost certainly helped to buoy its performance at the box office.

It is the violence of Witchfinder General, of course, that distinguishes it from so many of the era’s other horror movies- indeed, without it, the film could only marginally be called a horror movie, but rather would more accurately be described as historical drama.  From the standpoint of plot, it owes as much to the revenge tragedies of classical theatre as it does to the genre to which it belongs, but there is nothing highbrow about its script.  Reeves and Baker follow the standard formulas and conventions of such fare, and their dialogue, while not exactly banal, is hardly eloquent.  Nor are there any weighty socio-political observations made here; the film is not an indictment of religious hypocrisy or intolerance.  Hopkins is merely an unscrupulous opportunist acting in his own interest with no pretensions of moral superiority, and those who enlist his services seem unconcerned with church doctrine or spiritual corruption; the travesties of justice they carry out are motivated by greed and hatred, a desire to advance personal agendas rather than a firm belief, however delusional, in a religious cause.  If Witchfinder General has any cultural or psychological theme, it has to do with the breakdown of humanity in the absence of social order.  Where it rises above the ordinary crop of this era’s thrillers is in its pervasive mood, its evocation of unspeakable horror lying within the most mundane or idyllic surroundings.  The green and sun-drenched English countryside serves as a backdrop for monstrous cruelty and violence; from the deeply disturbing opening sequence in which a hysterical woman is dragged across a moor to be hanged by a strangely disaffected mob, we are inundated with scenes of brutality and bloodshed in the midst of picturesque beauty.  Soldiers are ambushed and perish in sudden explosions of gore, a sunlit field is the setting for an ugly rape, a quaint village square plays host to a gruesome immolation; the furtive torments enacted by Hopkins take place mostly in the dark, secret rooms and dungeons we expect, but they are only a portion of the savage grotesquery displayed by the population of this seemingly pastoral world.  Even the heroic efforts of our protagonist, cloaked though they may be in righteous outrage, amount to self-satisfying transgressions against the suspended ethical norm; and despite the viciousness of the film’s violence and suffering, in the end the most unsettling element is the calm, detached manner in which it is both perpetrated and observed.  Reeves gives us a world of cold dehumanization, in which the tranquility of the surroundings takes on an ominous chill, rendering the pretty landscape into a nightmarish wasteland in which nature itself stands in cruel mockery of man and his struggles.  There is ultimately no comfort, and no justice, that is not sullied and degraded by the cruelty of selfism, and in the absence of that moral center provided by a sense of community with others, there is no hope of respite or redemption.

Because it paints such a grim picture of human behavior, Witchfinder General remains a chilling and profoundly disturbing film experience despite the fact that over four decades of carnage on the big screen have rendered its once-extreme violence less shocking than quaint.  The amount of visible blood is minimal and unconvincing in its garishly-red theatrical stylization; the scenes of torture and torment are less upsetting for what they show us than for the off-handed manner in which they are enacted.  It probably goes without saying that modern-day horror fans will find it tame and even laughable, but for those with an appreciation for subtler-yet-deeper shocks will be rewarded for the time they devote to screening this unusual classic.  Apart from its overall effect, there are a number of other significant things offered here, such as the sweeping orchestral score by Paul Ferris- once usurped on home video versions, due to copyright issues, by an overdubbed electronic replacement, but restored in most available prints today.  Also notable is the use of authentic locations for the outdoor scenes; set against the backdrop of genuine architecture dating from the period, the bloody injustices perpetrated against victims of opportunistic persecution evoke the uncomfortable realization that similar events did, in reality, take place- events beside which, no doubt, the horror of these dramatized recreations would pale in comparison.

For most viewers, however, and particularly for those who are fans and buffs of classic cinema and its people, the primary interest will lie in the performance of horror icon Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins.  It is well-documented that Price and director Reeves had a very difficult relationship during the making of the film.  Reeves wrote Witchfinder General with Donald Pleasance in mind for the lead role, a familiar but lesser-known actor who embodied the kind of soft-spoken, officious menace the filmmaker wished to portray; American International Pictures, however, insisted (in exchange for their investment in the production) that Price, their resident horror star and headliner of their highly lucrative series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, play the part instead.  Reeves was openly hostile and disparaging to Price on the set, and the normally gracious and polite actor responded- perhaps rightly so- by being argumentative and uncooperative.  In spite of this- or perhaps because of it- the finished product offers Price giving perhaps the performance of his career.  Eschewing his usual hammy, florid delivery and over-the-top expressions, the legendary actor instead presents us with a brusque, understated persona that makes Hopkins all the more deadly; he is a true monster, devoid of affectation or charm, and unlike most of Price’s creations makes no appeal to our sympathies.  The film hinges on this cold, inhuman quality, and the actor delivers it to perfection.  Price himself considered it one of his best performances, and it is a testament to the actor’s professionalism and manners that, once he saw the finished film, he wrote a letter to Reeves praising his direction and apologizing for his own behavior; nevertheless, he did suggest afterwards that, had the director been more straightforward in communicating with him what was wanted, he would have been happy to deliver it without protest.

The rest of the acting, perhaps surprisingly for a low-budget film of this nature, is fairly high in caliber, though there are a few clunky moments.  In the role of hero Richard Marshall, Ian Ogilvy- another lifelong friend of Reeves’ who appeared in his other films as well- is suitably likable while still maintaining a sort of rigid aloofness that helps to fuel his obsessive quest for revenge; contrasting this is Hilary Dwyer as his fiancée-then-wife Susan, whose warmth and sensuality shine through the prim and modest exterior her social role of her character demands, and who is able to communicate- though no dialogue alludes to it- that she herself might be better pleased to put the horrors of her experience behind her and seek refuge in a new life with her beloved than to watch him pursue vengeance in her name.  Robert Russell makes for an intimidatingly malicious Stearnes, though his naturally high-pitched voice resulted in having his dialogue over-dubbed by another actor (Jack Lynn, who appears in another small role in the film).  A few somewhat recognizable British character actors also pepper the cast, with Rupert Davies as the doomed John Lowe, and brief appearances by Patrick Wymark (as Oliver Cromwell), and Wilfrid Brambell (best known as Ringo’s dad in A Hard Day’s Night).  These and the other performers mostly distinguish themselves with their work, though Price dominates by virtue of his star charisma and his showy role; still, it would be wrong to call Witchfinder General his show- the film owes its eerie power to the vision of Reeves, whose ability to turn his mediocre script into a movie of true stature testifies to a keen talent that might have yet yielded greater works had his tragic death not prevented the continuation of his promising career.

Witchfinder General, it’s worth noting, was marketed in the U.S. by AIP as a pseudo-entry in its aforementioned series of Poe films; retitled The Conqueror Worm, the American print featured an overdubbed reading by Price from the 19th-Century author’s poem of that name, but apart from this manufactured connection there was no connection between Reeve’s movie and any of Poe’s works.  This piece of blatant commercial chicanery no doubt contributed to the fact that it was,  like many such films among its contemporaries, disparaged and disregarded by “serious” critics and scholars.  Despite this initial reception, its popularity and subsequent reassessment led to its becoming an influential and seminal work in horror cinema.  It spawned a host of similarly-themed imitators and has been credited with inspiring an entire sub-genre of macabre films with seemingly idyllic rural settings, culminating in the masterful cult classic The Wicker Man.  For my own part, though, Witchfinder General falls a bit short of the reputation it has gathered; to be sure, it contains a great deal of effective filmmaking, particularly in terms of establishing and maintaining mood.  The weaknesses of its script, however, compounded by a degree of sloppiness in the visual storytelling, keep it from reaching the level of quality necessary to classify it as a truly exceptional picture.  It’s not all Reeves’ fault- budgetary constraints- not to mention the imposition of censors’ demands- were at least partly responsible for the rough-edged clumsiness that sometimes overtakes the proceedings.  Even so, rather than a definitive masterpiece, the movie is ultimately just an ordinary thriller, decidedly amateurish in many ways, but distinguished by the imagination and talent of a promising young director and the work of a few worthy professionals among the cast and crew.  It is for this reason that it remains worth seeing today, but to call it one of the greats is an overstatement.  Instead, it stands as a sad indicator of what might have been possible for its young creator had his own tragic fate not intervened.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 shocker about a series of gruesome murders at an out-of-the-way roadside motel.  Based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, which was in turn inspired by the real-life case of Ed Gein, a deranged Wisconsin farmer who stole numerous bodies from a local cemetery and murdered several women while living with the corpse of his long-deceased mother, it was heavily deplored by most- but not all- critics at the time.  Thanks, however, to Hitchcock’s sensationalistic marketing strategies and his popularity as the host of the then-current TV anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it was an enormous box office success; it played an important role in changing the film industry’s outdated standards for “acceptable” subject matter and spawned scores of imitators, paving the way for the “slasher” sub-genre of horror films and wielding immeasurable influence over generations of subsequent filmmakers.  Its critical reputation quickly grew, and it is now almost universally recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time, or certainly, at least, one of the most important.

Psycho is one of those films that is so widely known as to be ingrained in the cultural consciousness; it is hard to imagine that anyone in 2012, whether they have actually seen it or not, would be unfamiliar with the once-notorious plot twist that prompted Hitchcock to implore movie audiences not to reveal the ending after they had seen it.  However, on the assumption that there are such people out there who might be reading this, I offer fair warning that beyond this point you will encounter “spoilers,” and you might want to stop here.  Psycho begins in Phoenix, Arizona, with a lunchtime tryst in a cheap hotel between Marion, a secretary, and Sam, her divorced lover from out of town, who cannot afford to marry her because of his crippling alimony payments.  Later, at the real estate office where she works, Marion’s boss entrusts her with $40,000 in cash, instructing her to take it to the bank on her way home; seeing a chance to put an end to the dead-end arrangement of her love life, she instead packs a bag and takes the money to start a new life with Sam, heading down the highway towards Fairvale, the small California town in which he lives.  When a blinding rainstorm makes driving unsafe, she stops for the night at an isolated motel off the main highway, operated by an awkward but sweet young man, Norman, who lives with his elderly mother in a Victorian house on the hill behind the office.  Norman is warm and polite, inviting his weary guest to join him at the house for a light dinner; but after Marion overhears a heated argument between her host and his mother, who angrily refuses to let him bring a female guest into her home, he instead brings a plate of sandwiches to the motel, and the two of them share a meal in the office parlor.  During their conversation, Norman tells Marion that his mother is mentally disturbed and prone to fits of anger, but that he feels obliged to care for her, though it means sacrificing his own freedom, because “a boy’s best friend is his mother.”  When Marion returns to her room, she decides to take a relaxing shower before going to bed- only to have it brutally cut short when the dark figure of Norman’s mother creeps into the room and stabs her to death with a butcher knife.  Upon discovering his mother’s savagery, Norman decides to do the dutiful thing and clean up the mess, disposing of the body and all evidence of Marion’s ill-fated visit- including the stolen cash, still wrapped in a newspaper- in a nearby swamp.  A few days later, in nearby Fairvale, Sam is visited in his hardware store by Lila, Marion’s sister, who has come in hopes that she will find her missing sibling there; they are quickly joined by a private investigator named Arbogast, hired by Marion’s boss to retrieve the stolen money without involving the authorities.  When it becomes clear that Sam is as ignorant as they are to Marion’s whereabouts, Arbogast begins to canvas the area looking for signs of the missing girl’s presence; eventually he arrives at Norman’s motel, where he quickly deduces the young man is hiding something.  After sharing his suspicions in a phone call to Sam and Lila, he sneaks into the house in search of Norman’s mother, thinking to get more information from her, and quickly becomes the next victim in the deranged woman’s bloody rampage.  With Arbogast’s disappearance, Sam and Lila decide to take the investigation into their own hands, and head to the motel to seek answers- but neither is prepared for the dark secrets they will uncover before they can solve the mystery of Marion’s disappearance.

As detailed in the current film, Hitchcock, Psycho was a major departure for the legendary director, a small-budget, black-and-white, sordid and sensationalistic shock piece that no studio wanted to touch.  Even with his prestigious reputation and his popular status as a television star in his own right, Hitchcock had to finance the film himself in order to make it.  It was a risky venture, to say the least, but one which paid off for him in a very big way; the film broke box office records, becoming the highest-grossing release of his career and making him a millionaire.  Its success forced critics to re-evaluate it- those who had been initially dismissive of it as a tastelessly lurid, low-budget shocker, beneath the usual standards of the “master of suspense,” soon praised it enthusiastically and included it on their “best of the year” lists, and it was ultimately nominated for numerous awards (including four Oscars).  In the end, Psycho rewarded its director with the late-life revitalization of an already extraordinary career, made him an even greater power player than he had been before, shattered industry taboos against depictions of sexual and violent content, and won him a new generation of fans- and all at a cost of less than a million dollars.

It was no accident of fate, either; the canny Hitchcock understood exactly what he was doing, and he exerted his meticulous craftsmanship on every aspect of the production in order to achieve the kind of visceral, ground-breaking effect he knew would electrify audiences seeking a new kind of thrill.  To this end, he had chosen his source material for its deeply unsettling subject matter, as well as for its deliberate and merciless manipulation of readers’ sympathies. To keep the budget down, he chose to shoot in black-and-white, using mostly the personnel from his TV series; a few trusted collaborators, however, were also hired, such as graphic artist Saul Bass, editor George Tomasini, and composer Bernard Herrmann, whose previous contributions to his film work had proven invaluable.  He cast the roles with familiar and experienced actors, but avoided using big stars, both to keep salaries down and to prevent personality from overshadowing the story; and- after rejecting an initial screenplay by James Cavanaugh, who had written several scripts for his TV series- he hired screenwriter Joseph Stefano (who had only one previous writing credit, but possessed extensive personal experience as a patient in psychotherapy) to adapt Bloch’s book for the screen.

Stefano’s screenplay remains fairly faithful to the novel in its plot, though a few changes were made to accommodate the requirements of the cinematic medium; most significantly, the central character of Norman Bates was transformed from an overweight, middle-aged alcoholic to a youthful, squeaky-clean boy-next-door.  This was Hitchcock’s direct input, designed to make the character more readily sympathetic to the audience; his likability was crucial for the director’s purpose, which involved tricking the audience- and here’s the big spoiler, for those who care- into identifying with a psychotic murderer.  Indeed, the narrative of Psycho is one piece of trickery after another, enhanced by Hitchcock’s casting of his biggest star, Janet Leigh, as a character who is killed off a third of the way through the movie, and his other biggest star, Anthony Perkins, as someone who not only covers up her death but ultimately turns out to be her killer.  The crucial plot twist- that Norman’s mother is in fact her stolen, mummified corpse and that he himself suffers from a split personality in which he commits the murders while assuming her identity- is kept hidden by shrouding the mother figure in mystery, keeping her offscreen except in shadow, silhouette, or oblique camera angles, and hearing her conversations with Norman from off-camera- which has the added effect of making the audience feel like an eavesdropper.  This is another important element of Psycho, the sense that we are clandestine observers of some forbidden ritual, and it of course constitutes the biggest trick of all- Hitchcock turns us into voyeurs, getting our cheap thrills by peeking through windows, listening at doors, and sneaking into private rooms.  It’s a now-familiar tactic, used extensively by filmmakers wishing to enhance our connection to their subjects and to subvert our affectations of propriety, and Hitchcock was certainly not the first to use it; but in Psycho, he brought it out of the art house, where European and avant-garde directors had been experimenting with it, and into the popular cinema, thrusting mass audiences into a wholly subjective experience and smashing through the “fourth wall” of the camera by making it into a substitute for the eye itself.  We are subtly drawn into this personalized experience from the very beginning of the film, when the camera slowly zooms from a panoramic view of the Phoenix skyline through the window of a darkened hotel room to spy on Sam and Marion as they finish their midday liaison; throughout the rest of the movie we are kept in the action with the heavy use of point-of-view shots, scenes filmed through doors, windows, phone booths, and even a peep hole, and the theme of clandestine observation is layered in by the characters themselves, who overhear, watch, question, and spy on the actions of others throughout the film.

This voyeuristic approach was nothing new for Hitchcock, but rather the culmination of a motif with which he had long been fascinated; throughout his career he had developed techniques for enhancing the audience’s identification with the lens, emulating the natural movement of the human gaze with his camera, using the same point-of-view perspectives and many of the other tricks which would become the dominant mise-en-scène of Psycho.  Likewise, many other of his favorite thematic elements are contained within the narrative- doubtless one of the reasons he was attracted to the material.  Many of Hitchcock’s films feature problematic relationships with domineering parents (sometimes played for laughs, but always containing a decidedly dark undercurrent); his heroes are frequently flawed, even seriously broken, and often unsympathetic, while his villains are usually charming and likable; law enforcement figures are mostly ineffectual or downright incompetent, and “polite” or “normal” society is generally seen to be a hypocritical veneer for hiding any number of unsavory character traits; and, of course,  there is the ever-present icy blond, a beacon of inaccessible beauty, repressed sexuality, and, usually, possessed of a compromised virtue which must be regained.  All of these are deeply embedded in the fabric of Psycho– there are even two icy blonds- and used relentlessly to undermine the audience’s ingrained expectations.  The heroine is a thief, but her victim is a fatuous boor, and her motives are understandable, if misguided; her sister is prudish and severe, while her boyfriend is morose and belligerent; the police are condescending and dismissive, the private eye pushy and sardonic; Norman, however, is shy, kind and endearing, even if his hobby of stuffing birds is a little weird, and he is, of course, the epitome of the dutiful son.  In any standard narrative, it would be clear where our sympathies should lie, but here everything is turned upside down; we root for Marion, and when she is suddenly and cruelly taken from us, we easily transfer our affections to her killer.  We make this willing shift partly because we do not yet know he is guilty, it’s true, but Hitchcock has built his trap so craftily that we would likely take the leap even if we did.  By the end of the film, the director has successfully made us emotional accomplices to both grand larceny and murder, and with his final shot of Marion’s car being pulled from the mud, a lifeless shell representing all that is left of her naive hope for a happy future, he rubs our faces in it.

There is another layer to all this subversive irony, though, beyond just a trickster’s impulse to make us feel dirty.  Our willingness to empathize with first a thief, then a killer, is grounded in what we think we see, what we want to believe, and what we have been trained to expect.  There are plenty of warnings- all the information we need to see the truth is plainly given as we go along, and yet we choose to bestow our sympathy based on romantic illusion.  We want the pretty, decent Marion to be able to “buy off unhappiness,” and we assume the boyish, mild-mannered Norman to be the innocent victim of his mother’s cruelty- from which we hope he can somehow break free without repercussions for his role in covering up her crimes.  This emotional manipulation is achieved by Hitchcock’s mastery of image; he carefully arranges what we see and hear in order to place us in conflict with ourselves, torn between our direct instinctive reactions and our intellectual assessment.  It’s a master con, made possible because of our tendency to mistake image for reality, but we buy into it willingly even as Hitchcock tauntingly tips us off all the way through.  Just as he gives us indications throughout that could easily lead us to recognize the truth about Norman and his mother, he inundates us with reminders about the relationship between image and reality; virtually every scene features mirrors or windows which allow us to see both the characters and their reflections, and most of the plot’s complications arise as a result of decisions based on faulty perception of the surface.  Marion is able to steal the cash because she seems trustworthy, she trusts Norman because he seems harmless, and everyone believes in his mother’s existence because she seems to be in the house.  Even the town sheriff, upon learning about the supposed involvement of a woman he knows to have been dead for years, is uninterested in investigating further because he forms an explanation that satisfies his assumptions.  In the end, Psycho is not about solving mysteries or exposing the pathology of a homicidal personality; it is an examination of- and a warning against- the dangers of living in a fantasy derived from what we want to believe.  We, as the audience, arrange the images to tell the story we expect to see, and when we are brutally reminded by Marion’s ignoble exit from the scenario that all is not what it seems, we fall right back into the clutches of illusion by transferring our sympathies to Norman.  In the climactic revelation, the sight of Norman, shrieking maniacally in his cheap wig and dress as Sam wrestles him into submission and his desperate illusions fall away along with the last vestige of his sanity, we cannot even comfort ourselves that we had no way to see it coming.  It may be a shock, but when we re-examine what has gone before, it is not really a surprise.  We let ourselves be deluded every step of the way, allowing our preconceived judgments color our perceptions; or to put it another way, to paraphrase a key subject from the parlor discussion between Marion and Norman, we have stepped into our own private trap.  This is the true heart of the film- the self-created cage of perception that traps us each and defines the way we see the world.  The image we embrace becomes identified as our reality, but as Hitchcock loves to remind us- and nowhere more vividly than in Psycho– this is an illusion, and one which can lead to the direst of consequences.

With so many volumes having been written about Psycho, it was not my intent to add much to it; clearly, however, I have been caught up in the spell of this much-discussed classic.  Something about this movie begs to be analyzed, explored, and revisited time and again.  There is so much here to stimulate, to intrigue, to perplex.  One can watch the film simply to revel in Hitchcock’s pure technical mastery: the aforementioned ways in which he invites us to participate in his own voyeurism; his ability to build tension with his deliberate pacing and editing, utilizing long, leisurely scenes interrupted by sharp, violent shocks that echo the stabbing of the knife; his use of visual means to keep us off-balance and on edge, such as dramatic camera angles, uncomfortably extreme close-ups, overhead shots, and other signature Hitchcock touches; and of course there is the justly famous shower scene, a 45-second collage of spliced film that terrorized the entire culture in 1960 and still inspires a particular kind of fear today.  You could also focus on Bernard Herrmann’s iconic musical score, a haunting and nerve-jangling composition for strings that Hitchcock himself credited for being 33% responsible for the film’s effectiveness and has been consistently placed at or near the top on lists of the greatest film soundtracks ever written; during the opening credits, you can marvel at the way the music is complemented by the title sequence created by the great Saul Bass, a no-less-iconic jumble of broken, intersecting lines that suggest the jagged turmoil of a disturbed mind as they spell out the pertinent names and assignments of the movie’s participants.

Of course, you can also reap the rewards of Psycho if you dedicate a viewing entirely to an appreciation of the performances.  Anthony Perkins’ work here is as fine an example of screen acting as you are ever likely to see, a masterpiece of understatement with subtle nuances revealing themselves upon every repeat viewing.  It was a role that matched him perfectly, allowing an intertwining of personal experience and fictional subtext that gives Norman a rare level of authenticity and makes him as heartbreaking as he is disturbing; though the character permanently defined his career and resulted in years of typecasting, it provided the young actor with a chance to leave a legacy the likes of which few others can claim.  Often overlooked, but no less definitive, is Janet Leigh’s outstanding work as Marion Crane; offering us an utterly convincing portrait of an everyday working girl, smart and clearly independent, but hiding a desperate longing to find the happier life of which she dreams, she wins us over immediately- and not only because of the obvious sex appeal of the opening scene, in which she helped to break down the so-called “decency code” by appearing in only a bra and a slip- and makes us keenly feel along with her the frustration of her mundane life, the irresistible thrill of her impromptu escape, and the mounting distress and paranoia that comes as she begins to recognize the consequences of her choice.  She is powerfully likable, which makes it doubly cruel when she is abruptly taken from us; this was Hitchcock’s goal, of course, carefully orchestrated by expanding Marion’s story from the brief episode it comprises in the original novel and by casting his most widely-known star in the role.  Leigh was his first choice, and she eagerly agreed to the project without even reading the script or discussing her salary; she was rewarded for her enthusiasm with an Oscar nomination, and, like her co-star, she created an unforgettable piece of cinema history, a rich and layered performance that is so good precisely because it contains no overt histrionics with which to call attention to itself.  The rest of the cast, though their roles are not as complex in dimension, are equally memorable- despite the fact that the director was vocal in his dissatisfaction with John Gavin (whom he referred to as “the stiff”) and that he was, by all reports, punishing Vera Miles for her abandonment of his earlier Vertigo (she became pregnant and bowed out before filming began, forcing Hitchcock to replace her with Kim Novak) by making her character here as unappealing as possible.  As Sam and Lila, respectively, both performers actually provide exactly the right qualities to their roles, making it impossible to imagine the film any other way; and, rounding out the main cast as Arbogast, Martin Balsam is likewise a perfect fit, giving us a canny portrait of a no-nonsense professional whose blunt and rumpled exterior belie the crafty shrewdness underneath.

There is so much to write about Psycho; I could go on with discussions of the layered themes and the techniques used by Hitchcock to explore them, or the brilliance of the stark black-and-white photography and its visual symphony of light and shadow, the contrast between the unglamorous, utilitarian settings and the austere design of the now-famous Edward-Hopper-inspired house that glowers down over the motel- the list is inexhaustible.  Similarly, I could write volumes about the history surrounding the film.  The battles with the censors over such things as the raciness of the opening hotel room scene, the use of the word “transvestite,” and the inclusion of a toilet (never before shown in an American film); the painstaking creation of the shower scene, which took a week to film, and generated obvious controversy upon release as well as much future argument about factors like whether it was Leigh or a body double that was used in the majority of its shots or the extent of involvement by Saul Bass, who drew the storyboards for the sequence but later claimed to have directed it in its entirety; the depth of contribution by Hitchcock’s wife and creative partner, Alma Reville, who- as she had on every film of her husband’s career- collaborated on every aspect of the movie from pre-production to final editing; all these things and more are legendary chapters in the story of Psycho, and you can (and should) read about them in so many other places that it is unnecessary to take any more time with them here.

The most pressing issue regarding Psycho, perhaps, for the “typical” modern viewer, who may have little scholarly interest in the film as a piece of cinematic art history and probably doesn’t care about the virtually unfathomable influence it has had upon every horror film that came after it, is simply whether or not it is still holds up.  Does this seminal, deceptively simple thriller live up to its reputation for inducing terror and inspiring nightmares for weeks after seeing it?  The answer, honestly, is probably not.  By today’s standards, even the most squeamish viewer is unlikely to find any of the film’s once-controversial violence hard to take; the gore factor is minimal, even in the famous shower scene with its chocolate-syrup blood, and, with a mere two killings taking place onscreen, the body count is decidedly low.  Taking this into account, along with the fact that it is virtually impossible to go into the movie without knowing its twist ending (or at least being familiar enough with its many imitators that it becomes easy to spot from very early on), Psycho is unlikely to generate many shocks with jaded modern audiences, and indeed is more apt to produce laughter- a development, incidentally, that would likely have pleased Hitchcock, who always claimed that the film was meant to be a very dark comedy.  Still, even if it has lost its power to scare us outright, it nevertheless casts an eerie and unsettling spell; even with its now-tame level of splatter, the shower scene is a deeply disturbing psychological jolt which plays on our most primal fears and reminds us of our innate vulnerability in the most common and universal of activities, and there is an undeniable creepiness that pervades the scenario, compounding as it progresses so that the Bates Motel and its adjoining house become more ominous and sinister in the bright light of day than in the earlier scenes at night.  Furthermore, instead of a neat and positive happy ending, Hitchcock leaves us with the mocking reminder that the world’s evil can be temporarily vanquished, but it will still remain, hidden in the most innocent-seeming of places, awaiting its opportunity to catch us unprepared; the final sequence of Norman, sitting alone in his cell as we hear “mother’s” voice in his mind, undermines any sense of safe, comfortable normalcy that might have been re-established by the previous explanatory denouement in which the smugly self-satisfied forensic psychiatrist unfolds his pat diagnosis of the murderer’s tormented psyche, and the final aforementioned shot of Marion’s car being pulled from the mud reminds us of the ugly reality of her senseless death- defying any attempt that might be made to assign it a meaning or purpose.  There is no comfort here, only tragedy and a chaos so deeply imbedded it can never be excised.  The power of these observations is as tangible today as it was five decades ago, whether or not Psycho frightens on a direct level, and any viewer seeking more than a cheap, visceral thrill will soon be drawn into the movie’s seductive web of delusion and consequence.  In short, Psycho may be better approached by the modern viewer as a psycho-drama, without expectations of blood-chilling fright and nausea-inducing carnage; indeed, it can be viewed, as its director did, as a comedic exploration of the fantasies in which we wrap ourselves and the mishaps in which they might result, though admittedly this requires a particularly morbid sense of humor.  In truth, of course, Psycho was never really meant to be a horror film, though it may have horrified; as in all of Hitchcock’s work, the real purpose is hidden behind the “McGuffin,” his term for the seemingly vital element around which his plots appear to revolve but which is actually a ruse through which his true concerns can be explored.  The McGuffin here is the mystery itself- ultimately the theft, the murders, and the psychotic delusions of the central character are all merely smoke and mirrors for Hitchcock’s master plan, in which he pulls the rug right out from underneath us and leaves us grasping for support that is no longer there.  Though he dresses Psycho in the trappings of the horror genre, its real riches lie beneath that exploitative exterior, and are ultimately more profoundly upsetting than any cheap momentary shock tactics could ever be.  On this level, from which it has always, truly, derived its greatness, Psycho is as fresh and relevant as the day it was released, and remains a must-see requirement for anyone who considers themselves even a casual film fan.  Personally, I first saw it at the age of ten, alone in my second-story bedroom on a tiny black-and-white TV screen.  It didn’t scare me, much, even at that tender age, but it certainly made a deep impression, and it most likely provided the single film experience that started me on my lifetime cinema adventure.  I’ve since seen it an uncountable number of times, and each time I never fail to be drawn in and to discover something new to consider.  If you are lucky, Psycho will hook you the way it hooked me; at the very least, it will make you think twice about leaving the bathroom door unlocked the next time you shower in a motel.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054215/

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.

The World of Henry Orient (1964)

Today’s cinema adventure: The World of Henry Orient, a 1964 comedy directed by George Roy Hill, featuring Peter Sellers as the title character, a concert pianist whose libidinous exploits are complicated by the obsessive adulation of a pair of adolescent schoolgirls.  Based on a novel by Nora Johnson, daughter of Hollywood writer/director Nunnally Johnson (with whom she also co-wrote the screenplay for the film), it places greater emphasis on the coming-of-age story of Orient’s juvenile stalkers than it does on the misadventures of the loutish lothario himself.  It was successful with both audiences and critics, its popularity no doubt bolstered by the presence of its star, who was at the time entering the height of his career, and it was later turned into a Broadway musical, Henry, Sweet Henry, which enjoyed considerably less success.

Set in Manhattan, the film follows the experiences of Val and Marian, two students at an exclusive girls’ school who develop a close friendship; both are outsiders at school, and share an imaginative flair for fantasy and make-believe, which leads to their indulgence in precocious adventures together.  On one such outing, they stumble upon a clandestine rendezvous in Central Park between Orient and his nervous, married, would-be mistress, interrupting their tentative tryst and foiling the pianist’s amorous intentions.  Later, when the girls attend his concert with Marian’s family, they recognize him from their encounter at the park, and Val develops a crush; so the pair begin to follow him, watching his apartment and making a scrapbook about their obsession- as well as a fanciful diary documenting Val’s hypothetical romance with him.  When Val’s jet-setting parents return for a holiday visit, her strict and austere mother finds the secret volume, a discovery which leads to uncomfortable complications not only for the girls, but for the unwilling object of their affections, as well.

Though The World of Henry Orient was a fairly successful film at the time of its release, it has faded somewhat from cultural memory.  Part of the reason for this may be that much of its draw in early 1964 arose from the presence of three up-and-coming names in its credits- Peter Sellers, Angela Lansbury, and director George Roy Hill- each of whose subsequent work would soon eclipse the importance of this quaint little movie.  Another factor, no doubt, was the changing social landscape of the years shortly to follow its debut, in which stories about the wholesome innocence of childhood, no matter how well-made they may have been, seemed somehow to be less relevant and important than those addressing the “larger” issues that were suddenly confronting young people as they came of age during the upheaval of the late sixties.  Ironically, one of the key factors in the film’s initial popularity was likely the fact that, in its good-natured and sweet depiction of teen-agers, it represented something of a backlash against a decade of teen dramas in which modern American youth culture was depicted as a dangerous and depraved environment full of delinquents, drugs, and rock-and-roll; the two young ladies at the center of this film were a refreshing change of pace, and their problems were, in truth, more representative of those faced by the average teen in daily life.  Sandwiched between two eras of rapid cultural evolution, The World of Henry Orient enjoyed its moment in the sun while the world took a moment to catch its breath.

Whatever the reasons for its success or for its relative disappearance, Hill’s sweet-but-sophisticated little movie definitely holds up to contemporary viewings.  It’s worth noting that the title character’s name- a play on the name of renowned celebrity pianist Oscar Levant, whose surname means “Orient” in French and upon whom the character was loosely based- does result in some minor cultural discomfort surrounding Asian stereotypes; in deference to their idol’s unusual moniker, his two young stalkers adopt faux-Japanese code names and indulge in playful rituals which parody Eastern traditions, such as kowtowing to their collection of Henry-themed “relics” and sporting conical straw “coolie” hats as they stake out the pianist’s apartment building.  Aside from this, however, which can be written off as nothing more than playful, non-malicious fancy, the film’s gentle depiction of the transition from childhood into adolescence has a timeless feel, despite its distinctive, now-nostalgic mid-century Manhattan setting; much of this is due to Johnson and Johnson’s screenplay, which manages, through its focus on the universal concerns of young girls (and adults, for that matter) rather than on time-and-place-specific hotbed issues, to avoid any topicality that might have made the story seem dated today.  It also helps that the girls portrayed here are atypical teens, from a social standpoint; Marian comes from a “broken” home, living with her mother and another divorced woman (a situation with overtones which must have been provocative, even in 1964), while Val is the “problem” child of wealthy, distant parents who leave her in the care of hired guardians.  Coupled with the fact that neither girl is among the “in” crowd at school, and are therefore not surrounded by a gang of Hollywood-style adolescents following the latest fads and speaking in the teen-speak jargon of the day, this means that The World of Henry Orient is mercifully free of the kind of mass-media clichés that would make its appeal more ironic than sincere; this is not a picture postcard of idealized nuclear families getting mixed up in occasional kooky hi-jinks, but a story of real, not-so-average people going through genuine life experiences.  This is not to say there is a lack of goofy comedy; that is mainly provided by the over-the-top exploits of the title character, as portrayed by comic chameleon Sellers.  His Henry Orient is a ridiculously shallow, pompous charlatan: affecting the pose of a continental sophisticate as he slips back and forth between a generic, vaguely European accent and a crass Brooklyn-ese; falling over himself in his efforts to lure vulnerable, attached women to worship at the shrine of his ego; indulging in pretentious theatrical antics as he shamelessly fakes his way through an avant-garde piano concerto; and generally revealing himself to be a self-serving buffoon whose real personality is a far cry from the romanticized vision held by his two juvenile followers.  In addition to being funny, of course, this serves to illustrate the contrast between the girls’ rose-colored view of reality and the sometimes sordid truths of the adult world into which they are about to crash.  It’s a revelation that unfolds as the story progresses; as the movie’s focus expands to include the troubled relationship of Val’s parents, we are given more and more evidence of the gap between image and authenticity, and the all-too-frequent failure of adults to live up to the expectations of their roles.

In addition to the aforementioned performance by Sellers- who is, as always, a wonder to watch as he melds psychology and physicality together to completely become his character- there is the work of Angela Lansbury, whose icy turn as Val’s deceitful and hypocritical mother provides another sharp example of the gap between ideal and reality in the adult world, as well as reminding us that, before her success in Broadway’s Mame and her long tenure as television’s Jessica Fletcher re-invented her as a warm and lovable matron, this fine actress was one of the screen’s foremost bitches.  The hollowness of her worldly sophistication and her barely-concealed disinterest in her daughter’s life (until it affects her own image, of course) help to expose the character’s own desperate need for attention and validation, which, though it doesn’t exactly make her sympathetic, certainly paints a clear picture of who she really is, at the core.  Contrasting her unpleasant phoniness are Phyllis Thaxter and Bibi Osterwald, who embody good-natured warmth and unconditional love as Marian’s mother and her live-in, fellow-divorcee companion, making the point that an unorthodox family unit can be far healthier than a traditional one; as well as Tom Bosley, as Val’s father, who foreshadows his later success on Happy Days with his stolid performance as a man finally ready to assume the responsibilities of parenthood, even if it is a little late in the game.  Rounding out the adult cast is the always-delightful Paula Prentiss, as Orient’s skittish would-be lover, who manages to be likable and sympathetic despite the fact that her role is a caricature of upper-middle class shallowness and gullibility; she manages to hold her own opposite Sellers, matching his manic zaniness like a seasoned pro- no small accomplishment, to be sure.  The key performances here, however, are the children’s; Merrie Spaeth (as Marian) and Tippy Walker (as Val) fully live up to the demands placed upon them by their central roles in the proceedings.  Full of youthful giddiness, smart without being precocious, and capable of the honesty required to show us the full emotional journey of these two remarkable young women, they also provide a perfect complement to each other with their distinct and separate personalities- the more grounded Spaeth anchors the duo, while Walker gives us the edgier dynamic of Val.  Neither actress went on to an adult career in cinema- Spaeth became a noted political and public relations consultant, Walker opened an art gallery- but their work in this single film ensured them a secure hold on movie immortality.

As for the director, George Roy Hill does a superb job of juggling the perspectives of the various worlds within The World of Henry Orient.  He captures the irrepressible vivacity of youth with then-edgy techniques such as wildly tilted camera angles and montages utilizing both slow-motion and high-speed photography; he manages some grade-A comedic set pieces around his charismatic star, particularly the extended concert sequence in which the hammy Orient ad-libs his way through a performance at Carnegie Hall while frustrating his conductor and fellow musicians with his ego-maniacal shenanigans; and he uses the Manhattan scenery, lovingly photographed by Boris Kaufman and Arthur J. Ornitz, to full advantage, allowing the change of its character through the seasons to reflect the progression of his two heroines through their rite of passage.  Adding to the bittersweet, nostalgic delight is his confident reliance on the score by Elmer Bernstein, which evokes the carefree ease of childhood, the sweeping majesty of the city, and the emotional longing at the core of the story.

The World of Henry Orient is a difficult movie to criticize; though the themes it tackles are hardly momentous, there is an authentic quality to it that is impossible to dislike, which no doubt arises from the fact that Johnson’s novel was autobiographical, based on her own experiences growing up at a New York girls’ school.  Parenthetically speaking, the fact that she co-wrote the screenplay with her father is very telling, considering the turn of events which brings emotional closure to the story.  The unpretentiousness of the movie has made it one of those certifiable classics that is usually forgotten in discussions of great cinematic art, but is beloved by almost anyone who has seen it in its frequent appearances on the late-night movie broadcasts of the seventies and eighties; there is a comfort in its gentle portrayal of youthful fantasy meeting seedy reality, considerable appeal in the fact that it manages to be sweet without ever becoming cloyingly so, and an additional bonus provided by farcical tour-de-force performance of its star, surely one of the screen’s great masters of comedic acting.  When all is said and done, The World of Henry Orient is a film I can heartily recommend with more confidence than any number of “greater” cinematic achievements; it may not be a masterpiece, but it is one of the most likable little movies I can think of.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058756/

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Today’s cinema adventure: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the auspicious 1966 debut feature from director Mike Nichols, based on the much-lauded Pulitzer-winning play by Edward Albee and starring the superstar husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  Filmed during a fiercely guarded, top-secret nocturnal shoot, it was an eagerly awaited production which became an instant classic upon its release, and the intensity of its subject matter- particularly its then-shocking language- dealt a death blow to the antiquated Hollywood “decency” standards that dated back to the Hays Code of the thirties, leading instead- along with Antonioni’s Blowup– to the development of the MPAA rating system still utilized in the U.S. today.  In essence a powerhouse four-character showcase for tour-de-force acting, it depicts a single night of alcohol-soaked socializing between an older and a younger couple which becomes a vicious, no-holds-barred battle over the pent-up secrets, frustration, shame, and resentments that plague both marriages.  It garnered several major acting awards, including a second Oscar for Taylor, whose reputation as an actress was considerably bolstered by her remarkable, career-changing performance.

Faithfully adapted from Albee’s play by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the story focuses on George, a middle-aged history professor, and his wife Martha, the daughter of the president of the small New England college at which he teaches.  As they are returning home at 2 AM from a faculty mixer thrown by Martha’s father, George is startled to learn she has invited a new, younger professor and his mousy wife to join them for nightcaps; though he resigns himself to their visit, he admonishes Martha against broaching any taboo subjects in conversation- particularly the impending homecoming of the pair’s teenaged son from boarding school.  When the younger couple, Nick and Honey, arrive, Martha belligerently defies her husband’s stricture, goading him into an ugly game of one-upmanship in which they both exploit every possible weakness to humiliate and hurt each other, even using their hapless guests as pawns in a dysfunctional war of wits that- it becomes clear- has escalated throughout their long marriage.  As the night progresses, their own secrets are laid bare, as well as a few of Nick and Honey’s, revealing the depth of their misery, the lengths to which they have retreated into fantasy, the extent of their verbal and emotional abuse of each other, and- perhaps most surprisingly- the intensity of the love that still endures beneath all the anger, lies, and recriminations.  By the time the sun begins to rise, both of the weary couples have undergone a purging of pretense and illusion that will leave them irrevocably changed- at least, presumably, until the next drunken faculty party.

When Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opened on Broadway in 1962, its frank and explicit dialogue, coupled with its overt sexual implications and it’s harrowing emotional intensity, led many audiences and critics to believe it was an unfilmable play.  Though it was hailed as a masterpiece, and won both the Tony and Critics’ Circle awards for Best Play, such was the controversy surrounding its content that though it was chosen by the Pulitzer judges as the winner of the prize for drama, the advisory board for the awards refused to present it, instead choosing to withhold that years’ prize in the category.   Nevertheless, Warner Brothers studio pursued the rights from playwright Albee, and despite protests and warnings from the Catholic Advisory Board and the MPAA, went ahead with plans to produce a film version that preserved the majority of the play in its original, undiluted form.  In the end, a few minor concessions were made (“Screw you” was changed to “God damn you,” at least in the American edit) and the script was abridged slightly for length, but, for the most part, the film version was released with its profanity and sexual content intact- and, perhaps unsurprisingly, became a major hit.

Although the publicity over its controversial content no doubt played a role in its box office success, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has sustained its iconic status because it was never meant to be just a sensationalistic shock piece; the brilliance of Albee’s play crackles through every frame, with his dialogue virtually intact and his over-arcing vision maintained with an emphatic zeal for faithfulness.  Director Nichols, though already known as a wunderkind for his stage work, was making his film debut here; nevertheless he was given an unprecedented amount of freedom and control over the project, and his determination to translate the cathartic experience of the original work resulted in a film which brings the full, terrible power of the play to life.  Underneath the bombastic psychological warfare of its action, the saga of George and Martha’s walpurgisnacht is about the line between truth and illusion- more specifically, the dangers of living a life based on comforting lies and fantasy instead of frankly facing an unpleasant reality.  In mid-century America, it was a theme that hit very close to home; a generation after WWII, the cracks were beginning to show in the idyllic façade of the “American Dream,” and the growing discontent and disillusionment with its hollow ideals, which had long been voiced by the counterculture and its underground artists, had begun to find its way into the mainstream.  Virginia Woolf, with its portrait of a couple trapped in their nightmare of elaborate fictions and suppressed truth, provided a perfect catalyst for a nation afraid to face its own reality; and though its characters and setting are not overtly subversive, it is nevertheless a film which heralded the rise of anti-establishment sentiment in American cinema.  It’s telling that Nichols’ next movie, The Graduate, would be Hollywood’s first bona fide “youth culture” film to express criticism of the social status quo; Virginia Woolf is unmistakably cut from the same radical cloth.

As apt as this film was in capturing the zeitgeist of its era, the significance and power of its themes are undiminished by the passage of time; Albee’s magnificent play retains its relevance today, and this remarkable transcription of it seems as fresh and vital as if it were brand new.  Though its then-shocking profanity and its sexual frankness are now milder than much of our prime-time TV fare, the emotional intensity behind them makes for a fierceness that still leaves us reeling; it is not merely the saltier dialogue of Virginia Woolf that packs a punch, but the totality of its language- Albee’s dazzling symphony of words elicits responses on every level from the esoteric and intellectual to the visceral and primal, evoking laughter, horror, sorrow, fear, and every other conceivable reaction, in rapid succession and sometimes simultaneously.  By the end of this grueling evening of “fun and games” we are as stunned and exhausted as the film’s four characters, and like them, we are left facing the cold, unfriendly dawn in a world without illusions.  Of course, it’s not all dire depression and angst; Albee’s absurdist sensibilities are evident throughout, ensuring the continual interjection of ironic, dry, and dark humor, not to mention the considerable intelligence and wit he bestows upon his antagonistic protagonists.  Part of the great power of Virginia Woolf comes from its ability to elicit our laughter even as it is pummeling us with its existential themes and its social commentary.  Like the greatest of tragedies, it’s a play (and a film) that is full of out-and-out comedy, providing a much-needed release of tension and underscoring the ridiculousness of the human situation at the center of the drama.

Needless to say, the linguistic alchemy of Albee’s script would never work without the ability of a superb cast to bring it to life.  When Nichols chose Hollywood’s hottest power couple for the demanding roles of George and Martha, there was considerable skepticism over whether they would be up to the challenge.  Burton, of course, was well-established as a consummate actor, with copious legitimate training and a host of theatrical successes under his belt in addition to his film experience; his bride, however, was a different story.  Taylor had been a major star for two decades, and had previously proven herself as a superb actress (having already won an Oscar for her work in Butterfield 8, though many felt it was a sympathy prize); but she was primarily known for her remarkable beauty rather than her acting chops, and the role of Martha- a middle-aged, overweight, alcoholic harridan whose looks were meant to be faded, at best- was thought by most of the cognoscenti to be beyond her grasp.  Undeterred by preconceived doubts, the actress committed herself whole-heartedly to the part; she gained 30 lbs. in order to present the necessary voluptuous figure, and sank her teeth into Martha’s ugliness- both physical and spiritual- in order to do justice to the character.  Her embrace of these attributes does not result in a stereotyped, surface portrayal, however; her Martha is a monster, yes, but she is also every bit a woman- vulnerable, warm, loving, spiteful, frightened, jovial, capricious, calculating, and fully realized.  Taylor’s performance here is the crowning achievement of her career; far from being merely a star turn, it is an example of an actress claiming a role and making it so much her own that it is impossible to imagine another star playing it.  It probably goes without saying that her ferocity is matched at every step by her on- and off-screen husband; Burton, also giving a career-defining performance, gives us an unforgettable portrait of George, a character that has been described as an “angel with a devil’s tongue.”  Breathtakingly intelligent, unmistakably virile despite his crushing mantle of failure and disappointment, and compassionate behind the hostile irony of his icy mask, he takes us along on every step of George’s difficult journey, helping us to understand and to sympathize with a man who could easily come off as an impotent, disaffected snob, and making it clear that his task, like that of his sainted namesake, is to slay a dragon.  Together, Burton and Taylor become a force of nature, making George and Martha appear both as titanic archetypes of marital conflict and painfully real, fragile human beings, and convincingly conveying the familiarity and intimacy of a couple who have been through so much together they seem to think as one despite their embattled dynamic.

Though their roles are less showy, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, as Nick and Honey, respectively, are equally superb; as representatives of the younger generation, they enter the scene wearing the freshness and confidence of a new wave, seeming to embody the perfect picture of up-and-coming success that stands in stark contrast to the appalling discord of their hosts’ dilapidated lives.  It doesn’t take long for the shine to wear off, however; confronted with the harsh reality of their probable future reflected back at them in the grotesque form of their elders, their practiced poise begins to disintegrate, and their true natures begin to show through.  Segal’s Nick, hiding his own fears of inadequacy behind a smug golden-boy demeanor, lashes out with defensive hostility; while Dennis, a ball of barely-concealed insecurity as Honey, rapidly descends into a drunken spiral of infantile banality.  They provide the perfect foils for Burton and Taylor, helping to reveal the repeating pattern of self-deception at the core of the drama by giving us an example of a couple at the beginning of the cycle.  Dennis, like Taylor, won an Oscar, and both the men were deservedly nominated, as well, making this one of only three films ever to have gained Academy Award nominations for its entire credited cast (the others being Sleuth– the 1972 version, of course- and Give ‘Em Hell, Harry).

There are so many reasons to love Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Haskell Wexler’s magnificently stark black-and-white cinematography, which captures beauty and blemishes in equally loving detail; Alex North’s haunting and evocative chamber-music score; the completely authentic setting which moves you part and parcel into George and Martha’s cluttered, musty world of booze and bric-a-brac, revealing them both as members of the intelligentsia and as the world’s worst housekeepers; and of course, overseeing it all, the sure and steady direction of Mike Nichols, who appropriately drives the piece like a master conductor presiding over a fine piece of music, finding new ways to position and move his camera, alternating between long, slow takes and short, bursting flurries, building the tension unbearably and giving the impression of heart-stopping action even though most of the film consists only of four people talking.  It earned him a place as one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers, and deservedly so.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of those all-too-rare instances when Hollywood has managed to transfer a brilliant stage play to the screen more-or-less intact and done it full justice; though producer Ernest Lehman takes screenplay credit, his work mostly consisted of editing Albee’s original down to a shorter running time and making a few minor adjustments to compensate for the marginally-reduced ages of its lead characters- virtually every word is Albee’s, and apart from moving a few scenes outdoors and taking the characters on an excursion to an all-night roadhouse for one key sequence, the setting remains the same, as well.  Ultimately, of course, the play is one of those masterworks, like Hamlet, which can probably never be given a definitive treatment; it continues to be mounted in theaters around the world and performed brilliantly by actors who bring their own unique individual interpretations to its iconic characters.  Even so, this important and influential film remains the version which, in the collective imagination of our pop culture, is identified as the ultimate representation of the piece.  Though other actresses may give us a deeper Martha, or other directors may find a more visionary approach to the material, this group of artists have left their indelible mark on Albee’s play, and if you only see one version of it in your lifetime, you couldn’t do better than this one.  If you have never seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so, as soon as possible; apart from the fact that it is one of the most important pieces of dramatic literature written in the last hundred years, it is also still one of the most searing, surprising and thought-provoking dramas you are likely to see, a far cry from most of the sterile, whitewashed, politically correct fodder that passes for adult entertainment today.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061184/

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Pit and the Pendulum, the 1961 thriller which was the follow-up to Roger Corman’s surprisingly successful House of Usher, and the second of what would ultimately be eight of Corman’s Poe-based independent features. Once again starring horror film stalwart Vincent Price, and shot on an elaborate set built from cannibalized pieces rented from other studios, it was an even bigger hit than its predecessor and achieved a substantial amount of critical acclaim, despite its low budget, becoming a classic staple of later TV “creature feature” programs and providing considerable influence over the future of horror films, particularly those produced in Italy through the late ’60s and ’70s.

The original short story by Edgar Allan Poe is a brief, moody affair, more or less the description of a prisoner’s experience as he is tortured by the Spanish Inquisition with the swinging, bladed contraption of its title. This being clearly insufficient as the basis for a feature-length film, Corman re-hired Usher screenwriter, Richard Matheson- a respected wordsmith responsible for, among other things, numerous well-known stories and several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone– to fashion a suitable narrative that could feature Poe’s horrific scenario as part of a longer tale. Matheson’s solution is the 16th-Century tale of a young Englishman who travels to the remote Spanish castle of Don Nicholas, son of an infamous Inquisitor, seeking an explanation for the unexpected death of his sister, who had been the Don’s bride. Though his host is cordial and consumed with sorrow over the loss of his love, the young man’s suspicions begin to deepen as dark secrets are revealed surrounding the castle and its lord- including the presence of a horrific torture chamber which lies beneath it. The common threads of Poe’s work- madness-inducing grief, untimely death, premature burial- are intricately woven into Matheson’s script, giving it a strong feeling of authenticity, though there is little resemblance to anything in the author’s actual story; even the original setting within the Spanish Inquisition has been distanced, if not quite removed, by an intervening generation- though the connection has been maintained enough to provide the means of replicating Poe’s vision for film’s climactic sequence. Matheson was (and is) a highly renowned writer, and it is probably not an exaggeration to say that it was ultimately his contribution, more than any other, that raised The Pit and the Pendulum, as well as many of the other Poe features, above the level of the usual cheap exploitative fodder for which Corman was known; his fabricated storyline includes compelling situations and characters, clever and intricate plotting with a heavy sense of irony, and rich thematic layering which touches on our most universal fears and subconscious concerns.

It’s not prestige-picture material, though, make no mistake. Many of the conceits Matheson puts into place to facilitate the developments of his melodramatic plot do not hold up to even the most cursory logic. It’s also worth mentioning that some of the dialogue has a jarringly modern, banal sound to it, especially against the gothic backdrop and in comparison with some of the more florid passages in his script; coupled with the contemporary bearing and mannerisms of most of the performers, who seem vaguely uncomfortable and out of place in their period costumes, it makes for a certain low-brow quality that reminds us just how far-fetched the whole thing is. But that, of course, is part of the fun; The Pit and the Pendulum is a no-brainer, designed to keep its audience on edge not because of some vague intellectual idea of horror, but in anticipation of the inevitable gruesome shocks promised by its premise. Corman’s filmmaking agenda as a producer was always about knowing what his audience wanted and giving it to them, and he knew that what they would want was no different with these Poe films than from any of his other shockers, despite their literary pedigree. His goal was to provide a good hour and twenty minutes of chills and thrills, and that is what he delivered, with little concern for stylistic considerations that would make for a more erudite filmgoing experience.

This is not to say, however, that Corman the director eschews all artistic concerns; on the contrary, his work here is remarkably polished and coherent, with a highly effective visual style that goes a long way towards creating the film’s luridly baroque air. He adheres to a conceptual notion in which the events of the film, like Poe’s fiction, represent the contents of the subconscious, welling up to manifest in his woeful tale; consequently, he takes pains to establish his setting as isolated from the real world, surrounding the seaside castle with endlessly crashing waves and stormy skies. Further underlining the psychological nature of the drama, he depicts various memories and perceptual experiences in heightened style, shooting some sequences in deep monochromatic hues, using extreme distortion and camera angles, and steeping everything in a garish, dramatic palette- starting with a psychedelically surreal opening sequence featuring swirling pools of liquid color. Beyond his deliberate visual touches, he also delivers a well-paced, savvy piece of cinematic narrative, keeping the aura of tension and impending menace quite tangible despite the fact that much of the film contains no overtly horrific content. To be sure, when it’s there, he lays it on as thick as the cobwebs which cover the walls of the castle’s secret dungeon, which of course, as has been noted, is precisely what we want; and when we reach the payoff, the final sequence in which our young hero is subjected by his now-demented brother-in-law to the titular torture device, Corman’s efforts come to their fruition. It’s a genuinely hair-raising scene, enhanced by weird and stylized filmmaking, which truly captures the core of what makes this concept horrific- the psychological terror of awaiting the inevitable, grisly doom that methodically descends like clockwork, an imagined outcome that is ultimately far more disturbing than any blood-soaked act of dismemberment that might actually be shown onscreen.

Corman’s success at cashing in on popular trends with his cheaply-made quickies (he famously shot one of his most lucrative earlier films, The Little Shop of Horrors, in two days and one night) had by this point in his career afforded him the opportunity of securing bigger-name talent to help hedge his bets at the box office. Vincent Price, well established as a popular horror star, had taken on the lead role in Usher, and here returns once more, as he would continue to do throughout Corman’s “Poe cycle.” This time around he plays Don Nicholas, a sensitive soul living in the shadow of his father’s cruel public image and even crueler private deeds, and driven to the point of madness by the tragic death of his beautiful wife. It’s a foregone conclusion that he will eventually lose his sanity, of course; and Price plays with that boundary like the pro that he is, giving us a doe-eyed, fragile gentility that contrasts- and yet nevertheless offers frequent glimpses of- the roaring monster he will become by the end, with lots of overwrought moments of soul-shaking despair and horror thrown in throughout. It’s a flamboyantly campy performance, really- almost, but not quite, over-the-top; but after all, this kind of vaguely hokey melodrama requires a bit of hamminess in order to keep the emotional pitch high, and Price certainly provides it. Upon the film’s release, his work was roasted by several critics as laughable; in retrospect, however, it’s precisely the right blend of the serious and the ridiculous to keep us engaged and entertained, and the sense of gentle self-parody it suggests has come to be seen as one of the familiar hallmarks of this particular style and era.

It’s a good thing, actually, that Price’s work here is so gleefully theatrical, for his co-stars are considerably blander. The ostensible leading man, John Kerr, was a Tony-winning actor who started his Hollywood career as one of the most promising young actors of the late ‘50s; by the time he made this film, his star was almost faded. He is handsome and capable, but there is a lack of passion here that makes him far less interesting or sympathetic than his supposed antagonist, and he has a certain frat boy quality that hampers his believability as an early Renaissance nobleman. I’m not saying his performance is weak- indeed, he is more than adequate and far more convincing than many of the actors who filled this type of role in other Corman films, and by the time he gets strapped down under that swinging blade in the finale we definitely care about his fate- but he is far less compelling or memorable than Price. More interesting is Barbara Steele, fierce and beautiful as the doomed, not-quite-innocent young bride- though Corman dubbed her lines with another actress, fearing that Steele’s coarse English accent would not jibe with the sound of the other players. Luana Anders exudes kindness and refreshing normalcy as Price’s younger sister and Kerr’s obligatory love interest; and Anthony Carbone is fine as the family friend and doctor, though he would be likely be more convincing as a Vegas mobster in a slick suit. On the whole, unquestionably, it’s Price’s show- but that, perhaps, is as it should be.

No doubt due to the fact that, by the time of The Pit and the Pendulum, Corman and his crew were well-schooled in the art of movie-making on the fly, the film overall has fine production values. Considering it was filmed in three weeks with a reported budget of $300,000- a third of which was Price’s salary- it has a surprisingly polished and professional look. The sets are truly impressive, executed by Daniel Haller and Harry Reif on a large soundstage and using, as mentioned above, rented set pieces from other studios to patch together the interiors of the Don’s foreboding castle. For the exterior shots, process shots featuring matte paintings create a decidedly artificial look (it should be remembered that these kind of effects looked considerably more convincing, somehow, on a big screen) which nevertheless contributes to the film’s dreamlike- or should I say nightmarish- effect. The cinematography by Floyd Crosby is rich and weighty, and the score by Les Baxter (who was a well-known singer and arranger of jazz and popular music) is serviceably eerie, if not exactly memorable.

The Pit and the Pendulum is one of those movies that has become a classic despite itself, a monument to a particular era of filmmaking that contains numerous influential elements; these elements were not intended, necessarily, to be groundbreaking, just to be scary- such as the shots of a desiccated corpse frozen in the agony of trying to claw free of a premature grave, an iconic moment which has been echoed countless times over the subsequent decades. The movie’s status is partly to do with its exposure on television, where a whole generation of impressionable young people was acquainted with its fruity frights. Just because it’s a classic, however, doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece; it’s still an example of hack-work elevated by the contributions of a few ringers, and boosted by the self-assured confidence that comes from being on a roll, as Corman and his team certainly were. Still, even if it’s not a great movie, it’s a damn good one, with a respectable commitment to quality and a strong dedication to good story-telling. If that story is ultimately more than a little cheesy, it is nevertheless engaging and- more to the point- undeniably spooky and disturbing, even as it generates laughs (which may not be as unintentional as one might think. This is no small feat, and it doesn’t happen accidentally; The Pit and the Pendulum succeeds thanks to the skill of the artists behind it, whose sole purpose was to stir up the uncomfortable corners of the psyche, and in the end, that’s about as close to the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe as any filmmaker could hope to get.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055304/

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Today’s cinema adventure: Carnival of Souls, a 1962 low-budget horror film that was more or less ignored on its release, but which has gone on to become a highly influential cult classic.  Directed by Herk Harvey, a prolific lifelong creator of educational and industrial films who never made another theatrical feature, it was shot on location in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah, using a 16mm camera and reportedly with a budget of around $30,000- a cost which today would probably not even cover the price of the car that goes off a bridge in the first reel.  Needless to say, it’s a film that relies solely on atmosphere and cinematic storytelling to provide its scares, and the fact that it does so very well is no doubt responsible for its importance in the history of the modern horror genre.

Despite its humble origins, the film’s screenplay, written by John Clifford from Harvey’s original story, is surprisingly sophisticated in its layering of thematic elements and even in the believability of its dialogue- considering the nature of its subject matter, that is.  The plot concerns Mary Henry, a young woman who works as church organist though she has no particular interest in religious sentiment.  A week before she is to begin employment in a new town, she becomes the only survivor of a car accident in which two of her friends are drowned.  Determined to go on with her life, she makes the trip to start her job as planned, but she soon finds herself being stalked by a mysterious specter- who cannot be seen by anyone else- and inexplicably drawn to an abandoned carnival pavilion on the shores of a local lake.  Her strangely cold and detached behavior, coupled with her increasing hysteria and delusional episodes, begin to alienate her new friends and associates, and she finds she must confront the mysteries that haunt her in order to escape them.  The story contains little action, per se; it mainly follows Mary as she attempts to start her new life.  Nevertheless, the tension builds steadily throughout, shrouded in a dreamlike surreality and accompanied by a tangible sense of foreboding.

Much of the film’s unsettling mood has to do with the locations.  Director Harvey supposedly got the idea for his movie while driving past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.  Though most of the rest of the movie was shot in Lawrence, where he was based, he paid the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce $50 for one week of filming at the ruined location; it was a good investment, because the scenes in this eerie, decrepit monument to cheap thrills long past can stand with some of the creepiest images ever put on film.  It’s a marvelous symbolic element- a giant, decaying fun palace in the middle of a desolate wasteland, a haunted shell evoking the futility of the good times it once housed in the face of the eternal emptiness that surrounds it.  To put it another way, it’s an apt reminder that, in the midst of life, we are in death, making it a perfect metaphor for the uneasy thematic core of the film.

The majority of Carnival of Souls, however, takes place in the kind of quiet, small town setting that can so easily serve to conjure thoughts of malicious forces lurking beneath the mundane familiarity of its surface- particularly when captured in the stark black-and-white palette of Maurice Prather’s cheap-but-effective cinematography.  Sunlit parks or dark nighttime highways, a crowded nightclub or an empty church, a bus depot or a department store- no place feels quite right or completely safe.  Even before the car accident in the opening scene, the lonely country roads seem threatening, and from the moment Mary emerges, dripping, from the watery scene of the crash, we spend the rest of the film waiting for the drop of another proverbial shoe.

It would not be fair, though, to place all the credit for this oppressive creepiness on the happenstance of starkly-photographed scenery.  The film’s humble director was clearly a man with a vision, evidenced by the fact that he worked, without salary and with money he raised himself, to make Carnival of Souls in three weeks with a crew of five- including himself.  Though there is definitely a clunkiness in his cinematic style, this has more to do with the limitations of his budget than with his understanding of the craft or his talent; the abrupt edits and the sloppy continuity are at least partly the consequence of a tight shooting schedule and insufficient funds.  There is ample proof, throughout the film, of Harvey’s ability as a director; he frames his shots with an eye for arresting composition, and his instinct for pacing belies his lack of experience with narrative fiction.  There are numerous moments when his use of clever camera trickery parallels that of directors like Hitchcock- whose work he no doubt studied- and the overall sense of inexorable menace, though enhanced by the settings and the visual style, is ultimately achieved by his cinematic rhythm- leisurely takes punctuated by short, sharp shocks at just the right moment- and his choices of what to show us and when to show it.  To top it all off is his choice of musical accompaniment- an otherworldly organ score composed by Gene Moore, a natural extension of the heroine’s occupational duties which provides the perfect aura of fruity gothic gloom to the proceedings.

As for the actors, most of the roles are handled by local Lawrence “talent,” unprofessional actors acquainted with Harvey through his industrial work; admittedly, there are some embarrassing performances on display throughout the film, though Sidney Berger deserves a mention for his unexpectedly complex work as a loutish boarding-house neighbor who tries to woo the oddly disaffected heroine.  A nod must also go to director Harvey himself, who makes a personal appearance onscreen as the ghoulish figure who plagues Mary, sporting pale makeup and leering malevolently- which may sound easy, but requires a certain finesse to pull off effectively, which he certainly does.  Obviously, though, his movie hinges on the leading actress, and he shrewdly spent his casting budget there, hiring an unknown but highly-trained and experienced performer named Candace Hilligoss; strikingly beautiful and fully committed to her role, she carries the weight of the picture on her capable shoulders, convincingly playing a variety of far-fetched conceits and walking a thin line between ethereal detachment and frightened vulnerability.  It would be overstating the case to say that she gives a great performance, but it’s a good one- certainly much better than the vast majority of would-be starlet turns in this sort of sub-B-grade horror movie.

That, of course, is exactly what Carnival of Souls is, despite the considerable praise it may have garnered over the 50 years since its inauspicious debut.  It’s unquestionably the kind of lowbrow drive-in fodder that was churned out ad infinitum during its era- it’s just that Harvey’s enthusiasm and dedication make it several cuts above most of the others.  To be sure, there is a level of artistry here that is hard to define; it’s not quite accurate to call the director a talented amateur, and the film’s stylistic strength is not accidental- he definitely knew what he was doing.  Even so, the power of this strange little film may lie beyond the full scope of his intentions or abilities, and is perhaps rooted in the notion that lies at its heart, the one which ultimately provides its twist ending- predictable as it may be, in this day and age.  Beneath its bogey-man thrills, it conjures a profound despair, perhaps the result of touching on some deep, unnamable dread, leaving a disturbing feeling that lingers long past its final frames.  It is this quality, more than the diamond-in-the-rough technical prowess of its director, which has placed Carnival of Souls so highly in the esteem of modern horror enthusiasts and provided dark inspiration for later, greater filmmakers like George Romero, David Lynch, and Quentin Tarantino.

It probably goes without saying that by today’s standards, the fright factor of this film is very low; and by any standards, its production quality is ridiculously shoddy.  The average modern viewer will probably find it laughable, the kind of movie that has gained its popularity from falling into the so-bad-it’s-good category.  Certainly, a screening with a bunch of quick-witted friends would probably yield some pretty snarky zingers, and that’s a good enough reason to recommend it; but while you’re laughing, make sure you take a close enough look to admire the weird beauty that emanates from Carnival of Souls.  However jaded you may be, there is something there that demands attention and commands respect.

 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055830/

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Today’s cinema adventure: Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel, and the great French director’s first- and only- English-language film.  Set in a non-specified (but not-too-distant) future society, where firemen no longer put out fires but start them- in order to burn books, which have been outlawed- it tells the story of one such officer, Montag, whose curiosity leads him to start reading in secret, resulting in his gradual dissociation from wife, job, and culture.  Though it was misunderstood by the critics and the public upon release, meeting with lukewarm reaction and largely being dismissed as an interesting failure, it has gained in reputation and respect over the years and is now regarded as a minor classic- and certainly as a seminal influence on the development of the sci-fi genre.

The choice of Bradbury’s story as source material for Truffaut was an odd one, considering the director’s previous work.  As one of the founders of the French New Wave movement, he had won much critical and scholarly renown with genre-defying films that broke from traditional ideas of cinematic structure and conventional storytelling, tackling social themes in a peripheral way but focusing more intently on the dynamics of human relationships.  His decision to helm a science fiction story- not only a specific genre but one which he had specifically stated was uninteresting to him, before he read Bradbury’s novel- was surprising in itself, to say nothing of it being a film that required adherence to a specifically structured plot and dealt directly with social and political issues.  Odd choice or not, he felt strongly enough about it to spend several years acquiring financing.  In addition, this would be his first film in English- a language he himself did not speak well- and his first in color.  Clearly, there were a lot of expectations awaiting Fahrenheit 451 when it finally arrived onscreen in November of 1966.

Despite its seeming opposition to Truffaut’s usual milieu, the scenario contains numerous elements, such as self-destructive obsession and the dehumanizing effects of authority, which echo some of the director’s recurring themes.  It’s no surprise, then, that his treatment of Bradbury’s novel brings these features to the forefront; he drives the plot   mainly through his portrayal of the cold and robotic firemen and the protagonist’s slow unraveling through his growing passion for the books he is supposed to destroy.  In addition, the two worlds between which Montag is torn are represented by a woman from each one (both played, in fact, by the same actress, Julie Christie), suggesting the triangular relationships which often figure prominently in Truffaut’s films.  It’s also not surprising that many of the original’s overtly sci-fi trappings have been removed in this version; the technology in use here mostly consists of familiar, contemporary stuff revamped with a futuristic design- indeed, many of the everyday devices shown in the film look specifically antique.  When we do see elements that indicate a more advanced technological world, such as the anti-gravity packs used by the airborne squad hunting Montag near the end, they seem jarringly out-of-place.

It is this seeming gap between artist and material that likely created much of the critical dissatisfaction that met with Fahrenheit 451 at the time.  Truffaut’s sensibilities as a filmmaker were geared toward capturing the immediate, reflected in a style that seemed- indeed, often was- improvised on the spot, designed to bring attention to the ineffable perfection of the moment that was happening right now.  For him to tackle a story of the future, then, created a conflict between his personal style and the needs of the material, and there were many viewers who felt that the director failed to reconcile these differences.  This, however, seems to fall under the category of judging a film for what it isn’t, rather than for what it is, which, as I believe I have pointed out before, might be missing the point.  After all, Truffaut’s success was built upon his notion that film should not be bound by expectations and convention, so it seems fitting that his contribution to science fiction cinema should be a film that is markedly different in tone and form to the accepted standards previously set for the genre.  The world he depicts is not so much a distant, future community as it is an exaggerated representation of our own- an inherent conceit (indeed, the entire point) of the whole sub-genre of dystopian fiction, and one which Truffaut emphasizes through his visualization of the novel.  Though we are given a few stylized nods to forward-thinking design- the elevated train which provides public transport, the oddly boat-like fire truck- the majority of the setting looks very much like the then-present day surroundings familiar to contemporary audiences.  Most of the buildings have the elegant, mid-century-modern look that was so popular at the time (and indeed, remains so today), as do the clothes and the décor; contrasted with that self-consciously chic style are the obviously old-fashioned homes and trappings of the counter-cultural characters, whose refusal to embrace the modern trend could arguably be seen as a dead giveaway to their subversive tendencies.  The primary means with which Truffaut emphasizes the difference in this social setting to that of our own is by his exaggeration, sometimes satirical and sometimes horrifying, of the more alarming similarities; the unending banalities that mark every interaction (even between husband and wife), the desire for popularity and personal advancement which seems to be the only real concern for most of the inhabitants, and the intrusive presence of the wall-screens through which the unspecified powers-that-be both control and placate the masses.  The latter is particularly prominent, and- along with the telling opening credits, which are read by voice-over rather than seen in printed form, over a montage of TV antennas- underlines the dominant premise of both the book and the film- not the censorship of literature and free thinking by a draconian government, but the erosion of knowledge and wisdom through the superficiality of a popular culture dictated by an ever-shrinking attention span and an ever-growing desire to shut out the unpleasant realities of life.  It is public mandate that has created the disturbing environment of Fahrenheit 451, not the forced domination of a powerful overlord; the citizens of the future are reaping the fruits of their own intellectual and emotional laziness.

Though re-evaluation has led to a much greater appreciation of the film than was present in its initial critical assessment, there are still a few flaws that cannot be completely ignored.  Truffaut was disappointed in the dialogue, which he felt was stilted and pedantic; though he himself had written the screenplay with Jean-Louis Richard, his own lack of proficiency in English limited his ability to create the kind of witty, stimulating exchanges he wished to include- though from a more objective standpoint the marked lack of character in the language of the film creates a strong impression of the puppet-like artificiality of the people that inhabit it.  More unfortunate, really, is the performance of Oskar Werner as Montag; having previously worked with Truffaut in Jules and Jim, the Austrian actor was a last-minute replacement in the role (when Terence Stamp dropped out over fears he would be upstaged by the aforementioned double-casting of Julie Christie), and had substantial disagreement with the director over the way the character should be played.  Truffaut wanted Montag’s humanity to be apparent, Werner felt that he should be stoic and mechanical; the resulting conflict brought an end to the friendship the two men had previously enjoyed, and Werner’s dissatisfaction and refusal to co-operate even led to deliberate sabotage- for example, cutting his hair before filming the final scenes in order to create continuity errors.  His final performance is, as he wanted, detached and largely unemotional- when his passions begin to emerge as a result of his forbidden interests, they seem to surface more as arrogant anger than as deeper awareness- and as a result, it is hard to care about him as more than a vehicle for audience perspective on the story.  As for Ms. Christie, although her twin performances were derided by some critics at the time as being different only in her hairstyle, her work here is highly effective; the similarities between the two women she plays, Montag’s outsider friend and his vapid wife, only serve to enhance the differences that result from their respective interests in the substantial and the trivial.

Truffaut’s vision of Bradbury’s work is realized by a superbly distinctive construction of its physical environment.  The production design by Syd Cain incorporates the contrast between then-contemporary ideas of futuristic styling and a taste for the comfort of familiarity presumably held by the unimaginative residents of this future, unnamed city.  Likewise, Tony Walton’s costume design opposes the gay and cheery hues and smart styles of everyday life against the ominous black fascism of the firemen’s uniforms and the earthy traditional feel of the clothing worn by the “book people.”  The vibrant cinematography, by Nicholas Roeg (whose later work as a director in his own right would sometimes suggest influences from this film), captures it all in a dazzling color palette that reflects the height of mid-sixties fashion.  As for the soundtrack, Bernard Herrmann- the master composer responsible for some of the iconic scores heard in films by Alfred Hitchcock, who was Truffaut’s favorite director- provides a haunting musical accompaniment in his own unmistakable vein, creating an influence, as he always did, that contributes immeasurably to the final overall effect of the movie.

Ultimately, though Fahrenheit 451 has become an acknowledged milestone in the direction of science fiction on screen, and it is now viewed as a little gem of its era, it does fall short in comparison to other works by its auteur director.  Nevertheless, even a weak film by François Truffaut is a work of art, with much to offer and much to appreciate.  It is something of a curiosity in his canon, an out-of-character project undertaken in an alien environment- his limited English made filming in London an isolated and unpleasant experience for him.  It’s worth noting that, despite substantial changes made to his original plot, author Bradbury publicly stated many times that he was pleased with the film, and even that some of the changes (specifically the choice to allow Clarisse, the intellectual schoolteacher who sparks Montag’s curiosity about the books he burns, to survive to the end of the story) were pleasant improvements.  In the final analysis, perhaps, what makes Truffaut’s adaptation work is the thing which drew him to the story in the first place: the director was a lover of books and literature, a fact which is evident in the way he portrays them onscreen.  The weathered and dog-eared volumes seen throughout the film evoke substance and endurance, and the lingering detail in which he depicts their burning emphasizes not so much their destruction as their beauty and their eternal appeal; and the climactic scene in which the exiled literati walk around reciting their memorized books, surrounded by a delicately beautiful snowfall, packs an unexpectedly powerful emotional punch- despite the cold inaccessibility of Werner’s performance as our would-be hero- resulting from this worshipful, loving appreciation of the printed word.  It is a worthy message Truffaut presents here, and one which seems even more urgent as our modern society- in which crucial information is provided in easily digestible factoids by thousands of broadcasted feeds, and bookstores are increasingly difficult to find- grows more and more to resemble the one portrayed here.  That he was successful in translating that message to the screen is made powerfully apparent by the fact that, after watching Fahrenheit 451, I had a sudden and overwhelming urge to go and read a book.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060390/