Wonderstruck (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Todd Haynes has a lot of his own history to live up to.

After establishing himself as an audacious talent with “Superstar” (which used Barbie dolls to tell the story of Karen Carpenter), he became a pioneer of the “new queer cinema” with “Poison,” and broke through to the mainstream by reinventing the glossy Hollywood melodrama in “Far from Heaven.”  He has pushed the boundaries of traditional narrative form, subverted cinematic tropes to challenge definitions of gay culture imposed by heteronormative society, and given voice to “otherness” through a medium in which it has historically been repressed.

With a pedigree like that, it may come as a surprise that, for his latest work, he has chosen to make what is essentially a feel-good family film.

Such a pairing of director to material might seem unlikely, at first; but once the film starts rolling, it doesn’t take long to realize that Haynes and “Wonderstruck” are a match made in movie heaven.

Through two interwoven stories, taking place 50 years apart, its the saga of two young runaways.  In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) – who has recently lost his mother to a traffic accident – embarks on a quest to find his father, whom he has never known; in 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) flees her tyrannical father and goes to New York to seek out her favorite film star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).  As their tales proceed, it becomes clear that the parallels between these two children are more than just a similarity of detail, and that they are somehow linked across time by the answers they pursue.

The conceit is inherently both literary and “gimmicky,” but the director – along with author Brian Selznick, who adapted the thoughtful screenplay from his own 2011 novel of the same name – has turned both those qualities into building blocks for pure cinema.  Known for appropriating vintage techniques in his work, Haynes takes full advantage of the opportunity to explore two widely different periods in a single film.  Each story is framed in the visual language of its era, utilizing the gritty milieu and unmistakable color palette of seventies cinema for Ben’s segments and the richly evocative black-and-white grandeur of the silent screen for Rose’s.  Both affectations, as executed by cinematographer Edward Lachman, are exquisitely realized, making “Wonderstruck,” perhaps above all else, a bewitching treat for the eyes.

Likewise, Haynes’ musical choices are canny reflections of each period.   His oft-noted love for seventies “outre” rock finds expression in Ben’s timeline through astute selections by David Bowie, Fripp and Eno, and Sweet; for Rose’s silent world, the near-constant orchestral accompaniment (by Haynes regular Carter Burwell) eloquently provides the emotional cues made necessary by the lack of spoken dialogue.

Equally on target are the film’s performances.  The ever-luminous Moore, a longtime muse for the director, proves yet again that she is one of her generation’s most gifted actresses with her virtually wordless performance.  Michelle Williams, as Ben’s doomed mother, strikes a perfect balance of warmth and melancholy.

Superb as these seasoned veterans are, the film rightly belongs to the trio of younger actors around whom its plot revolves.

Fegley and Simmonds both give mature, fleshed-out portrayals that engage our empathy for the duration of the film; and the winning Jaden Michael is a joy as Jaime, the lonely and sensitive boy who befriends Ben, providing an emotional ground in the here-and-now for a story which otherwise deals in unrequited connections between past and future.

It is the man behind the camera, however, who is the real star of “Wonderstruck.”  Though this heart-tugging fable about the enduring power of love might, in other hands, seem sappy and manipulative, Haynes – as much chameleon as auteur – embraces its sentimental qualities and deploys them with unflinching sincerity within the framework of his own distinctive style.  Informed by his fascination with semiotics, he explores its themes through layers of meaning intricately woven throughout its recurring motifs.  His use of the film’s preoccupation with architecture and museums is by itself worthy of extensive commentary – but the riches of this “cabinet of wonders” are best left to experience first-hand.

As a side note, Haynes is an “out” film director who has reached a place of prominence in the industry, and as such carries the hopes and expectations of an entire community on his shoulders.  Although “Wonderstruck” is a “non-queer” story, it is told with unmistakably queer sensibilities.  As always, Haynes gives us a film about societal “outliers” trying to find their place in a world that has no room for them – something that goes right to the heart of the LGBTQ experience, yet speaks to the yearnings of a broader audience as well.

This universal appeal means that most viewers will likely fall in love with “Wonderstruck.”  Not only is it Haynes’ most accessible work to date, it is one of those rare films that truly deserves to be called “magical.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Guys Reading Poems (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

“WHEN you have tidied all things for the night,
And while your thoughts are fading to their sleep,
You’ll pause a moment in the late firelight,
Too sorrowful to weep.”

So begins “Solitude,” by Harold Monro, one of 32 works that comprise most of the spoken words in Harold Lee Hughes’ new feature, “Guys Reading Poems.”  The mood it captures is tangible, and suggests the ideal state of wistful melancholy from which to appreciate this delicate cinematic creation.

The film tells the story of a boy whose unstable mother imprisons him in a puppet box and builds an art installation around him; to cope, the boy imagines a group of young men who read poetry to him, and these recitations echo through scenes of his past, his future, and his fantasies.  This ostensible premise serves as the centerpiece in a complex jigsaw puzzle charting the reverberations of a traumatic childhood, through which the resulting psychological fallout- fear and grief, anger and sorrow- is evoked both by the masterful language of the poems and by Hughes’ haunting black-and-white visuals.

It’s an ambitious undertaking to pack so much heavy emotional content into an average-length movie; many filmmakers have tried to channel these kinds of demons into some kind of celluloid catharsis, only to fall short of the mark.  Such efforts are often constructed either as overwrought psychodramas which offer trite resolutions for the sake of closure, or else as fantasies which obscure the issues behind mythological tropes and pseudo-symbolic whimsy.

Hughes has taken a middle path; “Guys Reading Poems” is both drama and fantasy- which means that it is also neither.  Instead, it walks a line between realism and artistic conceit; multiple layers emerge from each other as a progression of imagery takes us from past to present to future, through reality and fantasy and places in between.

The storytelling is elegantly simple, and almost entirely visual; a prologue depicting the courtship of father and mother plays like a lovely pantomime of archetypes, and the rift which develops between them later- as well as the conflict it creates in their child- is eloquently communicated by body language and artful cinematography.  As for the reciting interlopers, they may be somewhat disorienting, at first, but soon become a comfortable presence; like a Greek Chorus, they give voice to the soul of the story.  It’s largely due to them that the film’s elevated stylization can yield an authentic emotional connection, allowing both plot and purpose to be revealed like a lotus flower blossoming in a dream.

The array of poems incorporated includes works by Blake, Whitman, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Yeats, and WeHo poet laureate Steven Reigns, among many others; no less crucial, however, is the visual poetry achieved by Hughes and cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah.  Lushly lit and richly photographed, “Guys Reading Poems” is a movie that revels in its black-and-whiteness, evoking a noir sensibility that pays homage to its cinematic heritage and makes every frame feel like a deeply imbedded memory.  Combined with a flair for artistic design and a deft use of symbolism (which avoids heavy-handedness without sacrificing clarity), this results in a movie of distinctive style and beauty which lingers in the mind’s eye long after viewing.

As for the onscreen talent, they face the task communicating complex relationships mostly without the aid of dialogue, and they succeed admirably.  At the center is young Luke Judy as the boy, moving and endearing in a performance as refreshingly natural as any of his adult co-stars; but it is Patricia Velasquez as the mother- brooding and cold, yet vulnerable and tragic- who, appropriately, dominates the screen.  Rounding out the principal cast is Alexander Dreymon as the father; charismatic, and impossibly handsome, he balances tenderness with a hint of swagger as he provides an embodiment of the elusive masculine ideal.

Of course, the movie is called “Guys Reading Poems,” so the true stars of the show are the ensemble of young men who fill those title roles.  Their soulful delivery provides the movie’s beating heart, and gives weight to what might otherwise be nothing but a succession of pretty vignettes.  Each of them provides a differing perspective, standing in for various aspects of the young protagonist’s psyche as he makes sense of his experience- and each of them, like Dreymon, are stunning examples of the male aesthetic.

In fact, the preponderance of maleness, along with an underlying current of unrequited yearning for masculine affection (piercingly established with the departure of the boy’s beloved father), inevitably suggest a gay subtext.  This tale of a boy locked away in childhood provides an unmistakable allegory for a life shaped in the closet; the isolation from family and society, the entwined longing and resentment, the combination of loneliness and self-sufficiency- all these themes have deep resonance within the LGBTQ community, and all are intricately woven into every fiber of “Guys Reading Poems.”  Never overt, but vivid nonetheless, it’s a layer of meaning that makes this a full-fledged addition to the queer cinema canon.

Even so, Hughes’ film has a universal appeal.  By channeling the pain of damaged youth into a unique filmic meditation, he has created a touchstone for anyone who struggles to reconcile these psychic scars within their own life.  It’s an interior landscape that can be recognized by almost anyone, of course; and by treating it with candor, acknowledging its dark beauty, and honoring its inseparability from identity, Hughes has given us a movie which illuminates the path to transcendence.

“Guys Reading Poems” is unequivocally an art film, and as such unlikely to achieve widespread success at the box office; but for those of us who appreciate the bravery required not only to confront these difficult issues, but to explore them in such a public and honest manner, it is a much-appreciated effort and worthy of being sought out.  It deserves to be called essential viewing.

The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy 1932 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Mummy, Karl Freund’s 1932 horror classic about an ancient Egyptian priest, returned to life by the power of a sacred spell after his tomb is discovered by archaeologists, and his efforts to reunite with the reincarnated soul of the woman he loved thousands of years before. One of the three iconic monster movies- with Dracula and Frankenstein– made by genre-champion Universal Studios during its golden age of the early thirties- it was the only one not derived from a pre-existing literary source, instead being developed in a deliberate effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Egyptology and the sensationalistic popularity of the “Curse of King Tut,” of which rumors had been circulating since the discovery of the young Pharaoh’s tomb, ten years before, and the seemingly mysterious deaths of several of those who participated in its excavation. It was also intended to capitalize on the newfound stardom of Boris Karloff, who had been a virtual unknown barely a year before, but thanks to his success as the monster in Frankenstein was now so popular that he could be billed in the movie’s ads by his surname alone (“KARLOFF is THE MUMMY“) and still guarantee the film’s status as a box office hit.

Charged by Universal studio chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. with the task of finding a suitable story for an Egypt-themed thriller, story editor Richard Shayer came up empty-handed; drawing inspiration from the real-life history of Alessandro di Cagliostro, an 18th-Century occultist and charlatan who claimed- among other things- to have used arcane mystical practices to prolong his life for centuries, he teamed with writer Nina Wilcox Putnam to write a story treatment entitled Cagliostro. Laemmle was pleased with the essence of their narrative, but still determined to make his Egyptian picture, he brought in Dracula and Frankenstein screenwriter John L. Balderston to transform the idea into a script that suited his needs. The Italian magician became an Ancient Egyptian priest, and the rest of the details fell into place. The movie begins in 1921, at the base camp for the British Museum’s archaeological expedition in Egypt. Renowned Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple and his young assistant, Ralph Norton, have discovered the 3000-year-old Mummy of a High Priest named Imhotep, buried in an unmarked tomb with a mysterious box inscribed with a curse which promises destruction to any who open it. Whemple has called in his old friend, psychiatrist and occult expert Dr. Muller, as a consultant; the doctor recommends that both mummy and box be returned to the earth and forgotten, but while the older men debate the issue outside, the younger Norton cannot contain his curiosity, and he opens the box. There, he finds an ancient scroll, and as he begins to read out the hieroglyphs it contains, the mummy of Imhotep awakens. The sight of the ancient corpse come to life drives the young archaeologist instantly mad, and the mummy leaves him crumpled on the floor, hysterical, as it takes the scroll and wanders slowly out into the desert night. Ten years later, the disappearance of these artifacts is still a mystery, and a new British expedition, in which Whemple’s son Frank (who has followed in his father’s footsteps) is involved, is having scant luck finding anything of note in their digging- until Ardath Bey, an Egyptian scholar with an odd, aloof manner, arrives unexpectedly and leads them to the undiscovered tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. The British soon have the Princess and her relics on display at the Cairo Museum, reaping the scientific rewards of their find- but the mysterious Bey has his own purposes. He is, in fact, Imhotep himself, and he has spent the decade since his resurrection planning to use the stolen scroll to restore life to the Princess- his former love- so that they may at last be reunited. Using spells and incantations in the museum after hours, he summons the reincarnated soul of Anck-es-en-Amon- now inhabiting the body of young, beautiful Helen Grosvenor (coincidentally, a patient of Dr. Muller’s)- to come to his side. Muller, however, immediately surmises the truth behind the girl’s strange attraction to Bey, and with the help of young Frank Whemple, attempts to thwart the ancient priest’s dark purpose by taking her under his protection. Imhotep’s mastery of the scroll, however, makes him a powerful adversary, and with it he exerts his will to break down the mortals’ defenses, despite Muller’s vast knowledge and understanding of these archaic forces- and despite the love that is blossoming between Frank Whemple and the object of his millennia-old obsession.

I’ve said it before in relation to other horror films from this classic era, and perhaps it seems an obvious point hardly worth mentioning at all, but for today’s audiences- conditioned as we are to the oceans of gore and unspeakable violence that permeates the genre and so familiar with its standard conventions of plot and character that they have achieved for us the level of cliché- The Mummy offers little in the way of genuine thrills or chills. The script is laden with clunky exposition, the necessary conditions of the plot are unconvincingly established and accepted by rote, and the most directly terrifying moments are portrayed either by sound effects or reaction shots as they take place offscreen. Its plot is formulaic, borrowing more than a little from Dracula– unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering that this film is a product of the same studio, written by the same screenwriter, and directed by the previous movie’s cinematographer- with its scenario of an ancient horror using arcane powers to lure a young and vital female to the doom of an unholy union. Even so, The Mummy can scarcely be dismissed as an irrelevant or inferior work; indeed, dated though it may seem to the casual viewer today, it was and continues to be a vastly influential film, helping to define the genre at least as much as the others in the Universal canon and casting its dusty shadow over every archaeological fantasy film to follow, right on down to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies and beyond. It is every bit the equal of Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of artistry and surpasses them in technical prowess, setting new standards in makeup and special effects. More importantly, in terms of lasting effect, its then-novel conceit of a resuscitated mummy has become an iconic pop culture trope, joining the ranks of such legendary monsters- with lengthier pedigrees- as vampires and werewolves as inspiration for imaginative tales and Halloween costumes the world over.This last item will no doubt be the source of most interest for the casual modern movie viewer, a chance to see the original incarnation of a much-loved and imitated celluloid spook that has terrorized everyone from Abbot and Costello to Scooby-Doo and his gang. Painstakingly executed by make-up pioneer Jack Pierce (who also crafted Karloff’s frightening countenance for his star-making role in Frankenstein), the mummified Imhotep was created in an excruciating 8-hour process involving clay, cotton, spirit gum, and linen. Karloff went before the cameras for another 5 hours, and then spent 2 hours having the make-up removed; the actor- who famously complained to Pierce that in all his attention to intricate detail, he had nevertheless forgotten to include a fly- later called it the most “trying ordeal” of his life. He had only to endure it once, however; Imhotep is seen in his fully-wrapped mummy regalia for only few minutes, during the opening sequence in which he is studied and inadvertently revived, and the character spends the rest of the film in the simpler- but no less effective- make-up required to give him the desiccated, shriveled look one might expect from a man who has spent three millennia beneath the desert sands. This brief appearance may disappoint those hoping for a whole movie’s worth of moaning, shambling, bandage-wrapped menace- a device not introduced until several years later, when the studio re-introduced the character for a series of inferior, unrelated pseudo-sequels- but it offers a classic look for this particular ghoul that has never been supplanted or surpassed, and it was enough to electrify audiences in 1932; indeed, the chilling moment when Karloff slowly opens his eyes for the first time remains one of the most singularly ominous few seconds in the history of the horror genre.

It is Karloff’s performance, too, that gives The Mummy its classic stature, for without his elegant presence in the title role the film would be little more than a stylish-but-hollow melodrama; though his character is less directly menacing than Dracula and less brutal than the creature of Frankenstein, Karloff nevertheless infuses him with a palpably terrifying power, exuding the absolute confidence of invincibility with every underplayed line. Always a master of physical performance, his brittle, slow and deliberate movement gives us not only a sense of Imhotep’s antiquity, but emphasizes a soft and careful gentility that contrasts the destructive intent that hides beneath his staid persona. It’s a difficult task to convincingly portray the ability to enslave and destroy with the power of a mere thought, but Karloff does so. More crucial than that, however, is his gift for revealing the tender soul that dwells inside the monster; though he makes clear the treacherous nature of Imhotep, and leaves no doubt of his callous disregard for the suffering of mere mortals, so too does he show, with utmost sincerity and simplicity, the deep and desperate pangs of love that have driven him across centuries and motivated him to defy the gods themselves in order to recapture the woman he has lost. Karloff gives us a villain who is, at his most private core, an almost touchingly naive romantic- something to which we can all relate, at some level- and therefore one we can feel sorry for, particularly in light of the vaguely smug sense of anglo-centricism, a product of the less-culturally-sensitive era in which the film was produced, projected by the protagonists. It’s a masterful performance, and one that takes its place alongside the other classic characterizations that made this gifted actor into a screen legend well-known and respected even today, when so many of his fellows from the early days of cinema have long faded into obscurity.

Sharing the screen with Karloff are a handful of other capable performers of the time, an A-list selection of actors who help, in their own ways, to make The Mummy stand the test of time. Most notable, of course, is Edward Van Sloan, the horror stalwart who here completes his triumvirate of monster-fighters (having previously portrayed the title character’s mentor in Frankenstein and the intrepid vampire-hunter, Van Helsing, in Dracula) as Dr. Muller; wise, intense, and steely at the core, he cements his own legend with a solid and believable performance that may not be as showy or compelling as those offered by some who have followed his footsteps in similar roles, but nonetheless sets the standard for this indispensable archetype of the genre. The most memorable supporting player, however, is perhaps Bramwell Fletcher, as the unfortunate and overly-enthusiastic archaeologists’ assistant who unwittingly speaks the words which return Imhotep to the world of the living; as the central figure in the film’s most famous sequence, he is burned into popular consciousness by virtue of the chilling, hysterical laughter into which he descends as the sight of the reanimated relic turns his mind to permanent jelly.

Much of the authenticity of the film’s conceit, though, hinges on the performance of Zita Johann, the exotic and beautiful actress with the difficult task of portraying Helen, a young woman rooted simultaneously in both the modern and the ancient world; she exudes warmth and intelligence even as she is convincingly mesmerized by her ancient lover’s mystical powers. and she successfully conveys both the sophisticated candor of a contemporary woman and the haughty formality of an Ancient Egyptian princess. She was no doubt aided with the latter by a deeply-held personal belief in reincarnation; indeed, she protested vehemently when a lengthy flashback sequence, portraying her character’s journey through the centuries in a series of lives during different historical periods, was cut from the film in an effort to reduce its running time- though sadly, her efforts to have the scenes reinstated were unsuccessful and the footage has been long-since lost. Even so, her contribution to The Mummy is a performance worthy of being matched with the great Karloff, from an actress whose screen career- abandoned after only five films for a life in the theater, working with then-husband John Houseman and his cohort Orson Welles- was all too brief.

The third corner of the movie’s bizarre love triangle is David Manners, a popular and respected stage-actor-turned-movie-star who had played essentially the same role in Dracula, a year earlier; while the character is not particularly compelling and is mostly required to perform the obligatory acts of passionate (if ineffectual) heroism inherent to the film’s formula, this handsome, likable actor gives him much more personality than many of the others who have played his equivalent in countless creature features. Manners, though primarily known for his twin roles in these iconic horror films, also appeared with Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut (A Bill of Divorcement) as well as several other important leading ladies of the time; he was a star in the making, well-liked by colleagues who spoke very highly of his professionalism and supportive attitude- but, like his female co-star in The Mummy, he retired young from Hollywood, saying it was “a false place.” He moved to a ranch in Victorville, California with his life partner, writer Bill Mercer, and returned to a successful stage career; at one point in the 1940s, he worked in Maxwell Anderson’s play Truckline Cafe with fledgling actor Marlon Brando, who later said he owed Manners his “entire career.”

The fine cast and artful production values of The Mummy were supervised by director Karl Freund; a legendary cinematographer from Germany, where he had photographed such visually stunning masterworks as The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he had emigrated to Hollywood a few years earlier. Hired to lens Dracula, he had been left in charge of many of the scenes in that film due to director Tod Browning’s frequent absences from the set; consequently, Universal officially gave him the job of directing this follow-up. It proved a wise choice, for Freund approaches the story with a photographer’s eye; wisely recognizing the weakness of the narrative, he relies on mood and atmosphere to carry his film, using an elegant visual style- replete with exotic locales, majestic sets, sumptuous costumes, and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (executed by Charles Stumar, no doubt under close supervision from Freund himself)- to give us imagery that transcends the plot and transports and unsettles our imagination almost independently of the script. Freund would go on to direct a handful of other films, and photograph many others, but his greatest success would come much later in his career, when he was hired by Desi Arnaz to supervise the photography on the series I Love Lucy; he developed a use of lighting that would allow multiple cameras to shoot the same scene simultaneously, eliminating the need for cutting the action to change angles and thereby allowing for an uninterrupted performance to be filmed in front of a live audience. It was a ground-breaking technique that changed the future of television sitcoms forever, and Freund received much well-deserved acclaim and respect for it, giving him a sizable feather in the cap of an already-illustrious career.

It would be overstating the case to say that The Mummy is a great film, in the sense of other early talkies such as The Public Enemy or All Quiet on the Western Front; it was, and remains, a piece of glossy pulp cinema, a sensationalistic crowd-pleaser aimed primarily at providing scares and making money. It did both in 1932, making it a successful film, whether or not it was a great one. Just because it is, essentially, schlock entertainment, however, doesn’t mean it is not also a fine example of the filmmaking art as it was at the time; indeed, the primal, timeless nature of its subject matter- and even its relatively lowbrow intent- means that it is more easily accessible to modern audiences, playing better today than many of the more prestigious “art” pictures of its day. If nothing else, it’s a treat to look at, but more than that, there is something intangibly resonant about it; perhaps it is its theme of undying love opposed by the inexorable march of time and the irresistible winds of fate, or its evocation of ancient memories buried deep within our psyches through its exploration of reincarnation and arcane magic, but The Mummy, creaky and corny as it may be to our modern sensibilities, still has the power to move us. There are lots of good reasons why this golden-age potboiler remains a classic, worthy of watching for those who have never seen it and of repeated returns for those who have; but the best of these reasons, and the one which makes The Mummy a truly essential piece of cinema, is Boris Karloff. The man had a rare ability to find the monster within us all, and show it to us with the dignity, honesty, and pathos it deserves; he did so many times- and did it well- throughout his long career, even in films far inferior to this and his other early classics. To see him here is to understand why, so many generations later, and despite his association with depraved, monstrous characters, he is still one of those rare actors who can genuinely be called “beloved.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0023245/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2

Paths of Glory (1957)

Paths of Glory (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Paths of Glory, the 1957 World War I drama by Stanley Kubrick, an early example of the filmmaker’s much-lauded mastery of the cinematic medium starring Kirk Douglas as a French colonel who finds himself caught in the middle when the personal and political motivations of his superiors force him to order his men on an impossible mission.  Based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb that was itself inspired by a true-life incident, it was a project spearheaded by Kubrick- who had read the book as a youth- when the critical success of his low-budget film, The Killing, got him hired to develop projects for MGM production head Dore Schary.  Though Schary rejected Paths of Glory for its lack of commercial appeal, he was eventually fired from the studio, freeing Kubrick and his producer, James Harris, to shop it elsewhere, and they managed to salvage their film by gaining the interest of actor Douglas, whose enthusiasm and guaranteed participation allowed them to find backing at United Artists.  With its harsh anti-war sentiments, its cynical take on military politics, and its bleak ending, nobody anticipated it would be a box office hit; it did, however, fare better than expected, despite heavy controversy in the European market- it was withheld from release in France for several years due to diplomatic protests, and it was heavily edited in other countries.  More importantly, in the long term, it earned massive critical acclaim for its director, thrusting him further along on his own “path of glory” towards his future status as one of the all-time great auteurs in the history of cinema.

Paths of Glory is set at the French western front in 1916, where the soldiers endure the hellish conditions of trench warfare while their executive superiors reside in the luxurious nearby palace that has been temporarily transformed into military headquarters.  It is in the comfort of the latter location that General Mireau, who oversees a division near the key German position known as “the Anthill,” is visited by his superior, General Broulard, a member of the French General Staff.  Broulard has come to propose an attempt by Mireau’s men to take the heavily fortified German stronghold, a mission which, if successful, could win favorable response for the French war effort in the press and the political arena- and presumably advance the careers of the military commanders involved.  At first, Mireau is adamant in his refusal of the commission, citing the impossibility of the task and the devastating casualties that would be inflicted on his soldiers; when Broulard brings up the possibility of an upcoming promotion, however, which might be adversely affected by his choice, the ambitious subordinate quickly changes his mind, and agrees to order his troops to make the attack.  Mireau makes a visit to the trenches, a hellish war zone under a continuous blanket of shelling and gunfire, where he takes the time to exchange a few military platitudes with the already demoralized men- and deliver a strict dressing down to one shell-shocked soldier whom he accuses of being a coward- before delivering his orders to the division’s commander, Colonel Dax.  Dax, a dedicated soldier and a capable leader, is likewise skeptical of their chances for success, deeming the attack a suicide mission, but when the general threatens to relieve him of his command, he reluctantly agrees to lead his men in the attempt- though he knows the cost in human life will be high.  The next morning, the assault on “the Anthill” commences, with Dax personally leading the men through a horrific barrage of shells and machine gun fire; the effort proves futile, with most of the first wave killed or wounded without gaining much ground towards the goal, and the second wave refusing to join the attack.  A desperate Mireau, watching the battle from behind the lines, attempts to order his artillery commander to fire on the reluctant men; the officer refuses to comply without written orders, further enraging the general.  Meanwhile, despite Dax’s attempts to rally the men, the onslaught of German resistance proves too much and the surviving troops fall back, putting an end to the mission.  Mireau is furious, accusing his men of cowardice and mutiny; he demands punishment for the failure of the mission, and orders that each of the three company commanders choose a man to be court-martialed and executed for treason, as an example to the rest.  Colonel Dax is appalled, and volunteers to defend the three soldiers in the proceedings against them; a skilled lawyer in civilian life, he is frustrated in his efforts by the court’s disregard for the men’s legal rights and its refusal to hear any mitigating evidence on their behalf.  Despite Dax’s vehement objections and impassioned pleas, the men are found  guilty and sentenced to die by firing squad.  Dax makes a last ditch effort to save the doomed soldiers, bringing evidence to General Broulard about Mireau’s thwarted attempt to fire on his own army; nevertheless, the execution proceeds as scheduled, and afterwards, when he orders an investigation into Mireau’s actions, Broulard offers Dax the disgraced general’s command, believing that he has been angling for the job all along.  The disgusted Dax refuses the promotion, admonishing the wily Broulard for his manipulative role in the whole tragic affair.  Leaving the headquarters, he overhears the soldiers singing along with a young German girl in a pub, and resolves to let them enjoy their brief respite for a short while longer before ordering them, as he must, back to the nightmare of the trenches.

The film’s taut and eloquent screenplay was credited to Kubrick and Calder Willingham, along with noted “pulp” fiction author Jim Thompson; in reality, most of the script was written by the latter two men, though the director took equal credit for his supervisory contributions- a sign of his frequently- noted desire for complete control of his films.  Needless to say, perhaps, the stridently anti-establishment sentiment of the story, combined with its indictment of power and patriotism as a mask for self-promotion and exploitation, generated much controversy in the political environment of the mid-1950s Eisenhower era; despite its setting within the French military, Paths of Glory was decried as un-American and doubtless seen as an example of Communist influence in the Hollywood film industry by the remaining proponents of McCarthyism.  Indeed, actor Douglas was vilified in the press during the production of the film for his involvement in such a project, though he remained unwavering in his dedication to it.  He was not alone in his confidence, either.  Though Kubrick himself had planned, for box office purposes, to compromise the story by changing its ending to a happy one, he was persuaded to keep to the novel’s original, bitter conclusion; when the studio balked at the depressing finale of the script and demanded the proposed happy ending instead, producer Harris resubmitted the original version without changes under the somewhat cynical assumption that nobody would bother to re-read it. He was right, and after the film’s completion the studio execs were so impressed with the final product that they agreed to release it without alteration.  The relative lack of significant opposition for Paths of Glory might have been a sign of the times- after all, another film with a strong anti-war message, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, was one of the year’s big hits, even winning multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture- and despite its relatively humble box office showing, it certainly made an impact on viewers, paving the way for a coming decade in which movies would take critical attitudes towards the accepted establishment to a new level.

Whether or not Paths of Glory captured the public, it quickly became a darling of the reviewers.  Praise for the film was almost universal, with critics expressing particular admiration for its unvarnished portrayal of the realities of warfare and its stark black-and-white cinematography.  Decades later, it is easy to look at Kubrick’s work here and recognize his familiar style, developed to mastery even at this early stage in his career.  The lauded cinematography (executed by George Krause) bears the hallmark of the director’s fondness for natural lighting, capturing the harsh glare of the uncovered bulbs in the trenches, the cold and hazy sunlight of the battlefield, and the heavy diffusion of the enormous palace interior with a palpable aura of tangibility; the relentless but deliberate mobility of the camera, including the classic and influential reverse tracking shot of Colonel Dax moving through the trenches on the morning of the fateful attack, prefigures future use of the same techniques in such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, to name but two notable examples; the thematic motif of a story in which human endeavor is destined to fail because of inherent flaws in the character of its participants, and the shrewdly observational approach to revealing these flaws through the cool detachment of the empirical camera, is classic Kubrick, a thread which weaves its way through every film in the director’s canon; the unmistakable framing and shot composition, the triangulated relationships, the photographer’s fascination with capturing the human face in its myriad expressions of emotion- all these things and more are present in Paths of Glory, bearing witness to the concrete vision this then-youthful genius had already created for himself.  Already established, as well, was his penchant for demanding absolute control and his sometimes excruciating perfectionism.  His insistence on getting every frame of the movie exactly as he wished resulted in numerous confrontations and difficulties on the set, including a notorious incident in which, after 17 takes of a scene with Adolphe Menjou, the veteran actor exploded with rage and frustration at the director and ferociously derided the younger man’s inexperience at working with performers, in front of the full cast and crew of the film; after patiently allowing Menjou to expend his fury, Kubrick quietly called for another take.  It was but a foreshadowing of the kind of troublesome relations with collaborators for which he would be known throughout his career, but his exacting methods resulted, undeniably, in a legacy of masterpieces that continue to influence and inspire filmmakers- and dazzle audiences- to this day.

Though Kubrick deservedly takes the lion’s share of credit for the excellence of Paths of Glory, note must be taken of the fine contributions of the others involved.  To begin with, as noted, the screenplay is a well-crafted, tight piece of cinematic storytelling, peeling away expectation and cliché to reveal the unscrupulous, the cowardly, the vindictive, and the opportunistic qualities of its characters in an unrelenting portrait of war and its tendency to bring out the worst of human behavior.  Justice and compassion are thrown aside in favor of maintaining the status quo, ostensibly deep loyalties and ethics are forsaken at the first hint of personal consequence, and humanity is disregarded in the face of the ego-driven politics of the established social order.  The disparity between classes and ranks allows the free reign of corruption at all levels, and any trace of nobility or true honor is presumed to be just another pose adopted for the sake of gaining leverage in the quest for personal advancement.  Kubrick’s level of involvement in the writing of the screenplay is uncertain to me, but the majority of actual text was composed by Willingham and Thomas, both of whom would work with the director again despite his having downplayed their contributions here; these men have since justly earned proper recognition for this and many other projects, and each of them left the clear imprint of their particular style on Paths of Glory, helping to define its distinctive flavor of gritty humanism and undeniably playing an immeasurable part in making it the instant classic it became.

The cast, too, deserves a nod of appreciation, and not just for enduring their director’s tyrannical methods or the grueling conditions of the film shoot.  Kirk Douglas, who was then a top star, fresh from his acclaimed performance as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, helped Kubrick on his road to greatness with his support for this project (he would later be instrumental in getting the filmmaker hired to replace Anthony Mann as the director of Spartacus, a movie which would further cement his reputation and his status as a power player in the industry, and though the two would ultimately fall out during the making of this latter epic, Douglas has remained staunch in his admiration for Kubrick’s abilities as an artist).  The actor may have suffered some backlash for his involvement, but it was well worth it in terms of his long-term reputation; his performance as Colonel Dax is widely considered one of his finest pieces of work, a passionate, intelligent, and utterly convincing portrait of a decent man in the midst of madness, and he not only gives us a hero with whom we can place our sympathies, he serves as a much-needed reminder that even in a nest of vipers, men of quality can still exist.  As for Adolphe Menjou, outbursts on the set notwithstanding, he gives the performance of his long career as General Broulard, hiding his ruthless Machiavellian machinations behind the smiling pleasantries of good manners in a way that makes it clear how much he enjoys being the master of the game; he is the film’s true villain, untouchable in his power and utterly without scruples, the picture of self-serving bureaucracy and elitist entitlement.  George Macready is equally loathsome as Mireau, another species of political opportunist, whose greedy ambition makes him an easy target for the manipulations of men like Broulard, and whose thirst for power- probably stoked by decades of forced subservience- allows him to rationalize the most appalling decisions in pursuit of his personal glory, but also makes him prone to grievous errors in judgment which will ultimately prove to be his downfall; Macready, sporting a facial scar as a constant reminder that he has undoubtedly earned his position (and that he is, in fact, a product of the military system in which he has likely spent his entire adult life), is every inch the blustery martinet, but there is something about the desperation of his manner that makes us almost- but not quite- feel sorry for him.  Also memorable is Wayne Morris, as a drunken lieutenant who abuses his position to eliminate a subordinate that threatens his security (and his conscience); as the three condemned men, Ralph Meeker, Joseph Turkel, and Timothy Carey offer compelling examples of differing attitudes in the face of death, each of them representing aspects of humanity that defy easy judgment; Richard Anderson (later a familiar face of ‘70s television as Oscar Goldman, the handler of both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) is quietly superb as Mireau’s assistant, an officiously sycophantic administrator who relishes his opportunity to shine as the prosecutor in the court-martial of the accused mutineers, but who gives us, in his final scenes, more than a hint that the moral implications of his actions may be a heavier burden to bear than he had anticipated; and Susanne Christian (who would soon after become Mrs. Stanley Kubrick, a role which she would fill for the rest of the director’s life) is lovely and heartbreaking as the German singer, presumably a prisoner in the French-occupied town surrounding the military headquarters, who captures the hearts and souls of her unruly audience as she is forced to entertain them in the pub during the film’s final scene.

Paths of Glory is one of those flawless pieces of filmmaking that reminds us of just how good the medium of cinema can be.  It is- and has been from almost the moment of its release- a textbook example of great film technique, and its deeply compelling story makes it a riveting experience even for those with little interest in the technical side of the art form.  Director Steven Spielberg is one of many who has claimed it as a favorite film, and its plotline and themes have been borrowed or provided inspiration for countless other works over the years, from an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles to a song by Faith No More.  Its status as a true masterpiece is so unquestionable that it tends, sometimes, to be forgotten in discussions of great filmmaking simply because it is such an obvious example.  In truth, though Kubrick’s later, more high-profile works have often been the subject of disagreement and controversy among scholars and critics, this early gem is almost always regarded with reverence by even the director’s most vehement detractors.  If you’ve never seen it, what are you waiting for?  It’s one of only a few films that I can confidently recommend, without qualification, to anyone; whether you are an avid movie buff or a casual entertainment seeker, you are bound to find yourself enthralled by this powerful little movie, and even those with a short attention span can rest assured that, at a fast-moving 88 minutes, it will have no trouble keeping their interest.  It’s a timeless classic, as powerful and riveting today as it was over a half-century ago, proving the words uttered by its star, Kirk Douglas, barely a decade after its release, to have been absolutely prophetic: “There’s a picture that will always be good, years from now. I don’t have to wait 50 years to know that; I know it now.”  You were right, Kirk.  I know it, too.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0050825/

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/

Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror / Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922)

Nosferatu (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens), the 1922 German film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by the acclaimed and influential F.W. Murnau. An elaborate production, filmed largely on location, it was the first major film to focus on a vampire and has exerted a strong and lasting influence over the 90 years since its release; yet it was almost lost due to the fact that the production studio- Prana Films- never obtained the rights to Stoker’s novel and was sued by his widow, resulting in their declaration of bankruptcy and an order to destroy all copies of the movie. Fortunately, one copy had already been shipped out, and thanks to its survival Nosferatu (as it is now commonly known) was eventually heralded as a true classic, developing a cult following and becoming a cultural icon.

The plot is more or less familiar to anyone who has read or seen Dracula in any of its more “official” versions, but the setting and the names of the characters have been changed, and several new ideas are introduced in addition to the creation of a significantly altered ending. It opens with idyllic scenes of life in the fictional port town of Wisborg; a young man, Thomas Hutter, is being sent to faraway Transylvania by his employer, a real estate agent named Klock, in order to conduct a transaction with the mysterious Count Orlok, who wishes to buy a house in their town. Though his beautiful and virtuous wife, Ellen, has dark forebodings about the trip, Hutter leaves her in the care of friends and enthusiastically embarks on his journey. Once he arrives at Orlok’s ruined castle, however, he begins to suspect that the reclusive count- a thin, ghoulish-looking eccentric who evokes deep fear in the local villagers- may have darker intentions than a simple change of scenery; after the deal is finalized, the young man is horrified to discover that his host is indeed a member of the undead, a powerful vampire who sleeps by day in a coffin under the castle- but the knowledge comes too late, for Hutter finds himself imprisoned in his room, watching helplessly from a window as Orlok loads several coffins full of dirt into a wagon and departs for Wisborg. Fearing for the safety of his home town- and especially of his beloved wife- he manages to escape from the castle and begins to make his way back to Wisborg, hoping he can arrive in time. The count, meanwhile, travels by ship, concealed below deck in one of his coffins; along the way, he victimizes every port town at which they stop, leaving behind rumors of plague. He also preys upon the crew, killing them one by one until the boat arrives in Wisborg, seemingly a ghost vessel inhabited only by rats- brought on board within Orlok’s spare coffins. Believing the rodents have carried the spreading plague to their town, the authorities warn the citizens to remain secluded in their homes, and Orlok, having moved into his new abode and using the supposed epidemic as his cover, begins to feed upon the terrified population. When Hutter finally arrives home, he finds that Ellen, to his relief, is so far unharmed, but she is consumed by melancholy and terrified of the new neighbor who stares at her from his window at night. Though her husband tries to hide the truth from her, she discovers from his books the true nature of the threat, and learning that the vampire can only be destroyed by direct sunlight, she resolves to undertake a dire strategy by which she might lure Count Orlok to his doom.

The screenplay for Nosferatu, which has received much praise for its deliberate, rhythmic pacing and its pervading air of cool melancholy, was authored by Henrik Galeen, an Expressionist writer hired by the film’s producers for his expertise in the dark romantic style they wished to capture. Though the great Murnau is usually given credit for the movie’s eerie mise-en-scène, Galeen’s script was in fact quite detailed in its meticulous, shot-by-shot description; he included specific instructions for each scene, with directions for timing, camera angles and composition, and lighting, even providing sketches for reference in framing shots. The result is a haunting, dream-like exploration of the primal fears hiding in the dark corners of man’s imagination, given form through the persistent folklore that has resisted the rise of science and reason since the days of the Black Death. Though the vampire myth is ancient and universal, its most familiar and lasting incarnation springs from the superstitious tales of Central Europe, where bubonic plague wiped out whole medieval villages and prompted the survivors to imagine other-worldly causes for its indiscriminate and unstoppable devastation- not only vampires, but werewolves and other insidious monsters of the night became the dreaded scapegoats for this seemingly unexplainable onslaught of death, and legends of their continuing existence endured throughout the centuries as a reminder of those dark times. Galeen’s scenario, borrowed as it may have been from Stoker’s then-still-fairly-recent novel, stirs up all of these arcane fears embedded in cultural memory. Indeed, before Orlok ever appears onscreen there are scenes of a werewolf prowling the night (with a striped hyena- a bizarre-looking and fearsome creature that was largely unfamiliar to most 1922 moviegoers- standing in for the supernatural beast), and memories of the ancient plague are clearly tapped by the tale’s conceit of using the threat of just such a rat-borne pestilence as a subterfuge to mask Orlok’s killing sprees; even the vampire’s makeup, with his large, pointed ears and pronounced, close-set fangs, is designed to be rat-like and enhance the correlation between monster and disease. Though Nosferatu is set in the 1830s and was made in the 1920s, as we watch it in the 2010s our subconscious is undeniably returned to the Dark Ages, when the night concealed forces which we could neither fathom, foresee, nor combat, and safety was an illusion that could only be maintained by the light of day.

As for Murnau, even if he was guided extensively by the wishes of the screenwriter, his genius clearly shows through. His meticulously faithful adherence to Galeen’s directives is infused with his own brand of cinematic poetry, creating a striking visual statement that leaves lingering images in the viewer’s mind. His skill at using light and shadow is here used to great advantage, with his particular gift for capturing the almost tactile properties of both helping immeasurably to build the heightened, nightmare reality of the film. Nosferatu, after all, is pure Expressionist cinema- albeit tempered by the sensibilities of gothic romance- and as such is intended to simulate a sort of dream-state, in which the impulses of the unconscious psyche are manifested in outward form; Murnau’s ability to create this hallucinogenic, psychically resonant feel onscreen is largely responsible for its overwhelming success at this objective. Nor should his efforts with the mechanics of storytelling be ignored; he drives his film at precisely the right pace, neither too slowly or too quickly, but with a strong feeling of inexorability that feeds our cumulative sense of dread and pulls us deeper into the narrative. This effect was neither accidental nor accomplished after the fact through editing; the director filmed each scene with precision timing, even using a metronome to guide his actors, and controlled the rhythm and flow of the movie with such a musicality that its subtitle, “A Symphony of Horror,” is not at all hyperbolic.

The film’s other components should be noted, as well, for they all support Murnau’s artistry by building a cohesive visual unity. The director’s remarkable portrayal of light- such a tangible force it is itself almost a character in the drama- is made possible by the luminous work of cinematographer F.A. Wagner- who, amazingly, accomplished the entire shoot (even the extensive location footage) with only a single camera. Contributing immensely to the visual style, which not only makes heavy use of the theatrical, larger-than-life elements of Expressionism but also draws extensively on older, more traditional influences from Germany’s rich and varied artistic heritage, is the set-and-costume design of Albin Grau. His creations- with the help of Murnau and Wagner’s intricate lighting- evoke paintings by the great masters, but they also lend themselves to the edgy avant-garde milieu of the then-present-day; this melding of the familiar with the jarringly strange is yet another way in which Nosferatu derives its power. Grau was one of the film’s producers, and indeed had first conceived the idea of making the movie, inspired by an incident during his service in WWI, when a Serbian farmer told him that his father was a vampire; no doubt haunted by his imaginings of this farmer’s undead patriarch ravaging the countryside at night, he knew it was the sort of irrational dream material that was perfect for expression through film. It might be said that, more than Galeen or even Murnau, Nosferatu was his film; accordingly, his considerable design contributions, infused with the passion of a personal vision, should not be overlooked.

Though it was, of course, a silent film, music was nevertheless intended to play an important role in Nosferatu. Sadly, the original score composed to accompany its screening, written by Hans Edermann, was long thought lost. As a result, there have been numerous alternative scores created over the years, in styles ranging from lush orchestral romanticism to dissonant avant-garde minimalism. The print I watched recently (available on Netflix streaming video) features a score composed in 2000 by the Silent Movie Orchestra, consisting of a fairly contemporary-sounding ensemble utilizing such elements as electronic organ and heavy percussion; personally, I found it highly effective, but obviously it’s a matter of taste. Many feel that the score for a silent movie can only be appropriate if it is created in the style of- and with the instrumentation available in- the era in which the film was made; others have a more flexible preference, and obviously the majority of casual viewers will most likely find such a question immaterial (though I would venture to say that many of those who claim they cannot enjoy silent films are basing their opinion on the experience of seeing one with a generic, woefully inadequate musical accompaniment- the effect of music on this art form cannot be overstated). There are a number of prints available, with different scores to accommodate every taste, so if this aspect of the film is a concern, you would be well-advised to do a little research before choosing which version to watch. The now-reconstructed Edelmann score is featured on Kino’s restored print, which also offers probably the cleanest video quality available today, complete with the original, all-important chromatic tinting to differentiate day from night (in pure black-and-white, as most silent films were commonly shown for decades, time of day becomes a confusing issue); obviously, watching this edition is the best option, if possible; otherwise, there are numerous other versions available for free viewing online- after all, the movie is in the public domain, at least in the United States.

Whatever musical accompaniment you might favor, if you are a serious cinema aficionado, watch Nosferatu you should. Though many other horror films pre-date it, it is unquestionably the first unqualified masterpiece of the genre, from which all subsequent entries have sprung; not only have Galeen’s screenplay and Murnau’s direction spawned thousands of imitators throughout the past century, their film contains the first bona-fide horror icon (with the possible exception of Conrad Veidt’s somnambulistic murderer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the form of Count Orlok. As embodied by character actor Max Schreck, the count is a nightmarish figure indeed; a far cry from the darkly romantic charm of Bela Lugosi and other later interpretations of the Dracula character, he is utterly devoid of humanity, spectral, repellant and coldly detached. He famously grows uglier as the film progresses, with fangs and talons seeming to grow larger as he becomes more steeped in bloodshed and death. Like an anthropoid vermin, he moves his spindly frame with a grotesque grace and gazes with dull malevolence through his not-quite lifeless eyes; it’s easy to see why Schreck has been shrouded with mystery in the popular imagination, even being portrayed as a real vampire in the fictional 2000 film about the making of Nosferatu, Shadow of the Vampire. For many years, cinematic legend surrounding the film has wrongly implied his surname was adopted for this role due to its translation into the English word “fright,” but Schreck was indeed his birth name, and he had enjoyed a long and prominent career in German theatre and film prior to being cast as Orlok. He deserves full recognition for his performance, a masterful creation in which he uses his physicality to bring the full essence of this loathsome character to the screen; to attribute his effectiveness solely to savvy casting, though Murnau reportedly picked him for his ugliness alone, is to discount the level of commitment this fine actor brought to the role, helping to make it one of the most definitive and influential screen depictions of a horror character ever filmed- an even more remarkable feat considering that he is actually on screen for a total of less than 10 minutes

The rest of the cast, though many of them have much more screen time, are not quite as unforgettable as Schreck- how could they be? This doesn’t mean their work is inferior, however; all of the players provide vivid portraits of their characters, delivering top-notch performances in the accepted style of the day. Gustav von Wangenheim, a noted theatrical writer/director and performer, and film’s true leading actor, is robust and florid as Hutter, a little over the top, perhaps, but more endearing by far than most of the wooden, stiff-upper lip types offered by later incarnations of the story’s parallel character, Jonathan Harker; the stately and beautiful Greta Schröder adds a touch more weight and dignity than expected to the role of Ellen, making her less the helpless victim than the tragic heroine; and as Knock, the psychically-enslaved real estate broker who serves as the film’s version of Renfield, Alexander Granach gives us a comically exaggerated- but still unsettling- personification of the archetypal greedy old man, here driven to the point of lunacy by the influence of his demonic master and presenting an obvious allegory, in his affiliation with the vampire, for the adulation of wealth and power represented by such figures- which gives Nosferatu a suggestion of sociopolitical commentary, in the sense that Knock becomes a scapegoat for the villagers, who blame and persecute him for the onset of the plague, though- despite his eager participation in the evil that besets them- he is, in reality, just another victim, a symptom of a larger malady that transcends political or economic concerns.

Nosferatu is one of those rare works from the early years of cinema that remains eminently watchable by the average viewer today; there is something about it, perhaps a sense of the dark despair hidden beneath even the brightest promise of happiness and prosperity, which allows it to strike a universal and timeless chord. There are so many haunting and indelible images here: the silhouetted horses fleeing from the marauding werewolf; the spectral coach speeding eerily in stop-motion as it bears Hutter to Orlok’s castle; the ghostly ship gliding inexorably through the night as it delivers the vampire across the waters; the angry mob destroying a scarecrow in its pursuit of Knock; and, of course, every moment of Orlok’s presence, from his first appearance as the sinister driver of the coach to his furtive and decidedly unromantic feeding upon his final victim. The stylized artistry of its presentation, far from making it inaccessible, seems to crystallize it and capture its essence in a form that is instantly familiar. It’s impossible to say, 90 years later, whether the imagery of Murnau’s movie has become integrated into our collective cultural consciousness or if it drew its inspiration from the dark imaginings that were already there; wither way, the effect is the same- Nosferatu is an experience that feels like it is coming from within us, not from without.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013442/

Freaks (1932)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Freaks, the infamous 1932 film by director Tod Browning, about- and starring- the disfigured performers of a circus sideshow; controversial from the moment of its release and still disturbing today, it was lambasted by critics who found it repugnant, and was quickly pulled from circulation after provoking public shock and moral outrage.  Considered an affront to decency, it was barred from exhibition in many U.S. states and in countries around the world, and effectively ended the career of a director who had been one of Hollywood’s most respected talents; nevertheless, over the ensuing decades it gained a reputation- no doubt enhanced by its lack of ready availability- and became, in the ’60s and ’70s, a cult favorite, frequently screened as a midnight movie despite the fact that many of the prohibitions against it were still in place, making it technically illegal to be shown in many states.  Its rediscovery led to a critical re-evaluation, and today (thanks to modern society’s more enlightened, less reactionary view of its subject matter) it is widely regarded as a genuine classic, a brave and truly unique piece of filmmaking and a seminal influence within the horror genre.

The story takes place entirely within the insular world of a traveling circus, focusing on the day-to-day existence and relationships of its cast- particularly the collection of malformed misfits that comprises its sideshow, which includes dwarfs and midgets, “pinheads,” conjoined twins, a legless boy, a human torso, and numerous other bizarrely-shaped and differently-abled individuals who, despite their deformities, enjoy a comfortable and seemingly pleasant existence within the rarified environment of the circus, living together in a tightly-knit community with its own sort of exclusivity- as well as its own unwritten code that governs their interaction with the outside world.  One of their number, a midget named Hans (who has recently become engaged to Frieda, another little person in the troupe), has become obsessed with the “normal” Cleopatra, the show’s new trapeze artist, an exotic beauty who indulges his attentions with flirtation and flattery; privately, however, she is only amused by his affections, making cruel fun of him with her real lover, the circus’ opportunistic strongman, Hercules.  Though warned by his fellow “freaks” that she is not sincere, Hans continues to pursue Cleopatra, eventually spurning his fiancée for her; she humors him in order to take advantage of the lavish gifts he gives her, and when she discovers that he is secretly the heir to an enormous fortune, she and Hercules decide to steal it for themselves.  She concocts a plan to marry the little man so that she can become his beneficiary, and then slowly poison him, making his death seem due to illness and allowing her to claim the money and run away with the strongman.  At their wedding feast, however, she becomes drunk, reacting with disgust when the freaks attempt to accept her as one their own and inadvertently revealing her affair with Hercules.  Though she is seemingly able to allay the suspicions of her new husband- who has grown weak from the poison she has already begun to administer- the other sideshow performers are onto her scheme, and they resolve to take matters- and justice- into their own hands.

Director Tod Browning had spent his early youth in the circus (which he had run away from his privileged family to join) where he had formed a strong connection to the specialized society of its inhabitants; when he encountered the short story, Spurs, by Tod Robbins, he immediately knew he wanted to use it as the basis for a film.  He had built an impressive career as a director of silent films, making a name for himself through his extensive collaboration with renowned horror star Lon Chaney, with whom he created a number of classic films known for not only their moody eeriness, but for their remarkable level of humanity; after continuing his success into the sound era (as the director of Dracula, the 1931 hit which made a star of Bela Lugosi), he was able to convince MGM Studios- with whom he had worked on the Chaney films- to allow him to develop a film based on Robbins’ story.  Though the studio had serious reservations, production head Irving Thalberg gave Browning his full support, even in his decision to use real sideshow performers in the film instead of actors in makeup.  Consequently, working from a screenplay that combined basic elements from the original story with the concocted plot of Cleopatra’s treachery, as well as episodes inspired by his own experiences in the circus, Browning was able to realize his dream project.

In the end, he may have wished he had not; his use of genuinely deformed actors caused an outcry from public and critics alike, who felt their presence made the film far too disturbing to watch.  Worse yet, Browning was accused of exploiting these unfortunates for his own profit, much in the way that real-life carnivals and sideshows had done for years.  Whether or not this was true, the film’s preview screenings were a disaster, with audience response so vehemently negative- and one female patron threatening to sue MGM over a miscarriage supposedly brought on by the movie- that the studio edited out 30 minutes of the most upsetting footage before its general release, leaving it with a running time scarcely over an hour.  Even with these cuts, a new prologue, and a more upbeat happy ending tacked on for good measure, Freaks was a failure at the box office; not only did it fail to make back its cost, it generated so much negative publicity for the studio that, after a short release, they pulled it from theaters and put it on the shelf- though it would later emerge in exploitative road show tours, under lurid-sounding titles such as Forbidden Love and Nature’s Mistakes, and sometimes accompanied by such titillating underground fare as amateur films of nudist camps.  As for Browning, he was more or less blacklisted from making any more important movies, relegated to helming a few low-grade horror entries until he gave up his career in 1939, and he passed away in relative obscurity in 1962- just a few years before the resurgence of interest in classic horror films that would doubtless have restored his fame and reputation, never to see the day when a youthful counterculture would turn his greatest failure into his greatest triumph.

Calling Freaks a triumph, actually, might not be an apt description; it possesses a raw and unfinished quality that has nothing to do with the removal of so much footage (all of which is now, sadly, considered lost).  Its story is sensationalistic, more a transposition of conventional melodrama into an unfamiliar setting than a real attempt at exploring this rarely-seen world, and it capitalizes on the irrational fears of the lowest common denominator to achieve its horrific effect.  Despite these things, however, and perhaps even because of them, it has a unique power that makes it nearly as shocking today as it was 80 years ago; watching it is as difficult as it is fascinating, evoking a decided sense of seeing something you’re not supposed to see.  It’s actually very easy to understand why audiences in 1932 would react so violently to Browning’s film, unaccustomed as they were to the kind of distorted imagery of the human body that has since been portrayed onscreen.  Even today, thanks to advances in medical and nutritional science and the ready availability of pre-natal care which have made such dramatic and heartbreaking birth defects a much rarer occurrence, the sight of all these non-CG-enhanced distortions of physical humanity is more than a little unsettling. The real power of Freaks, though, is only apparent for those who can get past the deliberate gross-out factor of its surface and invest themselves in its story, the clear message of which is that true ugliness lies not in physical appearance but in the soul.  Without exception, the so-called freaks are good-natured, trusting, generous and sweet (though Hans may be blinded by desire into making some foolish choices); it is the “normals” who are the real monsters here, with Cleopatra’s gold-digging cruelty and Hercules’ brutish arrogance making them truly among the most loathsome villains in classic cinema.  Of course, it would be contrary to Browning’s message to make all of the normal characters so unpleasant; the others exhibit varying degrees of likability, in terms of their relation to the freaks, from the uncharitable but relatively benign attitudes of the circus’ tumblers (a decidedly non-athletic-looking pair, incidentally, to be holding such a job) to the kindness and total acceptance offered by the film’s ostensible romantic leads, the lovely seal-trainer Venus and her clown boyfriend Phrozo, who even risk their own safety to come to the aid of their oddly-shaped friends.  Though the narrative approach is simplistic and heavy-handed, the black-and-white morality is part of what makes it work; it should be obvious that true humanity exists under the skin, having nothing to do either with physical beauty or the lack of it, and it is one of the defining characteristics of the insensitive and the mean-spirited that they neither see nor care about this basic truth- they are, in fact, the real “freaks” in this story, the unnatural evil that must be weeded out in order to restore harmony.  It is a testament to Browning that he makes their comeuppance both horrific and immensely satisfying, accomplishing the somewhat Hitchcockian feat of transferring audience identification to the perpetrators of violence in order to underscore his subversive point.

Freaks does not dwell entirely in the dark and moralistic realm of its main plotline; throughout the film are vignettes, many of them drawn from Browning’s real-life memories of his own years in the circus, of existence in the sideshow world.  It’s a place where, despite the extraordinary nature if its inhabitants, the details of daily life are mundanely familiar- Frieda the midget having girl talk with Venus while hanging laundry, lovers’ politics between the conjoined twins and their paramours (both of whom are, by the way, normals), the joyful bedside gathering of friends when the bearded lady gives birth- and go a long way towards endearing us to the misshapen cast of characters.  Some of these moments are played for laughs hinging on the idea of these outwardly strange individuals behaving like average people (a conceit which, though likely very true to real life, was also a staple of the sideshow and vaudeville acts in which they performed); others are touching and revelatory, such as the early scene in which a landowner stumbles upon Madame Tetralini, the sideshow’s “headmistress,” accompanying several of her more drastically deformed charges on an outing in the woods.  A few of these sequences awaken a genuine sense of wonder and open a window into these unusual lives, such as the famous scene when Prince Randian, the “Human Torso,” expertly lights a cigarette using only his mouth or, most particularly, when a passionate kiss bestowed on one of the conjoined sisters sends a tingling wave of arousal through her twin.  These humanizing moments, some of them unforgettable, contribute to the effects of the well-known scene of Hans and Cleo’s wedding feast; we feel the infectious joy of their raucous celebration- sharing in the fun of Koo-Koo the Bird Girl dancing on the table rather than experiencing the appalled reaction of an uninitiated gawker, respecting the true generosity of their chanted ritual of acceptance for the new bride (“Gooble-gobble, Gooble-gobble, One of Us, One of Us!”) instead of cringing at its seemingly ominous implications, and recognizing Cleopatra and Hercules’ drunkenly flagrant contempt and disrespect for their hosts as the deep affront that it is rather than identifying with it.  For the film’s harrowing climax, however, though these efforts to bond us with the freak community may allow us to be on their side, our sympathy does nothing to alleviate the sheer visceral terror they evoke when we see them lurking in the shadows or crawling slowly but inexorably towards their helpless quarry.  This is Browning’s true mastery coming to its fruition- he helps us to subdue our instinctive and primordial fears around these outwardly disturbing figures and then brings those fears to life for us in a way which simultaneously repulses and elates us.  In this way, he offers a film which transcends its own morality to deliver a pure, non-intellectualized reaction, and one which has rarely been matched, let alone surpassed.

As disquieting as this famous climactic sequence may be, modern audiences will only be able to imagine what it was once like.  Following the film’s overwhelming rejection by preview audiences, MGM made Browning cut a large portion of it; the original version featured the brutal castration of Hercules and included a lengthy and graphic mutilation of Cleopatra by the vengeful freaks.  There was also a longer version of the sideshow epilogue, in which the former strongman was seen on display, singing soprano, before the final revelation of the once-beautiful Cleopatra transformed into a grotesque duck woman- webbed feet, feathers and all.  This latter image, of course, remains in the film, no less disturbing for its lack of logical explanation, and justly infamous for its sheer audacious shock value.  It was meant to be the final moment, a lingering horror to send the audience home to their personal nightmares; in most existing prints of the movie, however, it is followed by a short finale- hurriedly filmed after the cuts were made, in hopes of leaving audiences on a more hopeful note- which shows the reconciliation of little Hans and his faithful Frieda, a pleasant enough conclusion, but juxtaposed against what we have just witnessed, one that feels a little hollow.

In terms of its production values, Freaks was a fairly high-budget project, and it shows.  Many of its scenes were shot on location (that is to say, outdoors) giving it an expansive, realistic feel that is missing in many of the more set-bound films of this early talkie period.   The cinematography (by Merritt B. Gerstad) is a masterpiece of chiaroscuro black-and-white moodiness, and the artistic design captures the authenticity of its circus setting in all its rough-edged, seedy glamour.  As for the acting, the “normal” cast all deliver perfectly acceptable performances in the somewhat stagy, melodramatic style of the day, with Olga Baclanova appropriately standing out as the flamboyantly callous and deceitful Cleopatra.  The specialty players, though all were seasoned performers in the real-life sideshow and vaudeville circuit, were not trained actors; even so- though their delivery is sometimes stilted, their diction often indecipherable, and their characterizations generally simplistic- they are so genuinely themselves that they win us over with the power of sheer personality.  This is especially true in the case of some of the more profoundly compromised actors, such as the microcephalics (“pinheads” being the less-sensitive but more commonly-known term)- particularly “Schlitzie,” (in real life, despite the dress, a man named Simon Metz), whose infectious charm practically leaps off the screen- and those others affected by especially severe genetic defects. Also memorable are Johnny Eck (the legless boy, a handsome and particularly gifted performer who was well-known and popular in Vaudeville), the aforementioned Prince Randian, and Violet and Daisy Hilton (the Siamese twins, also well-established as entertainers offscreen and later the subject of two stage musicals and an acclaimed documentary).  In many cases, these performers continued to work and thrive for many years after their appearance in Freaks (though with the decline of vaudeville many of them eventually faded into obscurity); indeed, one of the movie’s prominent dwarfs, Angelo Rossitto, went on to enjoy a long career as a film actor, culminating in his appearance as the key character of “Masterblaster” (or, at least, the “Master” half) in the 1985 action/sci-fi fantasy, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

For most casual audiences, the most important question is this: does Freaks live up to its reputation?  My answer is an enthusiastic “Yes!” Truncated and brightened-up as it may be, Freaks is still a powerful film experience, one which achieves the rare objective of truly forcing the audience to confront its own level of humanity.  It’s hard not to feel compassion for these examples of nature gone wrong, but Browning’s film makes it clear that it is not our pity that matters- rather it is our acceptance.  Pity is another form of judgment, after all, no different perhaps than the less charitable attitude of dismissive contempt exhibited by the film’s scheming villains; it is based on a presumption of inferiority, and even of powerlessness- a presumption Cleopatra and Hercules, to their misfortune, discover to be very much mistaken.  Browning’s movie, for all its deliberate creepiness and sensationalism, is ultimately a powerful reminder of the old admonishment not to judge anything- or anyone- by appearances, and more than that, a strong plea for tolerance and equality.  The circus, after all, is a classic metaphor for the world itself, and the sideshow freaks stand in for all those social misfits who are outcast for their differences.   It is no wonder that Freaks was rescued from cinematic oblivion by the counterculture of the ’60s, and has been embraced ever since by those who, for whatever reason, stand apart from mainstream culture and disdain the shallow hypocrisy they see there; the appeal is obvious to anyone who has ever felt shut out because of who or what they are- and which of us can say they’ve never felt that?  Freaks, then, is a parable that validates the disenfranchised.  It also (to borrow a phrase) comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable, which it’s probably fair to say is what Tod Browning set out to do with his magnum opus.  Though it may have cost him his future, I’m sure it would be some consolation for him to know that, even if it did take decades to happen, he is dearly appreciated for having succeeded.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022913/

 

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 classic by director Howard Hawks, teaming Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as a pair of misfits who become entangled with each other in a complicated adventure involving (among other things) a tame leopard, a rambunctious terrier, a priceless dinosaur bone, several cases of mistaken identity, and a million dollars.  Despite good reviews and popularity with audiences in more sophisticated urban markets, it was a major box office flop upon its first release, leading to both its director and its female star being released from their contracts with RKO Pictures, the studio that produced it- indeed, Hepburn, who had headlined a string of financially disappointing movies, was labeled “box office poison” following this failure, and had to return to the Broadway stage in order to restore her reputation and her clout.  Nevertheless, a generation later, the film was rediscovered through the new medium of television, and has subsequently taken its place as one of the greats, a definitive example of the “screwball comedy” sub-genre, one of the finest vehicles to feature either of its iconic stars, and an influential piece of filmmaking that has inspired countless imitations and homages over the years.

The plot, based on a short story by Hagar Wilde (who also co-authored the screenplay with Dudley Nichols), focuses on one David Huxley, a paleontologist who, on the eve of his wedding to no-nonsense colleague, Miss Swallow, is sent to secure a million dollar donation to the Manhattan museum for which they both work.   It seems an open-and-shut deal- all that is required is a meeting with the donor’s attorney, upon whose approval the money will be bestowed; but David’s appointments with the lawyer are repeatedly interrupted by Susan Vance, a dizzy young society woman who seems to turn up everywhere he goes- and whose precocious antics involve him in enough confusion and mishap to blow his chances at obtaining the money.  As it happens, though, Susan turns out to be the niece of the museum’s would-be benefactor- a wealthy widow named Mrs. Random- and she promises David (with whom she has become smitten) she will persuade her aunt to donate to the museum anyway.  She enlists his help, against his will and his better judgment, to accompany him to her aunt’s country estate in order to deliver a pet leopard (named Baby) that has been sent as a gift from her big-game-hunter-brother; once they arrive, more confusion erupts, starting with Susan’s false introduction of David as a mentally unstable friend of her brother’s, and complications continue to arise- including the theft of David’s precious brontosaurus clavicle by Mrs. Random’s dog, a mix-up between Baby and an escaped (and mean-tempered) leopard from a traveling circus, and the interference of a crotchety local constable.  Through it all, David struggles to resolve the situation and make it back to the city in time for his wedding, but it becomes clear that Susan is doing everything she can to delay him and keep him by her side.

A description of the plot, in print, seems ridiculously far-fetched and convoluted; that, however, is what gives Bringing Up Baby its zany appeal on film.  The entire movie is a whirlwind of unlikely circumstances and coincidental relationships, bound together by a premise that is as flimsy as one of the diaphanous costumes that Hepburn sports onscreen.  This is the nature of the screwball comedy; we take for granted that the scenario will be ridiculous, and as long as it yields the kind of laughs we expect, we don’t mind suspending our disbelief in the absurdity of its situations.  As scenarios go, that of Bringing Up Baby is more ridiculous than most- in fact it borders on the surreal, but we accept it without batting an eye, because it also delivers more laughs than almost any other film of its era- or any other, for that matter.  It certainly helps that director Hawks drives the proceedings at a breakneck pace, scarcely giving us time to think about the credibility gaps or even to register the fast-and-furious jokes until they have already passed us by.

Much of the hilarity, however, arises from the chemistry of the two stars, perfectly matched and clearly relishing their roles; their comic banter arises so effortlessly as to belie the artificiality of the dialogue- indeed, the two performers ad-libbed some of the film’s best jokes- and they so completely inhabit their roles as to make us easily forget the many other personas they adopted on the screen over their long individual careers.  Grant in particular made a breakthrough here; his previous career had been mostly comprised of more-or-less dramatic (and none-too-weighty) leading man roles, and though he had previously appeared in The Awful Truth– another screwball classic in which he demonstrated his particular flair for comedy- nothing had prepared audiences for his work here.  Playing gleefully against type, the impossibly handsome Grant pulls off the role of the timid, nervous and befuddled bookworm without ever letting us doubt his awkward ineptitude; at the same time, he rattles off his barbed dialogue with the timing and wit of a master, making it clear that he is up to the challenge of sharing the screen with the formidable Hepburn.

As for The Great Kate, it’s hard to see her performance here and understand why she should be deemed a liability by studio executives; her sharp, patrician bearing is brilliantly undercut with a little-girlish softness that makes her instantly lovable no matter how maddeningly daffy she gets.  Careening from haughty and indignant to doe-eyed and tender and back again through all stops in between, her portrayal of Susan drives the film and gives it a heart; and even when her behavior is at its most inane, her glittering intelligence always shines through, giving this upper-crust oddball an edge that leaves no doubt of her absolute control over the entire madcap situation.  She never overwhelms her co-star, however; the two make a magnificent team, one that is immediately recognizable as perfect for each other (a conceit on which, of course, the entire movie depends), and the obvious real-life affection between them translates into an onscreen chemistry that has rarely been matched and makes this pairing one of the most iconic co-starring turns in cinematic memory.

Perfect as they may seem in their roles, both of the stars initially had trouble with the project.  Grant feared being unable to project the necessary intellectual quality of a career scientist, and was only able to relax into the the character when director Hawks told him to base his performance on the persona of silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd; Hepburn was stymied by the over-the-top zaniness of Susan, and struggled with finding the right approach until Hawks asked veteran character actor Walter Catlett, who was playing a minor role, to coach her in the art of playing outrageous comedy- he taught her the effectiveness of underplaying and naturalistic delivery (as opposed to the more deliberately comedic style she was attempting), and she was so grateful for the help that she insisted his part- the town constable with whom she tangles in the film’s climactic scene- be expanded to give her a chance to work with him more extensively.  Their initial reticence allayed, both the film’s stars settled into the rhythm of their characters and created the sparkling joint accomplishment that makes Bringing Up Baby so delightful to this day.  Their enjoyment of each other is clear to see, and infectious; they had so much fun working together on this film that shooting went over schedule (and over budget) due to their difficulty in completing their scenes without laughing.  Though doubtless this was a thorn in the side of RKO executives who were already anxious over the project, the fun translates to the screen.

Apart from the obvious joys of Hepburn and Grant’s interplay and their attractiveness both individually and as a couple, there is a more subtle aspect to their dynamic that lends a unique flavor to the goofball romance at the center of Bringing Up Baby.  Grant, though decidedly masculine in his energy and personality, plays the passive, pursued role in this relationship, while Hepburn is clearly the active aggressor.  It seems a minor twist, but by reversing the traditional gender roles of courtship in such a way, Baby sets itself apart from most of the romantic comedies that came before it.  It would be wrong to credit the film for being the first work of fiction to do this- after all, Shakespeare wrote several plays in which this inversion was explored- but Hollywood has always been known for reinforcing stereotypes, and by swapping these accepted standards of masculine and feminine behavior Bringing Up Baby became a milestone in the depiction of gender identity on the big screen.

This in itself is enough to have given the movie a special significance for GLBT audiences; but there is another point of interest here for cinema historians which also gives the movie its “gay appeal.”  In one memorable scene, Cary Grant, dressed in a frilly and feminine house robe (having had his clothes stolen by Hepburn whilst showering), is forced to meet the returning aunt- a formidable dowager- at her own front door.  The understandably flustered woman, confused by the presence of a strange man in her house, presses him impatiently with questions, and most adamantly (for some reason, though it seems the least alarming aspect of the situation) she wants to know why he is wearing those clothes; the badgered Grant, already pushed to the limit of his patience by Hepburn’s continued hijacking of his formerly sedate life, leaps in the air and shouts, “Because I just went gay, all of a sudden!”  This line, ad-libbed by Grant on the set, may be the very first instance in mainstream fiction that the word “gay” was used to denote homosexuality, though within the underground gay community it had been used as a code word since at least the 1920s.  It may not have been intentional (though frankly, it’s unlikely that a group of Hollywood sophisticates such as these would be unaware of the double meaning- particularly Grant, whose famous long-term relationship with “roommate” Randolph Scott is still the subject of much debate among his many fans), but whether it was or it wasn’t, this bold double-entendre provides one of the biggest laughs in the film, and is yet another reason why Bringing Up Baby has been accorded landmark status.

Historical footnotes aside, there are plenty of reasons to watch this little gem of late-Depression escapism today.  Not only are Hepburn and Grant a rare treat to watch, they are supported by a fine cast of character players that bring to life the assortment of other lunatics surrounding the film’s dotty protagonists.  In addition to the aforementioned Walter Catlett, whose comically cagey turn as the rural lawman provides Hepburn with a magnificent foil late in the film, there’s Charlie Ruggles (as a mild-mannered and easily flustered hunter who turns up as a guest to Mrs. Random’s estate), Barry Fitzgerald (as a heavy-drinking Irish gardener, a bit of now-inappropriate ethnic profiling that nevertheless seems innocent of malice and manages to still be funny today), perennial screen waiter Fritz Feld (here cast as a smugly pompous psychiatrist whose path keeps crossing with Hepburn’s, adding to the already-convoluted tangle of misunderstandings), and the redoubtable May Robson (as the somewhat battle-axish Mrs. Random).

More vital than any of these notables, however, are the non-human members of the supporting cast, and they too deserve mention.  Nissa, the leopard, a veteran of numerous B-movie jungle adventures, plays the dual role of both Baby and the dangerous circus escapee; the other four-legged star, in the role of the mischievous bone-thief, George, was Skippy, a terrier whose fame as “Asta” in the popular Thin Man movies made him nearly as big a draw as the human headliners, and his appearance here is highly memorable, exhibiting the exuberant canine personality that made him a natural and ensured his place as one of the immortal screen animals.

On top of the performances, Bringing Up Baby offers a fine look at late-thirties fashion and design through its sets (a sumptuous blend of Art Deco and neo-classical influences alongside the elegantly rustic charms of the Random estate, overseen by the legendary Art Director, Van Nest Polglase) and its costumes (most particularly the various range of outfits worn by Hepburn, with which designer Howard Greer manages to add some sly satirical commentary on the frivolity of fashion into the movie’s comedic recipe).  In addition, tech aficionados may find some interest in the early special effects- quite sophisticated for the time- with which the actors are sometimes made to appear with the leopard in close proximity (especially Grant, who wouldn’t go near the creature- though the fearless Hepburn directly interacted with it and can even be seen petting it in a few scenes); in several of the split screen sequences, a moving center line was required, creating a complex challenge for the technicians of the day.  They rose to it admirably; the seams are virtually invisible to all but the most attentive observers.

Bringing Up Baby, it may be clear by now, is a seminal movie for me; I have fond memories of watching it on TV with my parents, all of us laughing out loud together, and through the years I have seen it countless times- I can practically recite the dialogue along with the actors, and yet a viewing will still have me giggling uncontrollably throughout, as well as discovering nuances and subtleties that I had never noticed before.  No doubt there are many others out there with a similar relationship to this film; it was, after all, one of the first movies selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, and it has been consistently named on lists of the 100 best or funniest movies of all time.  For most, it is the movie that comes immediately to mind when the term “screwball comedy” is mentioned, and for good reason- it’s about as screwball a comedy as you can get without veering into the realm of the Looney Tunes.  For those who have yet to discover its sublime wackiness, I will give away no more than I already have; and for those who feel their modern tastes are too sophisticated for a 75-year-old comedy to provide much amusement, I can only challenge anyone to sit through Bringing Up Baby without cracking at least a smile.  After all, it has been called more than once a movie ahead of its time- which may, better than anything, explain why a film that temporarily sank the careers of both its director and its leading lady (though not, tellingly, that of the resilient Cary Grant) went on to become one of their most enduring and beloved creations.

http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0029947/