Cinemascope! Blogathon: House of Bamboo (1955)

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10 Reasons You Should Drop What You’re Doing and Watch Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo Right Now

1) Samuel Fuller. Samuel Fuller did not mess around. His films are usually described as “in-your-face,” “pulpy,” and “crude.” They are, and they are magnificent. Fuller made films about things that mattered to him, and you can tell. He said films should start with a punch, and at least one of his films, The Naked Kiss (1964), does exactly that. Not a fan of establishing shots (meant to help orient the viewer in a new scene or space), Fuller was a natural editor. He wanted every shot, every move, every word, to count. Fuller would never sacrifice the raw emotion or the heart of a story just to make a point. But a few jagged edges on the plot were just fine.

House of Bamboo, like other films of Fuller’s, has an integrated cast, though there aren’t a lot of Japanese characters. (Four years later, in The Crimson Kimono, there are two interracial relationships.) Because this is a studio picture, its politics are pretty submerged, but the more control he had over his films, the more apparent Fuller’s politics were, as well as his proclivities. The hero of his film might be a prostitute, as in The Naked Kiss, or a pickpocket, as in the awesome Pickup on South Street (1953); the setting might be a mental hospital, as in Shock Corridor (1963), or the Korean War, in The Steel Helmet (1951), in which Americans execute a prisoner of war, royally pissing off the real U.S. Army. Fuller insisted he’d seen it happen during his service in World War II.

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Of course, he also took to starting shooting by firing a pistol, and he dribbled cigar ash everywhere. Nobody’s perfect.

Here’s some classic Fuller from the shooting of House of Bamboo: “To make matters even messier, Fuller shot [Robert] Stack hoofing it around the pachinko parlors of Tokyo without letting the local citizenry know that a movie was being filmed. When Fuller commanded Stack to be attacked by an angry mob, he didn’t bother to let his unpaid extras know that Stack was acting… and the mob nearly killed the actor right there in front of the hidden cameras. Stack was none too thrilled by the turn of events but Fuller was in his glory.” (From Richard Harlan Smith’s post on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog)

Twentieth-century Fox wanted a heterosexual relationship and a happy ending in House of Bamboo, and they got that. Sort of. Fuller made some compromises in for the studio; the relationship between Robert Stack’s character, Eddie, and his “kimono girl,” Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi) is one of the bigger ones. But only a fool would think that the film is about Eddie and Mariko. It’s about Eddie and the crime boss he betrays, Sandy, played by the incomparable and underrated Robert Ryan. Which brings me to…

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2) Robert Ryan. You probably don’t spend as much time as I do thinking about how amazing Robert Ryan is, but you might, if you watched this movie. One of Ryan’s specialities is a barely suppressed rage that’s constantly in danger of erupting into violence. Depending on the character, carrying around this rage can seem to wear him down or give him the volatility of a downed power line. He isn’t especially violent in this picture, but with Ryan it’s those moments when you’re afraid he’s about to crack someone in the face with, say, the cue ball he’s been holding that stay with you. Fuller knows how to milk those moments.

Ryan played a lot of bad guys, but he seems to have played racist bad guys more often than most actors, especially in the 1940s – 50s. Just off the top of my head, he’s an anti-Semite in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947, which got him an Oscar nomination), and a bigot in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Perhaps he was so good at these and other bullying roles because, in real life, he campaigned for civil rights and opposed McCarthyism. He knew injustice and cruelty when he saw it. Plus, he was 6′ 4″. I can almost guarantee you that there’s not enough Robert Ryan in your life. You should do something about that.

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3) It’s in Cinemascope. Oh, the glories of Cinemascope. No, it wasn’t perfect, but it remains breathtaking, even when you notice that little curvature at the edge of the frame’s width, even when you have to watch it on a television screen. Cinemascope films, with an aspect ratio of 2.55:1 (versus the old Academy ratio of 1.375:1) were meant to be shown (ideally) on 62-foot long by 32-foot high screens, give or take. The limitations of filming in Cinemascope, like those of silent film, the Production Code, and early sound technology, either defeat a picture or produce inspired solutions. Fuller took it as part of his job to push against limits of all kinds, and the results are invariably dynamic. This film in particular is incredibly visually satisfying. Fuller uses the screens common to traditional Japanese interiors to frame characters and to create staggered or layered depth of field (a screen opening on a room beyond the one, or in front of the one, which has our attention, for example).

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Notice, too, how a number of these shots have a sharp corner in the center of the foreground, rather than narrowing towards a point in the distance: the corners of buildings, offices, rooms. It’s an unusual (at least to me) way of creating depth in Cinemascope.

4) It was filmed on location in postwar Japan.

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Tokyo is dreary and smog-filled. The empty trees suggest that Fuller made a point of filming in late fall or winter—even the natural landscapes are brown and grey. And yet, the film is filled with color—in particular the colors of traditional Japanese culture. Though the Western protagonists seem to take a chauvinistic pride in refusing to even acknowledge that they are in someone else’s country, the audience cannot help but get a feel for this time and this place. Fuller makes sure that the sights, sounds, and customs that the men ignore are there for us to take in. One of Fuller’s interests in this film, as in some of his others, is the clash of cultures, and the gang’s pointed lack of interest in their surroundings is their own bigotry, not the film’s. A motif is one of these guys shouting into a phone, or at a person, “English! ENGLISH!”

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5) Fuller’s shot composition and staging

No, silly. This is the *beginning* of the movie.

No, silly. This is the *beginning* of the movie.

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Three pivotal scenes take place in this gazebo and in each the characters are framed differently, emphasizing their state of mind.

 

6) The ass-kicking ending. SPOILERS AHEAD. Obviously.

I mean the real ending, not the silly tacked-on one with Eddie and Mariko holding hands. The final sequence is bizarre and brilliant from the moment Sandy sets up his revenge, getting Eddie shot by the Tokyo police, to the end, a Hitchcockian chase through the rooftop amusement park of the department store they were robbing. The highest point on the roof is a rotating globe, and that’s where Sandy goes down.

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7) Bones!

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Dammit, Jim! I’m a doctor not an ex-pat hood in postwar Japan!

8) Love triangles and gender reversals. Robert Stack in the tub, Robert Stack showing some shoulder. Meanwhile Shirley Yamaguchi is completely covered. (There is one obligatory shot of her in a skimpy towel, but that’s before the two of them get to know each other.)

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A lot of the shot compositions also emphasize Sandy’s feelings for his “ichiban” (number one), first Griff (Cameron Mitchell), then, of course, Eddie. There’s at least one major plot point that doesn’t make much sense unless you understand that Sandy has developed feelings for Eddie. Fuller made it clear in interviews that he fully intended this homoerotic tension. Apparently, the only other person on the set who figured it out was Ryan, and there are a couple of scenes where he plays to this, and Stack/Eddie just looks blank, totally unaware of how important he has become to Sandy.

9) Kabuki. As James Ursini and Alain Silver point out in their DVD commentary, Fuller borrows a fair amount from Kabuki theatre in his staging and in the way he creates depth using the interior screens.

Yes, this is from the same movie.

Yes, this is from the same movie.

There’s also a Japanese party with traditional music and fan dancers that morphs into a sock hop. The women disrobe to reveal poodle skirts and bobby socks but keep their white pancake make up on. Because Fuller.

… aaaaaaaand this:

10) Having a heart-to-heart with guy you just shot. Dead. In his bathtub.

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Fuller’s pulp rendering of Marat’s assassination, the scene in which Sandy shoots first and talks later, is gripping, both for its total weirdness and for how it elaborates on Sandy’s feelings about the two men in his life, Griff and Eddie. Sandy cradles the dead guy’s head, keeps it from sinking into the water twice, as he tenderly explains why he had to kill him. It’s a speech that applies equally well, if not more so, to other relationships in the film: You weren’t responsible for your actions. You didn’t know what you were doing. I could see you had no control of yourself. Absolutely none.

P.S. The great Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa is also here, but you’d hardly know it. He looks uncomfortable and has a thanklessly dull part.

This is a movie that should be a lot easier to see, and, hey, Fox, it should be available in Blu-ray. Get on that, willya?

AFI Fest 2014: November 11

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Day Four: Takashi Miike’s Over Your Dead Body (2014)

I had a ticket to Song of the Sea, the new animated film by Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, 2009) but couldn’t make it. I’m looking forward to seeing it, albeit on a much smaller screen, when it comes out on DVD. I don’t expect it to come to Santa Barbara, but I’d be delighted if it did. Maybe it’ll be in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival lineup in January.

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…and now for something completely different.

I love Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010), although I haven’t yet made it through his brutal Ichi Ichi-The-Killer-Poster13-Assassins-Posterthe Killer (2010) and not for lack of trying. (And I haven’t tried Audition [1999], either, though I mean to.) Miike has a great eye, and he constructs breathtakingly beautiful mise-en-scènes. Over Your Dead Body is no exception. It’s a gorgeous film. Of course, the other thing Miike is known for is gore, often sexual in nature. Over Your Dead Body is also no exception in this regard, but the gore was (for me) manageable, and in retrospect, I think the gore really did matter in the context of the story. The film is a sort of cross between revenge-driven horror (a Miike staple, from what I understand) and what some film scholars have called “body horror.” Body horror would include lots of Cronenberg and films like Carrie (1976) that focus on horrors that originate within the human (and most often female) body.

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Ebizô Ichikawa as the cruel Kosuke/Iemon

It’s unfair to focus on the gore, however, even though it may be the first thing one remembers, because the majority of this film is gore-free. The film meanwhile makes use of a number of sub-genres, most noticeably that it’s structured as a play-within-a-play. The main characters are rehearsing for a live performance of Yotsuya kaidan, one of the most famous of the more recent Japanese ghost stories (rather than 18th-century ones that became films like Mizoguchi’s wonderful Ugetsu [1953]). These traditional tales often start with romance and end in some richly-deserved and bloody revenge, not unlike Over Your Dead Body‘s frame story, the affair between the play’s lead actors, Kosuke (Ebizô Ichikawa) and Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki). The actors’ affair mirrors or doubles or is maybe caused by the relationship between their characters Iemon and Oiwa and which the actors play again and again. (In addition to being a play-within-a-play, Yotsuya kaidan is said to be based on actual events, adding another layer to the story.) There is some supernatural influence here (keep your eye on that creepy doll), but Miike never offers an explanation for the events, which I think works just fine. The film creates a trance-like sense of suspended animation, and an “origin story” would undo the effect, diluting it into a dreary One Missed Call (2008) sort of affair.

maxresdefault-1The acting is excellent, particularly Ichikawa as Kosuke/Iemon, but it’s the art direction/staging (by Yuji Hayashida and Eri Sakushima) that blew me away. One of the most interesting things about the film is the way it cheats at being a play. We watch a lot of the performance unfold as though we were an audience at a live play—but an audience with an unnaturally mobile eye, contributing to our growing sense that something here is just…off. The camera weaves around the actors and through the set, avoiding any sense of a static adaptation of a drama. When the camera tracks back to include the rest of the warehouse rehearsal space (see above) with its rows of desks for the director, actors, and technicians, it’s often jarring because we’ve forgotten they’re there. But by the last third of the film, that off-stage space has become part of the play’s stage for us, as well as for Kosuke and Miyuki, apparently trapped in the roles they keep performing.

teaser-overyourdeadbodyHardcore Miike fans may be disappointed if they’re looking for gore, but as a film and as a story, it’s excellent. (Most of the gore is based in the 19th-century story, the result of Oiwa being poisoned.) If you’ve enjoyed other horror films based in Japanese folklore (which is a lot of ’em nowadays), this will be right up your alley. It’s also worth seeing if you’re interested in the interplay between stage and screen, though you may have to avert your gaze when Miyuki/Oiwa goes looking for the fetus she’s convinced she’s conceived with Kosuke/Iemon (and I’m guessing that’s not an episode in the earlier version).

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I do want to hunt down some other adaptations of Yotsuya kaidan, as I love Japanese ghost stories almost as much as I love more well-known fairy tales. But in the meantime, I have my final Fest film to write about, Villa Touma, the only film I saw, I am sorry to say, that was directed by a woman.

Also coming up, my much-delayed entry in the British Empire in Film Blogathon, George More O’Ferrall’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter (1953). And eventually, I’ll get to Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die. Eventually. Villa Touma and Heart of the Matter were not light-hearted romps, so I may well need some frothy-Lubitsch-type palate cleanser before tackling Lang’s Hangmen (which is, in comparison, almost a light-hearted romp).

Thanks for reading!

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Bluebeard in Black and White: Fritz Lang’s “Secret Beyond the Door”

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This is my contribution to the Fairy Tale Blogathon hosted by the always-fascinating Movies Silently.

Check out more of the posts there!

Let me start this post about Secret Beyond the Door by blaming the enchanting Angela Carter. Carter (1940 – 1992) wrote some of my favorite books, including The Bloody Chamber (1979), which is a collection of feminist (and often erotic) revisions of fairy tales. If you’re familiar with Bluebeard, you’ve probably figured out that the title of that book is also the title of a story that revisits the Bluebeard fairy tale. Carter is an amazing writer; she (re)wrote a lot of fairy tales as well as writing about how they work and why they’re important. You might have heard of her story “The Company of Wolves,” a version of Little Red Riding Hood from the same collection, made into a peculiar and magical film by Neil Jordan (1984), or her novel The Magic Toyshop, turned into the equally unsettling film by David Wheatley (1987). I think Carter’s may have been my introduction to the Bluebeard story, which is doubtless why it’s one of my favorite fairy tales.

As with so many fairy tales, it’s not a great template if you’re a lady: The Bluebeard figure, an older, often ugly or darkly handsome, wealthy, and mysterious fellow, courts and marries a beautiful young woman and spirits her off to his desolate castle, country house, log cabin, or what-have-you. At first the new wife is dazzled by the jewels, the dresses, the fancy parties (or she is miserably isolated, depending on the version). Soon, the husband has to leave for business. He entrusts his wife with all the keys to the house except one. Never, ever open the door to this one room, he says. Well, obviously, that’s the only door she is interested in opening. She contrives a way to get into the room and discovers the dismembered corpses of Bluebeard’s many and sundry previous wives (suggesting a tiresomely predictable terror of women who seek knowledge). When the husband returns and (somehow instantly) realizes the betrayal, he murders her. Or, in some versions, the wife’s brothers come galloping to her rescue. The punishment of the woman is typical, as is the Victorian-ish addition of male rescuers. Meh.

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If you’ve read any books like, say, Jane Eyre, or seen a movie from the 1940s, like, say, Gaslight (1940), this plot will probably sound pretty familiar. According to scholar Maria Tatar, another wonderful author who writes an awful lot about fairy tales and folklore, Hollywood in the 1940s was rife with Bluebeard stories, and for good reason. Women were marrying strangers—beaus who had returned from the war not quite the same as when they left—and married women were discovering that the man they’d married, recently home from the war, had become a stranger. Part of the strangeness was this new undercurrent of violence—in the men’s dreams or nightmares, stories they told or wouldn’t tell their families about their war-time experiences, and sometimes that violence that spilled over into the family.

Now that we’ve got that out of way, let’s also take a moment to blame Fritz Lang. It’s been sort of a Lang-y month around here. I recently wrote about his 1944 film Ministry of Fear, I went and saw Hangmen Also Die (1944) at the Skirball Cultural Center (which is hosting a noir exhibit focusing on its many émigré artists—if you’re in the LA area, go, go, go!), and now Secret Beyond the Door (1947), Lang’s version of the Bluebeard tale, or his “wife-in-distress film,” or “paranoid’s woman’s film,” depending on which critic you read. Lang is a master of mood and lighting (assisted by some fantastic cinematographers), and for me, this is what carries Secret. It doesn’t hurt that it stars Joan Bennett (a sometime Lang favorite) and Michael Redgrave, but the plot is so goofily Freudian that if Bennett and Redgrave weren’t adrift in Lang’s parallel universe, the film probably wouldn’t work.

7614704076_5ffbd86407_zIf you’re willing to accept the film as a kind of nightmarish Freudian fairy tale, it’s quite something. The opening sets the mood: an animated pond with submerged flowers (created by Disney specially for the film) and Celia (Bennett) speaking in a dreamy, hazy way about her wedding, as though it’s a memory. In fact, she is approaching the altar, about to marry Mark (Redgrave). As if waking from a dream, Celia’s voice-over worries, “I’m marrying a stranger.” Like all therapy sessions, the story begins in the past.

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What could go wrong?

The trouble starts on the honeymoon when, as a joke, Celia locks Mark out of her room. Thus begin the lying, the silences, Mark’s locking himself up away from his new bride. All she really knows about Mark is that he’s an architect, and he “collects” rooms, “felicitous rooms for felicitous people,” he says. He theorizes that the way spaces are built can determine what happens in them. Celia quite sensibly tells him he’s touched in the head. When they return to Mark’s isolated manor in the States, Celia realizes just how little she really knows about her husband. I won’t spoil the series of surprises that await her, but rest assured, they are Jane Eyre-sized revelations.

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Oh. That.

I will tell you that Mark’s collection of rooms (all but one) are introduced to Celia and their housewarming party guests. Each room is an exact replica (with as many of the original furnishings as possible) of a murder room, a room in which a real man murdered his wife, his mistress, or his mother. Nothing weird about that. When Celia points out that he used the word felicitous to describe the rooms, he explains that the word means “apt,” or “well-suited.” (“Look it up, darling,” he says rather snottily, but to be fair to Celia, the word can mean either apt or pleasantdelightful.) Mark’s architecture magazine is, in fact, named Apt. 

Secret Beyond the Door hits most of the Bluebeard marks: naïve young woman’s sexual awakening, marriage to a mysterious man who keeps secrets, including the room he won’t allow her to go in. The new husband is moody and unreasonable. She is isolated out in the country, and her only family, her brother, dies before she meets Mark.

25Tatar notes that Secret Beyond the Door, like many of the 1940s Bluebeard film plot lines, is actually female noir. Rather than a damaged man set irrevocably on a destructive path, helped along by a suspicious and very attractive woman, the Bluebeard pattern gives us a psychologically unstable or masochistic woman who succumbs to the initial charms of mysterious (and older) man. One of the things that’s interesting about this is that it can give the female character a lot more agency than you might expect. Celia puts up with a lot of crazy from Mark, but she is impressively strong-willed and once she decides to stick with him, she is determined to figure out what happened to him, to help him overcome his, well, frigidness. Mark becomes more and more helpless in the grip of some mysterious neurosis, and, risking her own life, it is Celia who must save him. The shift is visible in Lang’s placement of Celia and Mark relative to each other as the couple snuggles in the hammock at their hotel, first on their honeymoon at the beginning, and then when they return to the same hotel at the end of the film (see below).

As you might imagine, Lang and his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, turn what might have been a warm, even cozy house into a nightmare labyrinth of claustrophobic, shadowy rooms and hallways. We often find Celia lingering in doorways and hallways, liminal spaces that emphasize her unstable status in the household and how uncertain she is about who she has really married. Many conversations between characters are abruptly interrupted by a third character and never finished, adding to the atmosphere of invisible menace.

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The family’s collection of creepy masks: Nope, nothing to worry about here.

Celia’s rising alarming is mirrored in our own sense of instability in this narrative, in which things are not as they seem. Who is the victim? Who is the villain? Who is(n’t) crazy? And what do those lilacs represent? Mark’s career as an architect also calls our attention to how spaces are used, and not just those dark hallways or murder rooms. Mexico, where Celia and Mark meet, get married, and briefly honeymoon, is a Mexico of the mind, or perhaps of the libido—an exotic otherworld in which the natives are passionate and untamed. (It’s a convenient and creaky stereotype for the picture’s symbolic system, and it could just as easily have been Spain or a country in Africa, as Lang’s version of Mexico has nothing to do with the real place or its real people.) The scenario in which Celia and Mark meet is terribly contrived, but that’s part of why it works—Celia and Mark were destined to meet. Joan Bennett is wonderful as a woman who appears trapped in a dream she can’t quite get a grip on, and Redgrave manages to be loftily aristocratic, manic, and, in rare glimpses, charmingly down-to-earth.

Don’t pay any attention to reviews that call the film “a pretty silly yarn.” It is a pretty silly yarn, but so are most fairy tales. The plausibility of the story line is beside the point. Like all fairy tales, the film’s power comes from its imagery and the pull of the strong but often submerged instincts and emotions that fairy tales have always narrated. (I also think the film works better than Spellbound in its use of psychoanalysis–everything Beyond the Door is overdetermined from the get-go. There are no half-measures with Lang.) Give yourself up to the film and enjoy the beautiful and unsettling ride.

Before.

Before.

The making of Secret Beyond the Door was nearly as fraught as Mark’s psyche, with Bennett’s marriage to producer Walter Wanger breaking up, Lang having an on-again off-again affair with the screenwriter and bullying his cast and crew. The TCM article has some juicy details.

If you’re interested in Bluebeard (or other fairy tales), check out some of the many versions, with illustrations and

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After.

lists of related novels and films at fairy tale compendium Sur La Lune.

In addition to the 40s films noted above, other versions of Bluebeard include magician Méliès’ Barbe-bleue (1901), Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), which I wrote about here, a 1944 Edgar G. Ulmer version I can’t wait to watch (streaming via Amazon Prime), and Catherine Breillat’s 2009 Barbe blue.

More Bluebeardiana:

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Ministry of Fear (1944)

Ministry-of-Fear-swastikaAfter the first couple of paragraphs, this post is pretty much nothing but spoilers. Ye’ve been warned.

During the 30s and early 40s, Austrian-exile Fritz Lang wanted to make not just anti-fascist pictures, but anti-Nazi pictures. In the American studios where Lang began making movies in 1936, this was a hard sell for much of the war. He did make four films in which Nazis are central to the plot—Manhunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946). Of these, Ministry of Fear is the only one that has no actual Nazis* in it. Ministry is instead filled with collaborators, making everyone a potential threat.

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A mischievous Lang at a typically Expressionist angle.

The film, adapted from the Graham Greene novel, opens with our hero, Stephen Neale (the sporting Ray Milland), being released from an institution where he’s been remanded for the “mercy killing” of his wife. In other words, Neale has been something of a collaborator himself. (He brought his dying wife some means of killing herself but couldn’t bring himself to administer it. Unbeknownst to him, she found it and killed herself.) Since the trial, Neale has been resting up in the Lembridge asylum.

In the Criterion Collection liner notes for the film, Glenn Kenny describes Ministry as a “nightmare film” rather than a Nazi film—that is, a film like Lang’s earlier M (1931) or the Mabuse (1922; 1933) films, movies in which the Ministry of Fearprotagonist is not so much involved in a plot as trapped in a psychologically overwrought context, an atmosphere rather than a real place. That atmosphere—which Lang excelled at—veers uncomfortably between oppressive and angst-ridden. Even before we know what sort of trouble Neale will get himself in, there is an unnerving emphasis on the passing of time. The film opens on a clock—the one ticking away the minutes until Neale is once again a free man. When he buys a ticket back to London at the Lembridge rail station, the clerk says he’ll have it “in the wink of an eye.” The train, however, Neale has to wait for.

To pass the time, Neale attends a village fête (pronounced by all and sundry as “fate”) benefitting the Mothers of Free Nations charity. Looking a bit dazed by what appears to be more social interaction than he’s had in a long time, Neale is first pressed into guessing the weight of a cake—made with tightly rationed eggs—and is then compelled to have his palm read. And here is where things go sideways for Neale.

The palmist tells Neale he will make a woman very happy; Neale protests, “I’m not married.”

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“Well, you will be!” she practically shouts at him. “You’ve made at least one woman happy,” she insists, but Neale doesn’t want to hear any more about the past, and who can blame him?

“Don’t tell me about the past,” he says, “show me the future.”

Unfortunately, these turn out to be the magic words the palmist is waiting to hear from a Nazi spy. Brushing issues of romance aside, she informs Neale that what he really wants is that cake, and she tells him what guess will win it for him. (For a cake everyone insists is very light because of those rare eggs, the “magic” weight of the cake is pretty heavy.) Confused, but cheerfully following directions, he returns to the cake stand and offers this new weight, winning the cake.

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It’s a Congratulations-on-getting-out-of-the-asylum cake!

Just as he is heading back to the station with his prize, the fête ladies stop him. The real spy (the criminally under-appreciated Dan Duryea) has materialized, and he wants his cake. The ladies insist that they’ve made a mistake, and that this new fellow has guessed much more closely to the “real” weight. Neale triumphantly points out that his original guess is much closer to this new weight than the angry, bowler-hatted interloper’s and heads back to the station. Fate, indeed.

In such circumstances, what can a spy do but send in a fake blind man to share Neale’s train carriage and steal back the made-with-real-eggs-secret-spy cake? Neale offers the fellow a slice (using the pocket knife all gentlemen used to carry), but rather than popping it in his mouth like a normal fake blind man, the man crumbles it in his fingers as though trying to find something in it. While the two men share the cake, the Nazis begin bombing a nearby munitions factory. The train slams to a stop. The fake blind man, not finding what he was looking for in the cake, whacks Neale over the head, hops off the train, and makes off with the rest of the cake.

The bombs are going off, the train is stopped somewhere in the countryside, and we can see the fake blind man scurrying off with his contraband, but Neale comes to pretty quickly. And this is where things get weird. Neale gathers himself, jumps off the train, and runs—towards the Nazi bombs—after the man who stole his cake. Just take a minute to savor that.

Of course, things have to clatter off the rails for Neale to really reassimilate. In order to rejoin civilization, he needs to be purged of his guilt in collaborating in his wife’s death. When Neale confesses his part in his wife’s death to his new love interest, Carla Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds), they are even Underground, so that Neale can re-emerge a truly free man. Now, he can be the good guy, pursuing collaborators and Carla with a free (well, free-ish) conscience. So, when he says, “Show me the future,” it isn’t so much an unfortunate coincidence as a gateway to actually having one.

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Carla (Marjorie Reynolds) in a fabulous Edith Head suit with a slightly spooked Stephen (Ray Milland). Hey, remember the box in “Kiss Me Deadly”?

Austrian exiles Carla and her brother, Willi, run the Mothers of Free Nations, which has been hijacked by Nazis spies and collaborators. As Neale runs around London trying to find out who stole his cake, he and Carla are constantly framed in doorways, suggesting both a sense of being trapped and that somehow the pair are inescapably visible to their pursuers. In an attempt to track down the cake-foisting palmist, Neale and Willi attend a séance, and the angry man who wanted his cake (Duryea), turns up—and then gets shot, apparently with Neale’s gun. Then we see a second dour, bowler-hatted fellow tailing Neale.

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Bowlers, bowlers everywhere…

Neale is surrounded not only by people with suspect motives but also by fakes of one sort or another. Neale’s palmist was the spies’ replacement for the regular palmist, a professional fake who runs the séance. (But of course Neale’s palmist is quite real in that her readings turn out to be quite accurate.) There is the fake blind man, of course. The man who wanted the cake and then gets shot at a séance later turns up with yet another name, as a tailor, and very much not dead. The second bowler-hatted man who seems so menacing is a good guy. One can’t even be sure of the cake. The unknowableness of others’ motives until it is perhaps too late is essential to the queasy atmosphere Lang creates, and it is superbly effective at conveying an aspect of the terror Nazis were so good at manufacturing: paranoia. Upon finding the names of various suspect persons in their files, Carla exclaims to Willi, “They’re Nazis, Willi, I know it! The same as they were in Austria. It’s the way they work, all around you, knowing about everybody, everything, where to find you. …They’re here.” It’s this sense of collaborators hiding in plain sight, turning up everywhere you go, that I think makes Ministry of Fear not only a classic Lang “nightmare” film, but a Nazi film as well.

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Hillary Brooke as the real Mrs. Bellane, psychic.

Ministry of Fear is often introduced (or dismissed)  as one of Lang’s lesser films, but recently—especially since the Criterion re-release in 2013—interested parties are making a case for it. Perhaps trying to see the film as an anti-Nazi picture has masked its finer qualities. Looking at Ministry of Fear as a noir, a genre for which Lang is justifiably famous, might shift the focus to what the picture does (really) well, rather than its failure at things it’s not trying to (and maybe couldn’t) do. It certainly hits many of noir’s high (low?) notes: an imperfect man in over his head, the constant sense of unease and danger, typical noir angles, framings, and some noir-ish lighting.

Ministry is a fine film either way, not only because it’s Fritz Lang; it had loads of talent working on it. I’m becoming quite a Ray Milland fan, especially after watching this and another 1944 Milland picture, The Uninvited, a ghost story directed by Lewis Allen. Art director Hans Dreier (who has a whopping 535 credits on IMDb) worked on both, to wonderful effect. The unflappable and very tall (6′ 6″) Alan Napier (Alfred to Adam West’s Batman, for those of my generation) is also in both pictures. Character actor Dan Duryea, no slouch at 6′ 1″, deserves a post of his own; here, he gives us what Kenny describes as “uncharacteristic but altogether deliberate blandness” in a character who turns up like a bad penny, helping to evoke the paranoid sense of imminent betrayal that pervades the film. Plus, Duryea gets to dial a phone with a pair of ludicrously enormous tailors’ scissors, which look like an overisze prop for Hitchcock’s 3D Dial M for Murder (1954, another Milland picture).

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Unfortunately, Ministry of Fear isn’t currently streaming on any platform I’m aware of—you just gotta wait for it from Netflix or buy it (or get it from your library, of course—mine had it!).

Here’s a peek – the fake blind man and the cake:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Svuz0HEeslc?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

(*There is no one in the film who identifies as a Nazi, no one sporting jackboots or spouting fascist rhetoric. But one can make an argument for Carla’s brother Willi as one of those apparently affable Nazis who are inevitably revealed as cold-blooded bastards, both because of his false “old boy” avuncularity and the fact that he is the person giving the other collaborators their marching orders.)

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More Reading on Ministry of Fear:

MUBI essay focusing on the romance between Carla and Stephen

Turner Classic Movies’ page on Ministry of Fear

Bosley Crowther’s 1945 New York Times review 

IMDb’s page on Ministry of Fear

 

World War I: King and Country (1964)

This post is a part of the fantastic World War I in Classic Film blogathon hosted by the always intriguing Movies Silently and Silent-ology – go read the other excellent posts!

 

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One of the great—and somewhat overlooked—films about World War I was originally made for television in Britain, filmed entirely on a claustrophobic set with a small budget and a tight schedule (just under a month). Directed in 1964 by Joseph Losey, an American ex-pat across the pond, King and Country is based on a fictionalized memoir (Return to the Wood), also made into a play (“Hamp”). Never broadcast in Britain, it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1964, where it was quite popular.

The film is just under an hour and a half, and like its predecessor Paths of Glory (1957), it doesn’t waste time. The story begins with Private Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay) already locked up in a makeshift cell, with a bedstead for a door, charged with desertion. Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) arrives to defend him at the trial the company will hold just behind the trenches, in the bombed-out buildings of Passchendaele, near Ypres, in Belgium.

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The location of the trial, in those crumbling structures, already suggests the corruption that will guide the proceedings. But the conflict in the film isn’t just between the immoral inertia of army command and, at least during the trial, Hargreaves; it is also a class conflict. When Hargreaves arrives, he has nothing but contempt for the working-class Hamp. Before meeting Hamp, he insists to Hamp’s platoon leader that the trial is “a waste of time,” and that Hamp should be shot because, as a soldier, he is broken.

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Tom Courtenay as Private Arthur Hamp and Dirk Bogarde as Captain Hargreaves.

Hamp certainly is broken, and Courtenay’s lost and exhausted look throughout the film conveys this with pathos. Hamp, a cobbler like his father and grandfather, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and between army indoctrination and traditional class distinctions, he has been trained in deference to his superiors. When Hargreaves inquires, “Do you know why I’m asking you these questions?” Hamp’s reply is almost cheerful: “You know best, sir.” He assures his platoon leader, “I’m sure I’ll get a fair trial.” Hamp trusts the system. Specifically, he trusts the system to recognize that what the army has labeled desertion was nothing more than an uncontrollable bodily urge to get away (not unlike the diarrhea Hamp is plagued with at several upsetting moments in the film).

Quite obviously suffering from shellshock, Hamp simply goes for a walk, ten days after returning from the front. As Hargreaves learns during his interview with the Private, Hamp has been soldiering for three years at one battle or another. As Hargreaves points out during the trial, this is longer than many of the officers under whom Hamp serves. He is the last survivor of his original platoon. Hamp has nearly drowned in a foxhole. Hamp’s friend, Willie Bryson, is blown up next to him, what’s left of Willie’s body landing all over Hamp. And recently, Hamp has received a letter from home informing him that his wife has left him for another man. When he “deserts,” Hamp simply wants to get away from the noise of the guns. Insofar as he’s thinking about what he’s doing at all, he thinks in a vague way that he will walk home to Islington.

Hargreaves loses his crusty upper-class contempt for Hamp during the interview before the trial. Hargreaves is sure Hamp is not his equal intellectually or socially, but he does understand that Hamp has been traumatized. It is painfully obvious that Hamp did not plan to desert—that he didn’t plan anything. Hamp is portrayed as a man who may not be capable of planning anything. He even joined the army on a dare. Courtenay’s Hamp is unable to articulate a defense, perhaps because questions like, “When did you decide to leave?” and “Why did you leave?” simply don’t make any sense to him. As Hargreaves argues during the trial, Hamp “had not the power to decide whether to stay or go.” Hamp does have, Hargreaves notes, “an embarrassing honesty, which made him a bad witness in his own case.”

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Courtenay, Bogarde, and Losey on the set.

The danger of Hamp’s character is that he might come across as a cipher—a blank—for all the poor saps in the trenches. Thankfully, Courtenay makes Hamp a real person, makes his initial trust in the system and his genuine confusion at his own behavior believable. Nor does Bogarde, who brought the script of the play to Losey, dilute Hargreaves’s classism. It may be Hamp’s naïve belief that everything will “come out all right” that first moves Hargreaves.

The screenplay sounds like a play—Hargreaves’s closing remarks are clearly the centerpiece—but the film doesn’t look like one. During the action, that is, the talking, the camera remains static, but between those scenes, the camera is notably mobile. What is most remarkable about the film visually, though, are the occasional cuts to photographs, many from the book of World War I photographs and paintings Covenant of Death. In one especially grim cut, as Hamp starts telling Hargreaves something: “Do you know, it’s funny,” we suddenly see a photo of a dead soldier, just barely distinguishable from the mud in which he lies, face-down.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyJbgh9ZNZg?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

While the trial can be seen as a riff on the one in Paths of Glory for a similar crime, another reference comes to mind: Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, originally published in 1938. I haven’t the faintest idea if Losey ever encountered it, but it is a long anti-war essay, which touches on classism (and, of course, sexism). Woolf inserts a series of

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's *Paths of Glory*.

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick’s *Paths of Glory*.

photographs in the essay—there are no butchered soldiers, as I recall, but there are images of military pomp and circumstance. One of the first still images we see in King and Country is, according to TCM’s essay on the film, of “King George V riding with his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II” before the war. If you’ve read Three Guineas, that still in the film immediately calls it to mind. One can imagine Woolf appreciating the film’s tic having characters employ euphemisms (“uh…what you’re accused of”) rather than saying “desertion.”

The film isn’t subtle, but Hargreaves’s disgust at the trial—however futile—is gratifying. The officers simply want to get it over with, and they seem happy to take the Medical Officer’s harangue about Hamp’s “cold feet” at face value. Hamp went to Leo McKern’s doc, who prescribed what he always does for what he believes is cowardice: an invigorating pep talk and a diahrreatic the intestinally-challenged Hamp really doesn’t need. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that, although the officers have convicted Hamp as a deserter, they have recommended leniency and imprisonment, rather than execution. Less surprising, but no less infuriating, especially as we believe Hamp has narrowly escaped a death sentence, is the cable from HQ overriding the officers’ decision. The platoon is moving back up the line to the front the next day, and an example must be made—I kid you not—for morale. How shooting a comrade, someone you fought next to, is supposed to improve your mood is a mystery.

But it gets worse. Because Hamp’s platoon members don’t want to shoot him, they manage to bungle the execution. Hamp is riddled with bullets but not dead. Using his own pistol, Hargreaves finally shoots him in the mouth. And that is where the film ends. It is left up to the audience to decide whether Hargreaves acted as he did in order to help Hamp, to put him out of his misery—and in disgust at the system which has butchered him—or whether Hargreaves is simply disgusted with the platoon’s incompetence and feels he has to step in as an officer and fix what the privates have botched. It is, in a way, the most interesting part of the film.

TCM has a video of the film’s grim and graceful opening, which for some reason, refuses to embed here.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/413826/King-Country-Movie-Clip-Royal-Fellowship-Of-Death.html

 

Literary postscript:

When Hargreaves and Hamp’s CO (Peter Copley) commiserate about the news from HQ (which, to be fair, wouldn’t have happened if the CO had just taken responsibility and not cabled them), they speak in poetry. In what is the more affecting quotation, to me, Hargreaves looks in the mirror and says, “There is a porpoise close behind me and it’s treading on my tail.” It’s from the Mock Turtle’s Song in Alice in Wonderland, with it’s refrain, “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?” The fish in the song later insists, “You can really have no notion how delightful it will be/When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters out to sea!”

Hargreaves finishes the thought with some lines from John Masefield’s poem “Biography,” to which Hamp’s CO responds with lines from the same poem: “When I am buried, all my thoughts and acts/will be reduced to lists of dates and facts/and long before this wandering flesh is rotten/the dates which made me will be all forgotten.”

 

Peeping Tom (1960) – The British Invasion Blogathon

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Take Me to Your Cinema!

I first saw this peculiar film about ten years ago, sometime when I was still in grad school. I can’t remember why; I must have stumbled across it at the very fine Four Star Video Heaven, which is—somewhat miraculously—still in business. Neither am I sure why I liked it so much so immediately. It’s certainly unlike anything I had seen before. It might even have been the first of British director Michael Powell’s films I ever saw. Plenty has been said about how Peeping Tom ruined Michael Powell’s career, which is essentially true. Martin Scorsese was instrumental in rehabilitating him starting in the 1970s, and Powell did make a few more pictures before he died in 1990. Thankfully, it’s not the most interesting thing about the film, so let’s skip over that. I’ve watched the film so many times now, that it’s hard to narrow down what to talk about. So I’m warning you now, this may end up being another two-parter. Or just long-winded.

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Can you guess what sort of reaction the film got when it was originally released?

Michael Powell, with his long-time partner Emeric Pressburger, made some of the finest British films you can rest your peepers on: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Powell made Peeping Tom after they went their separate ways, but it shares with those classic films a devotion to fabulous color (here, Eastmancolor) and an off-kilter British eccentricity. Much of the eccentricity manifests in the characters. For example, Helen (Anna Massey), the love interest—maybe the first Last Girl in horror films—is writing a children’s book about a magic camera that sees adults as the children they were. One of the cops investigating the murders that take place starts snapping his fingers and bopping around in time to the music on a victim’s tape recorder discovered at a crime scene.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAZZmclLdo8&w=560&h=315]

The main character, the Peeping Tom of the title, is Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), a focus-puller (assistant camerman) at a British film studio. In his spare time, Mark takes unnecessarily artistic nudie photographs for the owner of a newsagents shop who peddles what his customers coyly refer to as “views.” But all of this is merely a cover for Mark’s real calling—documentarian, for he is the artistic child of a scientist. He documents the murders of women he commits using a dagger hidden in his camera’s tripod. Like all good serial killers and superheroes, Mark has an origin story. Mark’s father, a scientist who studied fear in children, recorded as much of Mark’s childhood as he could—both on film and on tape. The scientist would dream up ways of terrifying his son in order to film his fear, record his screams and cries. Dad filmed the boy’s budding interest in sex—one of the movies we watch Mark and Helen, watching is of Mark as a boy watching a couple (Powell’s neighbors) necking on a park bench. The cherry on top of this Freudian sundae might be the film of Mark “saying goodbye” to his dead mother. Later in the film, as we see Mark’s father give Mark his first camera, the adult Mark refers to his mother’s death as “the previous sequence.” After all this, even Mark refers to himself as “mad.” (Also competing for cherry-on-top is the fact that Powell plays Mark’s father, and his son Columba plays the young Mark.) Don’t worry—a short, crazy-haired psychiatrist shows up on the set of the film Mark is working on, called The Walls Are Closing In, naturally, and after being introduced to Mark, muses that “he has his father’s eyes.”

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Moira Shearer as stand-in Vivian filming Mark film her. Things go downhill from there.

The general plot—a serial killer who was traumatized as a child and now murders women using his camera—is reminiscent of some typically American horror movies about voyeurism and cameras: Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) come to mind. But the American versions are crasser, more vulgar—and I actually don’t mean that in a bad way. Cronenberg’s earlier work is known, of course, for gooey action in which the boundaries of a character’s body are violated and merged with or taken over by what is often some sinister technology, as in the aforementioned Videodrome, The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch (1991), or Existenz (1999).

Peeping Tom has nothing so unseemly. It is an incredibly decorous film given that it’s about a serial killer. Tidy. The climactic violence at the end produces almost no blood. Some of this is due to when it was made, surely. But it’s also an indication of where the film’s real interests lie. It is a film in which the boundaries crossed are almost entirely psychological. The physical violence is almost beside the point. What Mark wants, as a result of his particular trauma, hero_EB19990502REVIEWS08905020301ARis to record the terror, the fear the women experience on the threshold of death. Part of what is unique about Mark’s method is that he wants his victims to share his own experience of their death by watching themselves die. To this end, Mark has attached a distorting mirror to his camera, in which the women are forced to watch their own murders. Interestingly, almost no write-ups of the film mention this detail, though it seems essential to Mark’s story.

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Karlheinz Böhm as documentarian Mark Lewis

The film would have been a disaster without the right person playing Mark, and Karlheinz Böhm (also known as Carl Boem) is the Right Person. Powell initially wanted Laurence Harvey, and watching Peeping Tom, you can see why. The part requires the same sort of quiet woundedness Harvey did so well two years later in The Manchurian Candidate. Harvey also has a malicious edge, however, and I think this is at least partly why Böhm is the better choice. He does shy and damaged, but there is simply no aggression to him at all. Böhm’s Austrian accent, which ought to not to work, since his character allegedly grew up in the London house he still occupies, is instead an asset. It softens the edges of his words, making them more tentative and fragile than they would otherwise be. Two of the women we see him murder know him well, and, unlike so many later horror/slasher films, it is utterly believable that neither of them sees Mark as a threat. Even as he murders, Böhm’s Mark is more determined—focused—than aggressive.

Another character, like Mark, whom we might be tempted to see as weak is Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens (Maxine Audley)—she is not only blind, but an alcoholic (Johnny Walker Red, thanks). But Mrs. Stevens is a more overtly aggressive character than Mark. She is a cranky drunk and immediately suspicious of him. She says to Helen:

I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.

Helen: He’s shy!

His footsteps aren’t. They’re stealthy.

One of the many interesting aspects of the film is the way Powell links Mark to the blind Mrs. Stevens. Both she and Mark are sharp, both have been wounded by someone who should have taken care of them. (Mrs. Stevens, we learn, has been blinded by an incompetent doctor.) And they both love Helen.

Maxine Audley as Helen's mother, Mrs. Stevens

Maxine Audley as Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens

At the end of a scene of one of Mark’s nudie photo shoots, we see a model’s hand pouring tea. This cuts to Mrs. Steven’s hand pouring herself what is clearly another glass of scotch. Later, we cut from another closeup of Mrs. Stevens pouring herself another scotch, to Mark, pouring developing chemicals upstairs. During Helen and Mark’s only date, Mrs. Stevens sneaks up to Mark’s apartment. While Mrs. Stevens cannot secretly watch others, she does listen. She has heard Mark in his darkroom, watching his films on a projector. And she has recognized in Mark a fellow addict. She confronts him there, after his date with Helen.

What are these films you can’t wait to see? Take me to your cinema!

Mrs. Stevens uses a cane to maneuver in the crowded space, and we see at the end of her cane a short blade. She holds the cane out in front of herself, defensively, mirroring Mark’s movement when he unsheathes his own knife from the tripod.

As an addict, Mrs. Stevens—also a damaged but functional mother figure—understands Mark better than Helen can. As she leaves his room, she tells him, “All this filming isn’t healthy. Get help—while you still can.” Of course, Mark knows only too well how unhealthy it is.

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No one in the film respects the boundaries of others. Mark’s father uses him as a science experiment, invading every private moment Mark should have had as a child. Even Helen invites herself in to Mark’s apartment, and Mrs. Stevens breaks in. As a child Mark was never allowed to lock a door, and he says he can’t get used to keys. This invasion is represented as much by all the doorways and curtains through which characters enter and exit—and sometimes linger in or block—as it is by the various cameras in the film. (One of them, a Bell and Howell, is Powell’s first camera. Of course it is.)

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Like his earlier collaborations with Pressburger, Powell’s Peeping Tom is more of a fantasia than a “realistic” portrait of a serial killer. The worlds of The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and, especially, The Tales of Hoffmann are passionately intensified, lurid versions of the real one. The characters in them, however, seem very real because they touch us, and I think this is really what upset everybody so much about Peeping Tom the first time around.

Midway through the film, Helen wants Mark to help her illustrate her magic-camera book, which has just been accepted for publication. Mark is genuinely thrilled for her and wants to “find [her] faces” for her, as he puts it. He tells her, “Everyone’s face looks like child’s if you catch them at the right moment.”

 

Check out all the other awesome British Invasion posts at A Shroud of Thoughts!

 

Don’t miss:

“Peeping Tom” is screening on TCM Saturday, October 4 @ 03:00 PM (ET). It’s available for rent, streaming, from Amazon Prime, and available on disc via Netflix.

 TCM’s article on Peeping Tom

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movie” review

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GItFNbLVCs&w=560&h=315]

 

Go see “Snowpiercer” … if you can

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Go. Now.

I had the good fortune to be in Los Angeles when Bong Joon-ho’s new film, “Snowpiercer,” opened there mid-July. So, I dragged my mom to see it at the only place it was playing on the West Side, a somewhat run-down multiplex on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. Last I heard, the film is only getting a limited release in the States, unless it does well enough to “merit” a wide release. (No, I don’t understand the logic of that, either.) If you believe the word “merit” connotes any value other than a financial one, then “Snowpiercer” absolutely merits wide release. Frankly, since it’s made $80 million internationally, I’m not sure what the problem is in that regard, either. Whatever. It’s a surprising, engrossing, good-looking entry in the limited-resource dystopian genre–much better than most recent dystopian flicks. And you should go see it. And have your faith in summer blockbusters restored.

I’m not going to say much about what happens in the film because you need to go see it first. Then come back, and we’ll talk. What follows is really just some encouragement to get you out the door to a theater. (Do not watch it on VOD, if you have a choice. You will regret it.)

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You will regret it.

Bong directed the great 2006 monster movie “The Host,” which also starred Kang-ho Song. “The Host” has a fair amount of comedy, some of it pretty wacky, but like all good monster movies, the threat is born from a justifiable and now-familiar fear–in this case, the consequences of environmental damage. The toxic waste an American mortician on a South Korean U.S. Army base orders his Korean underling to flush down the pipes goes into the Han River. What could go wrong?

“Snowpiercer” is a grimmer look at an ostensibly similar but much more serious problem: global warming. The environmental horror is really just an excuse to winnow humanity down to a few hundred souls, trap them in a contained space, in this case a supertrain, and watch the “natural order” that results. The natural order in this case is a suspiciously familiar-looking 99% – 1% sort of split. Those who belong in the front live in comfort and the security of knowing that’s where they belong (and, perhaps more importantly, where others don’t belong), while the tightly-packed plebs in the back cars of the train wallow in filth, eating “protein” blocks made of ground-up trust-me-you-don’t-want-to-know.

Given this setup, the plot is hardly surprising–those in the back will fight their way to the front of the train. Yet, there’s a great deal of suspense and peculiarity created along the way, and the film plays around with dystopian staples like the idea of a special person who has been prophesied to come along and save everybody,  à la Neo in “The Matrix.”

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Yes, the shoe *is* really important.

The casting is excellent–Song Kang-ho is always a kick to watch (in addition to “The Host,” check out the fine “Memories of Murder,” also directed by Bong, and “Secret Sunshine”). I was worried about throwing Captain America (Chris Evans) into a Bong Joon-ho universe, but Evans is really pretty good (and the film would collapse if he weren’t). And of course Tilda Swinton is, as far as I’m concerned, reason enough to go see any film. She is fantastic (and fantastically absurd) here, with maybe the best speech in the film–not surprisingly, about social order. Another favorite thing about the film is that one of the most important conversations in the picture takes place in English and Korean, and it works beautifully.

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The film ain’t short at 126 minutes, though it’s not long by today’s tent-pole- “Transformers” standards for films that can verge on the unwatchable, no less. But for a film whose plot seems so obvious, the forward motion of “Snowpiercer’s” action never drags, even when the pace slows. If you’ve seen other Korean films, (“The Host,” say, or the amazing, grueling “Old Boy” directed by Park Chan-wook) the weirdness of “Snowpiercer” won’t strike you as much. But either way, the weirdness, much of it Bong’s and some of it, I think, cultural difference, is essential to the film, and to why it works. If you took out Swinton’s dentures, the avant-massacre carp, or Ewen Bremner’s nutty brilliance, it might still be good, but it wouldn’t be as astonishingly good as it is. Or as much fun, because however gloomy the film’s universe is, “Snowpiercer” is still a summer movie, dammit.

And, yes, my mom loved it.

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From the graphic novel on which the movie’s based, by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. Is there a gutted carp? I look forward to finding out.

 

I have every intention of coming back to write about  “Snowpiercer” after seeing it again–on VOD, if I must. In the meantime, here are some other fine dwindling-resource dystopian films you might enjoy, as well as some other thoughts (with gargantuan spoilers, so beware) on “Snowpiercer.”

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If you’re interested in post-apocalypse films, here’s an interesting post from one of TCM’s Movie Morlocks, Richard Harland Smith.

The Ebert site review of “Snowpiercer.” The site also has a review of Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host.”

Wonderfully entertaining roundtable of sorts on “Snowpiercer” by various Grantland staff. This will ruin most of the surprises in the film, so, seriously, don’t read it until you’ve seen the movie.

Buzzfeed’s “‘Snowpiercer’ Should Have Been the Breakout Blockbuster of the Summer”

 

Playtime (1967)

“Life is full of homages to Tati”*

originally intended as part of the 1967 in Film Blogathon

hosted by The Rosebud Cinema and Silver Screenings

(and then I got horribly sick—children are Petri dishes of contagion

—so it’s only, uh, three weeks late)

Anyway, check out the plethora of great posts from the Blogathon!

 

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French filmmaker Jacques Tati was only able to make six feature-length films, but each film, right from the beginning with Jour de fête (1949) and Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), has the mark of comic genius. Tati’s films are immediately recognizable for their use of sound, their democracy of action (and lack of any significant plot), and exuberant Tati gags. Playtime (1967) is generally regarded as the director’s masterpiece. Originally running around 2 ½ hours, Tati eventually edited it down to just under two (and at least some of that edited footage is still missing).

Playtime is about people and their urban environment: buildings, technology, and other people. Tati was interested in people and their experience of space, and he was worried about how certain kinds of modern spaces were changing the way people interacted. The film takes pleasure in mocking our ability to thrive in the structures we’ve created and to manage the gadgets we fetishize. But there is always a gentleness to Tati’s mockery, much like Buster Keaton’s, a clear influence. And like many silent film artists, Tati turns his environment into art by manipulating how people and objects interact with each other. To make the world look and work the way he wanted it to, the director constructed his own town, dubbed “Tativille,” outside of Joinville, Haute-Marne, France. (Unfortunately, manipulation on this grand a scale bankrupted him when the picture didn’t do well at the box office.)

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Tativille looks suspiciously similar to our world, but like the obsessively constructed worlds in Vladimir Nabokov’s novels or Quentin Tarantino’s films (two much-less gentler geniuses), it is plainly not the real world. Each object, each line and curve has the potential to come to life at any moment. Everything (and everyone) is a prop in a Tati film, which may sound dehumanizing. But the overall effect of every Tati film is to humanize its setting and give its inhabitants (they don’t often rise to the level of characters) a space to be human—to socialize and experience pleasure. By the end of a Tati film, no matter how many mistakes have been made, no matter how much destruction has taken place, you are likely wishing his world were the real world. During the last 20 – 30 minutes of Playtime, the drably-colored, antiseptically-modernist environment breaks into a carnival-like chaos, with brightly colored decorations, a lot of drinking and dancing and socializing across classes and languages.

Beyond this shift, there is no plot to speak of—an American tourist named Barbara arrives in Paris with a tour group and Tati’s Monsieur Hulot has a business appointment are the closest thing to plot here—but there are recurring individuals. In addition to M. Hulot and Barbara, there  are the customer in the pharmacy-deli who turns out to be one of the jazz musicians at the Royal Garden nightclub, the man with whom Hulot has an appointment, M. Giffard, but keeps missing, an army buddy or two of Hulot’s, and so on.

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The architecture—all floor-to-ceiling glass walls and doors and endless grayish-blue cubicles (see the masthead above)—often has people on display but keeps them from interacting. Indeed, one of the film’s first gags is a worker trying to get a light from the porter of an office building, not realizing that there is a glass wall between them. Once people are outside these constructions, or they collapse, connections are made—Hulot runs into the army buddy he saw earlier but who was stuck in traffic; M. Giffard, out to walk his dog, finally sees Hulot on the sidewalk and they walk off together. Whatever they have to discuss is beside the point; the important thing is that they’ve finally gotten in touch.

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Spaces “deteriorate” in the last third of the film, creating new space more accommodating to these connections. The Royal Garden nightclub opens before it’s quite ready and the space just comes to pieces as tiles peel off the floor, waiters rip their uniforms on poorly designed chairs which are leaving marks on the backs of diners’ jackets and dresses, and finally the walls literally come down. Once the décor of the nightclub starts to come apart, the customers are able to mix with each other and with the workers, and to make their own music. The lengthy sequence is a justifiably famous set-piece. Similarly, the pharmacy-deli introduced in the last third of the film is a typical Tati mish-mash of spatial functions, resulting in sandwiches glowing green as they bask in the neon light of the pharmacy on the one hand while encouraging conversation and jollity on the other.

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From top left, the Royal Garden starts out looking pretty slick but things slide into a delightful chaos over the course of the evening.

In Playtime, there is never just one thing going on—there is a constant symphony of activity, and not just throughout the film but throughout the screen. Filmed in 70mm, “that grand epic format that covers the largest screens available with the most detail imaginable,” according to Roger Ebert, Playtime requires a big screen and rewards multiple viewings. It was filmed almost entirely in long shot; there are no closeups. A preponderance of frames are filled with activity in each field—foreground, medium ground, and background—or in every quadrant. Often the audience must decide where to look—our attention is not always directed to the unfolding of a particular event.

 

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Street lamps bloom like flowers on the road between Paris and the airport.

The soundtrack is likewise a panorama of traffic, conversations (often at a level we can’t quite hear), blips and bleeps, doors opening and closing. These noises create some of the humor and also suggest that everyday objects have developed their own personalities. Sound was always an integral part of Tati’s cinema—doors seems to have been a special favorite, starting in Vacances. Which makes sense, as so much of Tati’s narrative, in all of his films, is about collapsing boundaries. And the soundscape in Playtime does work something like its field of vision. We hear some ambient noises in the “foreground” more loudly than they’d be in real life, directing our attention to something on screen we might not otherwise notice.

playtime-curving-arrowTati loves shapes and colors, and you can tell even when he’s not using many—the interaction of shades of gray in Playtime are carefully orchestrated and make the colors that do appear in the last third of the movie especially captivating. One of the pleasures of Tativille is the constant matching of shapes and movements. When a tiny but very important man deplanes at the beginning of the film, a tag on his suitcase flaps in a nonexistent breeze inside the terminal. Later, at the Royal Garden, the maître d’s suit tails swing back and forth as though equipped with an invisible metronome. In the exhibitor gallery of a futuristic product expo, an absurdly statuesque woman demonstrates a pair of dark, thick-framed glasses whose lenses flip up separately, so that its wearer can apply makeup, one eye at a time. Shortly after that, we’re introduced to the owner of a firm that makes silent doors (more on this below), whose dark, thick-framed glasses later break in the middle, repeating the visual of the one-up, one-down lenses on the first pair of glasses. It is no accident that an accident creates the same effect that some company has mass-produced and offered for sale. Accidents frequently open an avenue between previously segregated groups of people.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHEOIVKdSPY?list=PLN607fMMBWWnp_WvOTW7sggodq-Nj3bvu&w=560&h=315]

One of my favorite gags in Playtime is the “Slam Your Doors in Golden Silence” bit towards the beginning of the film. Hulot (and the American tourists) walk through the expo, booths advertising the latest in mod cons.images These are all, of course, ridiculous contraptions that no one needs. There is the garbage can shaped like an ionic column. There is the desk lamp that offers different colored light. There is the vacuum cleaner with headlamps attached (wait a minute…I have one of those—though in my defense, the lights on mine are not the size of grapefruit). All these objects make delightful burping and metallic grunting noises.

Except for the silent doors.

The doors have been made with an insulated material and whatever sound they actually made when moving or closing seems not only to have been wiped from the soundtrack but maybe replaced with a noticeable silence. (Or maybe that’s just the effectiveness of the bit.) A faux Hulot (the film is filled with them) mistakes the silent door exhibit for an extension of an adjacent exhibitor selling office desks. While the door salesman is demonstrating the silence to a potential customer, the faux Hulot rifles through the desk, empties his pipe in the ashtray, and generally helps himself in a way most offensive to the salesman—who can’t do anything because he’s distracted by a sales prospect. The owner of the silent door company turns up a few moments later, and his salesman complains about the man in a hat and raincoat carrying a pipe. The salesman trots off and Hulot appears. The owner (the one whose glasses split) mistakes him for the impolite not-Hulot. The set-up is at least as funny as the pay-off, when the owner berates the oblivious Hulot. The mistaken-identity gag perhaps suggests Tati’s impatience with the popularity of the Hulot character. But the encounter is also one of several that eventually blossom into the revelry at the collapsing Royal Garden nightclub. And like the bumbling encounters that later bear fruit, the “golden silence” of the insulated doors is later replaced by the amiable cacophony of unplanned, unprogrammed conversation and music.

Towards the end of Playtime, Hulot is attempting to leave a small and crowded magasin with a gift for the American tourist. He maneuvers around a set of pot handles sticking into the aisle, only to be told he must go back and exit through a turnstile which now looks remarkably like…a bunch of pot handles sticking out. Hulot can’t reach her in time, but the encounter is saved by an intermediary who passes the souvenir to Barbara as she boards the bus for the airport. Playtime is overflowing with little gags like these, and they are exquisite in design and the joy they take in the physical world. The greatest thing about any excursion to Tativille is that infectious joy the audience brings back with them, and how it changes the way we look at our environment.

Photograph by André Dino.

Photograph by André Dino.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMWq40YtexY&w=560&h=315]

* This post is dedicated to my parents, whose anniversary is July 14, Bastille Day. *

* Michael Chion, Senses of Cinema

 

Other Tati essays/tidbits:

Roger Ebert on Playtime, one of his Great Movies.

Le main droite de M Hulot about Tati’s collaborator, artist Jacques Lagrange, including details about his work on Playtime, by Kristin Thompson. (She argues elsewhere, convincingly, for the title as two words.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay on Playtime from Criterion.

David Bordwell’s post on “Funny Framings” starts off with a Tati example from Playtime.

Dan North’s post on Playtime: “Modern Life is Noisy”

TCM’s essay on Playtime.

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)

a contribution to the Billy Wilder Blogathon, hosted by Once upon a screen… and Outspoken & Freckled

Dir. Ernst Lubitsch

Written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder

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Brackett, reclining, and Wilder hard at work on something awesome.

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1938 comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, starring Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper, was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between writers Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (later producer and director, respectively). Well, maybe not a beautiful relationship, but certainly a very productive one, and one for which classic film fans, and writers of any stripe, are (or should be) eternally grateful.

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Brackett, left, and Wilder not having an argument.

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife was the first collaboration between the pair who wrote Midnight (1939, another film starring Colbert), Nintochka, (1939, another Lubtisch production), Ball of Fire, (1941, also starring Cooper), The Lost Weekend, (1945), and ended their working relationship with Sunset Boulevard (1950). This first film has all the ingredients of their later films, but they don’t have the recipe quite right yet. Wilder himself allegedly commented, “It was not a very good picture, but it was kind of all right.” But who cares? A lesser Lubitsch written by Brackett and Wilder is still light-years better than…well, anything you’re likely to encounter in the course of an average day.

Brackett and Wilder have all the parts of a perfect screwball comedy in Bluebeard—formal wear, cocktails, witty wordplay, and a married couple slapping, spanking, and biting each other. Nicole De Loisel (Colbert), daughter of Edward Everett Horton’s penniless Marquis, and Michael Brandon (Cooper), capitalist extraordinaire, are meant to be together, like all screwball couples. And like the couples in The Awful Truth (1937), The Palm Beach Story (1942, another Colbert picture), and His Girl Friday (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Brandon are already married for much of the film, during which time at least one of them is trying to obtain a divorce. Unlike the couples in The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, however, the Brandons are not an evenly matched couple. Nicole has the upper hand here, as Colbert’s Gerry does with her hapless inventor-husband in Palm Beach. Bluebeard’s Michael may be a millionaire investor and a big shot, but—despite seven previous marriages—he doesn’t know much about women. He is about to get an education.

The setups are fantastic even if not all of them pay off the way they should. The meet-cute at the beginning is classic Wilder and works like a dream. A 1948 New York Times profile of the writing team mentions its origin:

They were trying to bring together the boy and girl involved in “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.” Wilder suggested they meet in a department store.

“The boy is buying pajamas,” Wilder continued, “but he sleeps only in the top. The clerk is sorry, he cannot sell only the top. It looks like a catastrophe. Then the girl comes into the store. She buys only the pants because she sleeps only in the pants.”

Brackett and Lubitsch were entranced, it was not until weeks later that they learned Wilder was a tops-only sleeper and had been awaiting a chance to use the idea.

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“If ever there was a stripey type, it’s you.”

The film is filled with exchanges and business deals, starting with this first pajama-buying arrangement (a deal which also allows for lots of naughty speculation about whom the bottoms are for, exactly). To lower the price on the bottoms, Nicole throws in a tip to help Michael, an insomniac, fall asleep: spell Czechoslovakia backwards. Nicole may turn out to have a better head for business than her multi-millionaire husband-to-be.

On the verge of marriage, Nicole discovers that Michael has seven previous wives. She is shocked, but is quite rightly less disturbed by the fact that he’s been married before than by the fact that he seems to go through women like hankies he hasn’t even bothered to mongram. Michael believes in acting on impulse—he doesn’t want to get to know her better before taking the big leap (which apparently isn’t much of a leap at all for him). Marriage, like business, is a gambling proposition for him. Nicole has no reason to suspect that her fate will be any different than Michael’s previous conquests. She agrees to marry him anyway, provided that he will pay her $100,000 a year in alimony if they get divorced. And she spends the rest of the film working diligently to goad him into one.

2014-05-11Shortly after their disastrous honeymoon (to Czechoslovakia, naturally), Michael is told by his doctor to buy some books to help quiet his nerves. (“Oh, what you want is the classics,” the bookseller informs him.) Running into Nicole in the bookshop, he says, “You know, if you’d be a litter nicer to me, I wouldn’t have to buy all these books. What do you say?” Thoroughly unimpressed with this ham-fisted flirting, she suggests that Michael is likely to end up with a library. Forced into reading by his uncooperative wife, he discovers one of the books he’s brought home is The Taming of the Shrew. Ah-ha! he thinks. And so, to the beat of martial drums, he marches over to his wife’s rooms and slaps her across the face. She slaps him back. He retreats, and consults Shakespeare again. He marches back, (drums again) smiles and tickles her under the chin. And then yanks her down over his knees for a good spanking. Shockingly, neither of these approaches melts Nicole’s heart. He returns to his room, disheveled and bitten. Desperate for the divorce, Nicole hires a boxer to pretend he is having an affair with her. Michael will burst into her room and the boxer will knock him out so there’s no trouble (Coop was 6’ 3” and apparently ate like three or four horses at every meal). Michael will capitulate and give her a divorce and everyone will live happily ever after. Especially Nicole, who will have the satisfaction of having humiliated Michael.

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The film is a showcase of the verbal anarchy of screwball comedies. But Bluebeard suffers from leaning too heavily on the wordplay and not finessing the characters quite enough. The quips are flying so fast that it’s never as clear as it needs to be how these two actually fell in love with each other—or what makes Nicole return to Michael after she gets her divorce. Michael is, well, Gary Cooper, but his character is grumpy and gruff and often condescending to Nicole. When he tries to seduce his wife during a dinner date, Michael plays a goofy tune on the piano, a mischievous gleam in his eye. It’s impossible not to sympathize when Nicole drunkenly exclaims, “Why, Michael, you look so different. You don’t look like a multi-millionaire anymore. You look like a man with a $100,000—or even less!” There’s something almost irresistible about Gary Cooper being a goofball.

Almost.

Michael kisses his wife, who has, unbeknownst to him, eaten a bunch of raw scallions, later insisting, “I will fight you with every vegetable at my disposal!”

As screwball comedies go, in which the husband (or ex-husband) is often humbled into behaving reasonably, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife has a pretty biting reconciliation. Michael is completely at Nicole’s mercy—trussed up in a straightjacket, which is where this story has been headed from the first scene.

Nicole exclaims, “Why do you think a woman puts a man into a straitjacket? Because she loves him!”

Michael remains (temporarily) unmoved. “Love! You’re a fine one to be talking about love. You wouldn’t be my wife when you should’ve been. The only kiss I ever got out of that marriage was smothered in onions!”

And you really can’t complain much about  a film with such wonderful writing.

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It has become clear in the years since that 1948 profile of their collaboration that Brackett and Wilder were not “the Happiest Couple in Hollywood,” as someone suggested way back when. Wilder apparently used to ride Brackett until Brackett began throwing things—heavy things—at Wilder’s head. So the snappy dialogue and (not so) latent violence of the screwball comedy was probably always a good match, not only for their gifts as writers, but their partnership as well.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vz74bn-xCtU&w=420&h=315]

Postscript

In lieu of any clips from the film, which I couldn’t find, I present the dialogue of one of the finest scenes. Here, Kid Mulligan (Warren Hymer), the boxer, and Nicole negotiate at some length about precisely how much damage Mulligan will do to hopefully-enraged Michael.

MULLIGAN: [I’ve been knocked out] plenty. And believe me there’s nothing like it. Aw, what a sensation. Once I hit the canvas with a bang and the next minute there I was in a Japanese garden, with them pink cherry blossoms. Another time I was floating over Constantinople. I tell you, you get to see countries you otherwise couldn’t afford to visit.

NICOLE: It sounds perfectly wonderful!

MULLIGAN: That time I fought Battleship McCarthy, boy, I’ll never forget that second round. Now I ask you Mrs. Brandon, where is there another racket where a man of my weight can feel like a flying fish?

NICOLE: Alright, then do it. —No, don’t do it! It’s too good for him.

MULLIGAN: Aw, come on, Mrs. Bradon, don’t be so hardboiled.

NICOLE: No, no, no, no, no. He doesn’t deserve it! Why should he dream he’s in a Japanese garden? After what he’s done to me? I should pay 5,000 francs so he can feel like a flying fish? Noooo, no. Never.

MULLIGAN: But, Mrs. Brandon, he’s your husband. You must have loved him once.

NICOLE: Let’s not talk about it.

MULLIGAN: Aw, come on, give him a break. Have a heart.

NICOLE: Alright, knock him out.

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“Whether [Louis the XIV’s bathtub] is too short or I am too long is a matter I would like to discuss with you over dinner.” This is the sort of thing that only happens in a Brackett-Wilder picture.

Why You Were Probably Wrong about The Lone Ranger

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Various critics have talked about why last year’s The Lone Ranger deserved to do better, box-office-wise, than it did, about its interest in how events are turned into history and its visual delights, which are, I should think, inarguable. Thus far, I haven’t come across anyone talking about another major interest of the film, one that gives it depth, and works to tie a careering plot together: identity. Maybe “character” would be a better way to put it, because I don’t mean “identity” in the sense of stock Western characters. In his November 2013 essay, “Out of Balance: Gore Verbinski and the Lone Ranger” (published on MUBI’s Notebook), Ryland Walker Knight sets up The Lone Ranger next to Tarantino’s Django Unchained. They are both Westerns interested in what stories get told about history, and “both films” he argues, “are meticulously aesthetic and political visions, employing a variety of forms/tropes (of artifice) to critique the myth of America.” But another similarity between the two is the question of character—a theme explicitly raised at the end of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, when The Wolf points out, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.” In fact, character is a theme that runs through both directors’ oeuvres. Knight argues for The Lone Ranger as a more protean, flexible film than Django Unchained, and I think this is also true of the way each director approaches the question of character more generally. Yet, because Verbinski’s films are so big and the action sequences are so beautifully presented, most interested folks don’t spend much time talking about what else his films might have in common.

Verbinski’s characters—his worlds—are loopy and sometimes it seems as though the stuffing is coming out at the seams, whereas Tarantino’s are much more structured, an aesthetic as much as a philosophical difference.

Seriously, WTF?

Seriously, WTF?

Verbinski’s characters teeter on the edge of our world, sometimes falling off into bizarre other-worlds where there exist things like the fanged feral rabbits in The Lone Ranger, or, really, whole swathes of the fourth Pirates film. The first Pirates is also very much about character—Johnny Depp’s splendid Captain Jack Sparrow spends half the film announcing and reminding folks that he is “Captain Jack Sparrow”—and some of the movie’s suspense is meant to come from the question of whether Jack Sparrow is a good guy or a bad guy. It’s a popular subject of conversation among his companions throughout the series.

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I never thought I’d say this, but that’s just too much Johnny Depp. *Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End*

There are more obvious similarities between The Lone Ranger and Verbinski’s animated film, Rango (2011)—both are self-conscious Westerns starring (in one way or another) Johnny Depp. But a look at the opening scenes in each reveals a much deeper connection. In The Lone Ranger, a boy dressed as the Ranger (Mason Cook) walks into a fair exhibit called “Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,” a darkish hall of dioramas like the ones natural history museums used to have. (Do they still have those? It’s been awhile since I was in a natural history museum.) As lots of folks have noted, this opening raises all sorts of questions about history as a story we construct. sbP5jwwThe boy stops in front of an aged Tonto (Depp), who is an exhibit titled (what else?) “The Noble Savage.” When Tonto sees the boy’s costume, he suddenly speaks, apparently taking the boy for the Lone Ranger himself. During this first exchange, the boy asks Tonto, “Who did you think I was, anyways?”—a question that hovers over the characters of both John Reid/the Ranger (Armie Hammer) and Tonto for most of the film. Moving to question to the audience (who does the teller of the tale think the audience is?) is a fascinating reversal.tonto

Tonto is a character introduced to us in an artificial box, the diorama, in which he’s been put by the creators of the exhibit, and this is the film’s frame story, literally framed. Tonto tells the boy a story about how John Reid became the Lone Ranger—the main narrative. The boy interrupts occasionally with objections and questions, at one point asking, “How’d you get out of jail anyway?” The shot is no longer a head-on shot of the boy or of Tonto. It is a long shot from down the hall of the boy standing in front of the exhibit. As if in response to the boy’s question, Tonto’s head peeks around the edge of the exhibit and peers down the hall towards the camera—as though peering out from the prison cell of the wrong narrative.

Now take a look at the opening of Rango. There isn’t exactly a frame narrative but there is a frame, provided by a chorus of mariachi-playing owls, who introduce “a hero who has yet to enter his own story.” Indeed, the chameleon Rango is busy in another story (the wrong story?). Rango is putting on a play about a suicidal princess (whom he is, of course, going to rescue) inside his terrarium…which looks an awful lot like a much brighter and more colorful natural history diorama. Rango is having an argument with one of his inanimate co-stars, Victor, a fake miniature palm tree.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzyhR-Towxo&w=420&h=315]

“What’s that, Victor? My character is ‘undefined’? That’s absurd! I know who I am. I’m…the guy, the protagonist, the hero!” Rango and his friends, who also include a headless Barbie and a wind-up goldfish, are traveling in the back seat of a station wagon, the pet of a family in the midst of a move. “That’s it! Conflict! Victor, you were right. I have been undefined. People! I’ve had an epiphany! The hero cannot exist in a vacuum. What our story needs is an ironic, unexpected event that will propel our hero into conflict!” And of course there is immediately a car accident that propels the terrarium out of the car, breaking its glass on the pavement. Rango is a character who is more consciously in search of an identity than either Tonto or John Reid, but the set-ups are remarkably similar

In an interview with IndieWire, Verbinski listed the top ten films that influenced Rango. “Identity narratives” was what was important about two of his choices, “Flowers for Algernon” and Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” but it’s certainly an important theme in other films on his list, like Being There. Elaborating, he said, “’The Passenger’ has a little more of pretending and the puppet that can’t escape the strings. People create avatars but there’s blowback; you aren’t completely liberated by assuming that alternate identity.” This is true not only of Rango, who in assuming an alternate identity also takes on responsibility for the town’s survival, but of John Reid, who in creating (somewhat by accident) the character of the Lone Ranger, can no longer be himself and can’t stay with the woman he loves. Neither can Reid continue to assume, when he happens upon an Indian and a white man in chains on their way to jail, that both men are in fact guilty of a crime. The Lone Ranger will never say, as Reid does before his transformation, “Finally, someone who will listen to reason!” and be referring to the United States Army. Taking on these new identities changes who the characters “actually” are.

As much as there is uncertainty in The Lone Ranger about who Tonto is—both in the frame story and in the Ranger narrative—and whether or not he’s actually bonkers, there is uncertainty about whether or not Reid is aArmie-Hammer-and-Johnny-Depp-in-The-Lone-Ranger-2013-Movie-Image warrior, whether or not he has the makings of a hero. Is Reid a “hero who has not yet entered his own story”? Tonto has a hard time believing in this version of Reid, even when the Spirit Horse indicates Reid as the person who will help Tonto have his revenge. He tells Reid that “Kemosabe” means “wrong brother,” as he was hoping for John’s more competent brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), to come back from the spirit world and fight.

Among the film’s abundant visual pleasures are the many nods to other films, some of them other Depp and/or Verbinski movies. Here are a few of less-oft mentioned of them: Towards the beginning of The Lone Ranger, we see Cole trying to make nice with Rebecca Reid (the shamefully underused Ruth Wilson), wife of current sheriff Dan, and their son. Cole gives the boy an optical illusion toy, a thaumatrope with the picture of a bird on one side and a cage on the other. By quickly rolling the handle back and forth between one’s hands, it looks like the bird is

Ichabod Crane's thaumatrope in *Sleepy Hollow*.

Ichabod Crane’s thaumatrope in *Sleepy Hollow*.

actually in the cage. The toy is borrowed from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), starring Depp—his character, Ichabod Crane, is the one who plays with it. The scene of Dan Reid and his deputies wait for Cavendish to arrive at the train station is reminiscent of the (much longer) opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West (as is the scene of the raid on the Reid homestead). There are a variety of allusions to Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant Western, Dead Man, also starring you-know-who. There is a charming and affectionate nod to early filmmaking genius Georges Méliès (1861 – 1938) in the bordello, on the stage of which a group of young women with enormous butterfly wings dance a ballet. [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTYmydDXln8&w=420&h=315]And in the masterfully staged train chase, Tonto adapts a trick from Pirates of the Caribbean’s Barbossa, itself adapted from a couple of Buster Keaton gags, using a ladder to move between trains running on parallel tracks. There’s also a cross-dressing outlaw whose fashion sense resembles that of Pirates’ cross-dressing pirate.

All of which is to say, if you didn’t see The Lone Ranger when it came out, or you saw it and thought, “Piffle,” give it (another) look.

Below are some thoughtful reviews from the film’s release.

Matt Zoller Seitz’s review at Roger Ebert’s site.

Salon: “The Lone Ranger”: Rip-roaring Adventure Meets Dark Political Parable

Twitch Film: “The Lone Ranger” Rides Hard Against History

The Voracious Film Goer: Off the rails: “The Lone Ranger”

San Francisco Bay Guardian, Counterpoint: an Appreciation of “The Lone Ranger”