Sunday, September 28, 2008

White Zombie (Victor Halpern, 1932)

Bela Lugosi was very busy in the early 1930s. Here, in 1932, the year after his masterfully arch Dracula, he plays “Murder” Legendre, master of zombies in the creepy plantations of Haiti. The film's depiction of Haiti is troubling—all drums and cringing, frightened black men. In fact, practically the only black actor is the terrified coach-driver, and his friendly advisor-witch doctor is a white actor in blackface.

Anyway, Legendre has drawn the members of his troupe of zombies from his old enemies, including a witch doctor whose magical secrets he has stolen. Lugosi is wonderfully arch, with a fine sardonic look—everything ordinary people do amuses him—and a fine now-I-will-
control-your-brain look, magnetically focusing way up close on scary eyes.

The plot is creaky and utterly predictable: there is a triangle consisting of a clean-cut handsome man and his pretty bride-to-be and a desperate best-man-to-be in love with the girl. He contracts with Legendre to transform the girl to keep her from marrying, and she seems to die. Soon she’s whisked away from her tomb to—get this—a huge semi-ruined stone castle beetling over an immense precipice above the angry sea. In Haiti--go figure. Inside, the castle is not so much ruined as peculiar. There seems to be water flowing in the upper stories, since people cross a sort of indoor torrent and then walk down a grand staircase into the great room of the castle, a room maybe 80 feet high, with pillars and tall stained-glass windows and all the best gothic decor money can buy. There Legendre and the bad young man wear evening clothes and the girl plays Chopin on the piano, without any expression on her kewpie-doll face. Somebody has to stop this!

And the handsome groom-to- be appears just in time, assisted by a jovial preacher who appears on the scene from somewhere. But evil is very strong here. Utter ruin is about to consume every one of them, until at last the bad friend has a change of heart and saves his handsome friend and his bride-to-be. Of course he must purge himself of the wickedness of plotting against them, so he dies in the attempt, thereby redeeming himself.

Not a pretty picture, all told. It should have remained among the dead.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)

Some films linger at the edge of one’s con sciousness, important somehow even if we haven’t actually gotten around to seeing them. La Dolce Vita’s spectral reputation in the 60s was as a shocking, sexy, glamorous film; in fact it is not very sexy at all. Rather, it is a very beautiful, very sad film about witnessing glamour, a prescient look at the cult of celebrity, and an acute insight into the sense of wanting something just out of reach. Marcello Mastroianni, who is of course very handsome and is looking out at the world as we look at him, seems to be still even when he’s moving. What we see in him is the ache of watching, and this creates an oddly affecting loop. We don’t want to be him, even as he’s engaged in not wanting to be him as well.

The film starts with a to
ur-de-force set of shots, two helicopters passing over a new housing development, one hauling a statue of Christ dangling on a long cable, its arms outstretched as if by pure coincidence circumstances accidentally came together and an arbitrary symbol passes through the world. People below run after the phenomenal sight, and its shadow whisks up the side of a building, at the top of which is a roof garden where several pretty young women are sunbathing, and one of the helicopters circles around so Marcello and his friend Paparazzo can flirt with them. The movie swarms with journalists occupying a spookily unreal zone of more or less staged occasions. Perhaps the most impressive is the great scene of televised religious frenzy, in which two children fake seeing the Virgin. Or they may or may not be faking. Surrounding them are huge crowds of would-be believers and hordes of television crews and paparazzi, and scenes are directed for television, and when the rain and the children’s proclamation set the crowd in motion, for a just a moment real need, sorrow, and faith can be seen in the midst of the big con.

Marcello seems always to be really near contact with things, and what is more, he appears to be really there, which makes him a great social reporter, but he senses he should be something more, a serious writer perhaps, as his brilliant-seeming bohemian friend suggests. But he isn’t even close to real feeling about his suicidal girlfriend. He is momentarily enchanted by the visiting American actress, the voluptuous Anita Ekberg, who is spontaneous and lustily primal but somehow not wicked, and he is attracted to the self-destructive Maddalena (Anouk Aimeé) who, in a poignant hall-of-whispers scene, begs him at a distance to marry her, then declares that she wants to love him and she wants to stay the same, a whore, and as she says this a man begins to make love to her and Marcello cannot find her in the maze of the old castle. The friend he so admired cracks and kills his children and himself—Marcello speculates he was afraid. Of somebody threatening him, a detective asks? No, of himself. He was right to be afraid; the event bears out the fear.

There is a scene with a distanced father, and a break-up scene, and a long decadent party, slightly silly and slightly brutal, and the last scene on the beach where the partygoers see a huge monster fish dragged in. A beautiful young girl, the innocent one, waves at Marcello. He’d met her at a café where he was trying to write and she was working. She beckons and calls, he says he can’t hear her, she signals again, he is called by the other partygoers, he shrugs eloquently and waves goodbye to her, as does she, still smiling. A farewell to beginnings.

There are lots of other things in the movie, too much to detail here. Afterwards, I was filled with a great sadness; the movie so eloquently expresses proximity without closeness, anomie, and despair, covered over with glamour and a hectic pace.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Lady for a Day (Frank Capra, 1933)

From a Damon Runyon story—that’s where the snappy under- world dialogue comes from. Apple Annie (May Robson) has been writing to her daughter for years using borrowed hotel stationery, letting the girl think she’s a society dame. Meanwhile, she sells apples on the street, where Dave the Dude (Warren William), an investor and gang boss, thinks his luck depends on buying an apple from her when something’s developing. Annie’s daughter writes that she’s arriving with her fiancé and his father, a Spanish count, and the Dude swings into action, borrowing a huge, luxurious apartment and inviting nightclub owner Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) to superintend Annie's makeover, and gentleman pool hustler Judge Blake (Guy Kibbee) agrees to play the part of her husband. Of course things get terribly complicated and almost go wrong, but when the Dude tells his “fairy tale” to the mayor, the governor, etc., they all flock around to support the scene, and all ends well. Though William gets top billing, he’s not really the most interesting figure. Both Robson and Kibbee are delightful—the Judge handles the problem of coming up with a dowry by betting double or nothing with the Count at billiards, and he doesn’t even stay in the room to watch as his near-impossible shot drops into the pocket. The big cast is filled with guys and dolls of various stripes, including the ever-faithful Nat Pendleton as the genial, muscleheaded sidekick Shakespeare, and especially Ned Sparks as Happy McGuire, the Dude’s manager. Sparks has cornered the market on the sharp-featured raised-eyebrow and startled look, the purely facial double-take, and he gets nearly all the great snappy lines. Even when he’s not talking, he’s great to watch—as things get more and more unlikely, he takes to whistling snatches of “The Prisoner’s Song” to let the Dude know his plan is not as simple as he’d thought it would be, so he's likely to wind up with jail time. Sentimental and populist (the street people and gangsters and politicians with hearts of gold) and very funny.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)

Noir, of the caper-gone-wrong variety. Even the double-crosses fail, people with less nerve than required die, and so do people with nerve. Dix (Sterling Hayden) is a gambler and hooligan, waiting for one big win that will allow him to go back to Kentucky to be with the horses. He has friends, the hunchback Gus (James Whitmore) and the dancer Doll (Jean Hagen) loves him. Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe), fresh from seven years “behind the walls,” has a good plan for a heist, and brings in bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence), and then lawyer Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern) as investors. Emmerich—who has a bedridden wife and a cute girlfriend (Marilyn Monroe)—tries and fails to cheat the crew. During the heist things go wrong, the safecracker, a family man, gets shot by a richochet bullet from a dropped pistol, the nitro sets off burglar alarms next door, and Dix gets shot a little later by Emmerich’s sidekick who’d attempted another cross. Cobby talks, Gus is arrested, Doc is arrested while taking a break in a cab ride to Cleveland as he watches a pretty teenaged girl dance, and Dix and Doll manage to get away and they drive to Kentucky—but he’s lost too much blood, and dies under the cloudy sky in a pasture, surrounded by horses. Most of the film is shot in classic noir style, largely at night, and it’s populated by grotesques and character studies. The writers inject a speech by the police commissioner to reporters, to the effect that without police on the job, even though some may be corrupt, the world would be nothing more than a jungle. Dix—played by Hayden mostly with a straight-up, calm power, a direct gaze, and one or two flickers of feeling—is really damaged, carrying the long hurt of losing his father, his home, and his world, and though he is tough and unafraid, he’s not mean, not brutal. He does what is needful and no more. But even that is too much.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Maladolescenza (Pier Giuseppe Murgia, 1977)

When Europeans make films about summer holidays, they often view the time and place as unknown zones. Away from home, people are sometimes on some kind of unknown time: the first or last happy time, the beginning of maturity, explorations of love, rites of passage. This film is like that. There are only three characters, Laura (Lara Wendel), Fabrizio (Martin Loeb), and Silvia (Eva Ionesco), and the story takes place in the forest near the young people’s summer homes. Laura and Fabrizio explore the forest and discover high in the wooded hills a ruined “magic” town. Laura is eager to see him after a year apart, and she notes he has changed: he’s sullen and withdrawn and increasingly given to teasing and tormenting her. The sexual tension between them is complicated by Laura’s desperate wish to please him and his pleasure in denying her any sort of satisfaction, even conversation or a modest kiss. They find a cave underneath the castle, and lost down there Fabrizio undresses her and they make love. Just that once. And then he’s back to his mean ways of frightening her or tantalizing her. This gets still worse when he discovers Sylvia, in some ways Laura’s opposite, confident, blonde, mean, and fearless. She and Fabrizio torment Laura some more, in increasingly cruel ways, threatening to banish her, frightening her, shooting arrows at her, pretending to throw her from a cliff, making her serve them, and forcing her to watch them have sex. Fabrizio seems to get steadily worse, obsessed with living in the forest, imploring Sylvia to stay with him. As the summer is about to end and she’s set to leave, he takes them into the cave again and tells Sylvia they’re lost—and she panics, weeping and saying she’ll go crazy and screaming. She can’t hear Fabrizio pleading to let their idyll continue. Laura, who feels confused by Sylvia’s vulnerability and by her own diffidence (because she knows the way out), comforts the other girl. And Fabrizio kills her, just as he’s killed helpless birds already. What starts as an idyllic season succumbs to a corrosive pattern of conflating sex and power, so experimental cruelty is inevitable, and then the pastoral turns gothic. Sort of. The movie looks wonderful, with gorgeous photography of woods and meadows and ruins, and the three young actors are very nice to look at. Wendel is soft-looking, anxious, expectant, longing—she’s the best actor among them. Loeb is not a petulant adolescent, but he seems dissatisfied with things any boy his age would celebrate forever. Ionesco is an odd mixture of radiance and plainness, her golden hair all cloudlike and her skin fine, but her face is also rather ordinary looking from certain angles, and there’s something almost unformed and childlike about it, though her ease before the camera makes it difficult to spot (she was the favourite model for her mother, a famous photographer). Wendel appears more attractive because she’s more delicate, more hesitant, and more sympathetic. Finally, it would be nice to see a film about young people discovering sex and love and joy without this sour undercurrent of punishment.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Thief of Bagdad (Raoul Walsh, 1924)

Back when Bagdad was a locus of wonder to the casually dreamy western imagination... Douglas Fairbanks is Ahmet, the swashbuckling Thief, who falls in love with the beautiful Princess (Julanne Johnston) and wins her hand through a set of great adventures. The story is a silly orientalist fairy tale filled with stereotyped villains, especially the scheming Mongol Prince (Sojin), aided by the furtively lovely Mongol slave in the Princess’s bedchamber (Anna May Wong), and fat beturbaned guards, and giant black gong-strikers, and easily befuddled soldiers. Fairbanks plays most of the movie with a bare torso, satin headband, luminous grin, and vaudeville-balletic arm gestures, and if he were not so absolutely convinced by—and convincing in—his own high-powered charm, he would be ridiculous, and indeed he almost is, but mostly it works. There are some nice special effects, including a magic rope he climbs up, a flying horse, and a magical army, but the real tour-de-force of the movie is the set design that offers an exceedingly tall city full of walls and towers and high windows and rounded corners and planes and twisty little stairs. Some of the shots are wonderful visualizations of Arabian tales, with tall-hatted men in robes moving about in halls over a hundred feet high. The movie is long—two hours—but delightful.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969)

A political thriller based on an actual assassination of a Greek doctor in 1963. It’s briskly paced and well-written, and it suggests the staying power of a strong military status quo—though the language, the idiom, the actors, and the setting is all French, it’s nonetheless obviously the Greece of the colonels. There is an element of inevitability as the police prevent the peace rally from proceeding peacefully by having them kicked out of one sizeable venue and letting them meet somewhere obviously too small, so that people left outside are easy targets for right-wind counter-demonstrators and police. Things degenerate quickly, with savage beatings, and then cover-ups and suborning witnesses. Gradually the young judge entrusted with investigating the death of the peace movement leader discovers links between the police and the “accident,” and with the help of a young photographer and stubborn witnesses, he indicts the entire police/army leadership, right up to the general in charge. Most of the wrongdoers are either reprimanded or given brief jail sentences; most of the witnesses against them end up dead. However, only a few years later, captions at the end relate, there was a spontaneous movement that resulted in the collapse of the military regime and the resoration of democracy. As the wife and then the widow of the martyred doctor, Irene Papas has very little to say. She reacts tragically, humanizes the terrible events through flashback montage, and looks Greek.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Asphalt (Joe May, 1929)

Produced by Murnau, and brilliantly directed by May, this silent drama is a masterpiece of cinematography. From the opening montages, with workmen tamping down hot asphalt and the steamrollers behind them and the rain-wet streets shining in the street lights, to the traffic slanting across the street while the young policeman directs traffic, to the change in the lighting at his home after he feels he has fallen—he stands in shadow while down the hall in a halo of light his mother is busy in the kitchen, as if he were observing another world—to the expressionist shadows on the staircases toward the end — it’s magnificently conceived and photographed. The lighting effects are astonishing. The story is not profound, involving an upright young traffic policeman falling under the spell of a diamond-thieving courtesan (Bette Amman), and when they are surprised in her bedroom by her regular lover, an older diplomat, who hurls the woman to the ground, the young man defends her, and himself, with the result that the other man dies. He goes home and tells his parents he has killed a man, and the father, also a policeman, stands up, puts on his dress helmet, and they go silently downtown. But the woman intervenes, calmly incriminating herself to save the young man. She is taken away to prison, but the young man says he will wait for her, and she looks at him with eyes brimming with tears, and a smile. Amman has impossibly big dark eyes and a helmet of bobbed, curly hair. Her cloche hats give her head a sculptural look, and she also moves sometimes with astonishing sensual power, as when she throws herself on the young policeman, winding her arms around his neck, her toes clinging to his boot-tops, her huge luminous eyes inches from his. In the early part of the film she is hard and manipulative, but at the end she has been shaken by real feeling and humanized. Okay, it’s an old story, riddled with cliche, but in this treatment it works, largely because the film is so beautifully shot.