High and Low

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Details:
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producer: Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima, Eljirô Hisaita, & Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyôko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Isao Kimura
Studio: Toho Company
Year: 1963

Why I DVRed This: As big a fan of classic movies as I am, I have some embarrassing gaps. Example: Prior to High and Low, I actually had never seen a Kurosawa film. I really don’t know why I hadn’t… I guess I just never had one presented to me in a way that required almost no work. They’re not often on TV (since subtitled black-and-white Japanese movies don’t tend to get the ratings that Just One of the Guys must have gotten on Comedy Central fifteen years ago), and I never motivated myself to see any of his films at any of the repertory theaters. So, when TCM offered a month’s worth of Kurosawa films for his birthday, I decided to rectify my Kurosawa gap.

How I picked High and Low over the other films offered, I can’t exactly say. Many of the other films TCM offered were (of course) samurai films, and I just couldn’t see myself being that interested in any of them (I know…). High and Low was a film I’d never heard of, and it’s plot sounded fun, so, I figured, why not? After I DVRed it, I also saw that it was listed on the 1000 Greatest Films list over at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? (it’s listed as the sixth best Kurosawa film behind the usual suspects—Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ikiru, Ran, Throne of Blood), so I guess it was a good choice too… (And spoiler alert, it was!).

Presentation on TCM
: As stated above, High and Low was shown as part of TCM’s celebration of Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday. On Tuesdays in March, TCM showed his best films, and High and Low was among the choices. TCM offered no special introduction or presentation for the film, though.

Pink Smoke
In one of the more celebrated shots in High and Low, the detectives take advantage of their view from atop the hill. © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: As National Shoe Company executive Kingo Gondo (Mifune) makes a bold plan to sell everything he has in order to wrest control of the company from rival executives, his son is kidnapped for thirty million yen. Only the kidnapper has made a mistake and kidnapped his chauffer’s son! Gondo has to choose between saving the child and saving his financial future, while the police hunt for the kidnapper in the hellscape of Yokohama’s Chinatown.

Analysis (contains spoilers): This film is absolutely terrific. It is immensely and diversely suspenseful, melding a cornucopia of genres and moods. High and Low is one part corporate intrigue, one part moral dilemma, (at least) one part taut police procedural, and one part examination of social problems. Structurally, High and Low is like two mini-movies. The first half follows the kidnapping and culminates with a thrilling money drop sequence; the second half follows the police investigation/hunt for the kidnapper and culminates with a longer and more thrilling chase through the underworld of Yokohama. Indeed, the film’s title provides descriptions of these worlds, the world of high society and low life (the film’s Japanese title, Tengoku to jigoku, is closer in translation to Heaven and Hell, and that makes even more sense), and a clue to the structural conceit of two separate though related actions.

Circle Cast
The staging in scenes in the house shows conflict. Here, everyone sits or stands reacting to Gondo’s refusal to pay the ransom. His chauffeur bows, his wife cries, and the detectives look disgusted across the flat surfaces. © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

That structure makes for a unique viewing experience. Like Psycho, the film changes genres midway through, and yet, again as in Psycho, the viewer barely notices the jolt—everything seams together perfectly. However, High and Low is unlike Psycho in that the genre splicing provides a more layered look at one character, rather than killing the protagonist off. One of the most rewarding parts of viewing High and Low is that the two parts of the film offer wildly juxtaposed perceptions of Gondo—this is mostly interesting because of just how little we actually see Gondo in the second half. He moves from being the protagonist to being more of a background figure, yet, as a background figure, he seems far more likable. The Gondo of the first half is a cruel figure who lords over his kingdom through meanness and machinations. He has been surreptitiously buying stock to take over the company he works for, and he tells his son that winning is all that matters. He treats everyone around him with a certain scorn, even the police who have come to help him after his chauffeur’s son has been kidnapped. The police tell him he cannot open his curtains, and he seems almost trapped by this—his house sits atop a hill and overlooks all of Yokohama and the harbor. This is his kingdom, and he is pained by the fact that he cannot look out at it and lord over it. For the Gondo of the first half of the film, power is everything, and he is pained at losing it.

However, Gondo is transformed from heinous to heroic after making the decision to do the right thing and pay the kidnapper. He becomes gentler and softer at home, even being almost subservient to the detectives investigating the case. To the people of Japan, he becomes a cause célèbre and a national hero—the detectives even ask the newspaper reporters to get the word out that Gondo is being screwed over by the National Shoe Company—and though he loses everything, he seems heroic to the viewer too. There is a terrific scene in which he mows his lawn, his shirt stained with sweat, while the detectives leave the house. He has been reduced to doing his own work—he has lost his job at National Shoes and is soon to lose his property—but for now he is determined to keep up the lawn he once worked so hard to be able to afford. There is a quiet courage and pride in the scene, and it encapsulates the new Gondo perfectly, a Gondo that even the detectives admit to now “being all right,” despite not liking him at first.

Dark Background
Kurosawa shows many scenes with clever edits that expand the same staging to add depth. Here, we see Gondo alone in darkness in the background, the detectives connected to each other by straight lines but cut off from Gondo… © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.
More Spacing
…But the scene expands to show the same detectives cut off from the other police officers and the bowing chauffeur while Gondo sits alone, an island of darkness in a room of light. © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

There’s another point about Gondo that is important—he is rich at the beginning of the film, but he was not always rich. He managed to make his fortune at a time when Japan was experiencing a boom, but he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as his wife was. Thus, the reveal, that the kidnapper has kidnapped the child because of class-based jealousy, is a bit ironic. The kidnapper has chosen to kidnap not the son of a rich king but the son of a self-made man (and, of course, it’s doubly ironic that he actually kidnaps a chauffeur’s son). It is the wife’s money the kidnapper is primarily stealing, and, remember, even the beginning-of-the-film Gondo wants primarily to make quality shoes for everyone to wear, not poor-made shoes to rip off the working class. Gondo is really not a bad guy at all, even though he has learned to be gruff and cruel in business dealings. He contains layers.

Contrast that with the hipster medical intern and would-be criminal mastermind. There is virtually nothing redeemable about Ginjirô Takeuchi (Yamazaki)—he kidnaps a child, stores him at a house rented by heroin addicts he once treated as a doctor, kills them with very pure heroin, and then begs Gondo to hate him at film’s end. But Gondo won’t. The intern tells him that he is “not interested in self-analysis” as explains the motives for his crime: that his “room was so cold in winter and so hot in summer” that he “couldn’t sleep” and that Gondo’s “house looked like heaven, high up there.” That, he tells Gondo, is how he “began to hate [Gondo].”

Killer in the Bushes
Hipster kidnapper in the bushes. © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

Indeed, his motivation is little more than jealousy and class resentment. The film, however, does a good job of making us at least partially sympathetic to that idea. Gondo, remember, is an asshole in the first half of the film. Even the detectives think so, and they also seem to resent the house. While investigating phones the kidnapper might have used, one police officer says, “The kidnapper’s right. That house gets on your nerves. As if it’s looking down at us.” However, by the time we have Ginjirô’s motive announced, Gondo has been redeemed and the motive seems cruel. And Ginjirô’s actions have only appeared worse—no class resentment could be rectified by him—and, of course, we’ve seen his actual life—it’s not all that bad. His apartment is tiny and his world wild (filled with drunken American sailors, junkies, and mixed-race couples), but he’s a cool guy who could probably go out and have a good time in those cool clubs he leads detectives through later. Sure, the heroin den he enters looks awful, but what kind of non-heroin addict would enter it? The world of Yokohama has a high and a low, but so does life itself! While we might be partial to Ginjirô’s motives at one point, who can justify the crime? And who could possibly want to see the benevolent Gondo of the film’s end suffer?

Drug Den
In the heroin den, we see Ginjirô’s sunglasses reflecting back something that almost looks like the fire the experiences in his hellish life. © 1963 – Toho Company. All Rights Reserved.

Kurosawa does a terrific job, thus, of making us change allegiances throughout the film. But on top of plot points and character analysis, the film also offers wonderful shots and scenes. Most scenes make use of depth staging to great effect. While the tense chase through the hipster hell of lower Yokohama features more interesting and varied shot composition, I was personally fascinated by the depth Kurosawa managed to get in Gondo’s house. Everything is widescreen and flat, even though the scenes in the house are all, well, in the house—they don’t need to be widescreen in order for us to see everything. But the staging offers us a form of character development: It gives us distance between characters so that, even in tight spaces, the characters are separated by huge distances on screen. Additionally, the characters also often stand in circles with their backs to each other. Thus, we have a spacing that shows disagreement and discord between what everyone wants Gondo to do and what he wants to do. Yet, the house also offers an interesting setting, as everything is modernist—straight lines are everywhere—in the furniture, in the windows, in bridge walkways—and when the characters stand in front of those backdrops, we see that everyone is still connected, even with immense distance between them. And these horizontal visuals also contrast with the vertical goals of the kidnapping plot—we always see layers of straight lines that remind us what level people are on.

Kurosawa also makes great use of the moving camera. These movements help show us what to look at of course, but the depth staging also gives us choices. We can watch the faces of others as the chauffeur bows deeply to Gondo to beg him to save his son. Or we can watch the detectives’ faces as they listen to the kidnapper talk. That’s an interesting scene too: Kurosawa cuts on motion to show the first phone call from the kidnapper after the police are there—we see Gondo answer the phone in one room then see the detectives listen to him answer the phone in the other. This gives us the choice of perspectives and implies a stacked existence to the filmic structure (as is, again, hinted at by the title).

So much layering exists in High and Low, and most composed shots are quite crowded and active. This is especially true of the parts of the film that take place in public, such as the train scene and the chase through Yokohama’s Chinatown. Each of these shots are intricately composed with deep focus, allowing us to see so elements of narrative and realness added to each of them. For example, there are shots in the beginning of the movie that show detectives in the foreground and Gondo sitting alone in the dark—this shows two perspectives of the same story. Or the shot over the shoulder of Ginjirô in the bar—we see his reflection in the mirror and also that of the heroin dealer, but the mirror also bounces back the reflection from his sunglasses, suggesting that he is deep within a flawed and vantage point from which he can’t ever see reality.

Other shots show us the real world Ginjirô cannot see, and it’s a testament to Kurosawa’s directing that so many different actions and stagings do not seem staged at all. Indeed, it’s amazing to see every actor in every shot having seemingly different stage directions—it composes a verisimilitude that suggests the story and the main action (e.g., the police pursuit of the hipster kidnapper on his heroin buy) exist in a real world that goes on in spite of the tension of our focal point. But of course everything is composed too, especially the “hipster” chase scene. The intern/kidnapper wears cool shades, navigates cool clubs (like in a Godard movie), and even is arrested while a cool version of the Elvis song “It’s Now or Never” plays, a hipster Virgil circling the nine layers of his personal hellscape, a setting that should seem fake but comes across as authentic. What a cool dude, too!

 

In the end, though, his coolness gets him nowhere. Gondo, the all-around better man, tells him he bears no ill will while Ginjirô begs to be hated. His crime seems to have been for naught, as he can’t even make a powerful man lose his cool. The hipster Ginjirô may have made good points about class structure, but in the end he is both morally and socially low. While Gondo and Ginjirô are finally in the same horizontal shot (and connected by a straight line again), a vertical wall still separates them. While  Gondo is socially low again, his morals remain high, and he is not truly as low as Ginjirô has ever been or ever will be. More important, we are comfortable in assuming he will once again have his mansion on the hill, while Ginjirô writhes in torment at Gondo’s coolness while proclaiming he is not afraid of Hell. In a way, then, since Gondo may end up losing nothing, he might want to thank Ginjirô, for his caper turned Gondo’s moral compass around and gave him back a soul fit to occupy the heaven on high of the film’s Japanese and English titles.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, this was a delight. I mostly focused on the relationship between Gondo and Ginjirô in my analysis above, but it’s worth mentioning how much fun the police procedural aspects of the film are. It’s rare to see a film that spends so much time covering the work of police building a case, but High and Low does just that. We see the police announce their investigatory strategies and we see them doing the grunt work of police work, the likes of which I’ve only seen on The Wire (and not even there that often). High and Low is a rare movie that seems like it should be so disjointed with multiple mini-movies happening at once, but with a director as skilled as Kurosawa, it all works. Watching High and Low makes me realize just how much better all crime stories and police movies could be. Kurosawa managed to imbue into a simple crime movie questions of class, morality, and power, while also making a film that is fun to watch.

Incidentally, and completely as a last aside, the movie was so successful that it actually inspired a wave of kidnapping throughout Japan. That’s a (morbid) testament to its quality.

 

 

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The Third Man

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Details:
Director: Carol Reed
Producer: Carol Reed
Writer: Graham Greene
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee
Studio: London Film Productions
Year: 1949

Why I DVRed This: So The Third Man is pretty much the definition of a classic movie. I’ve seen it probably five times and always try to come back to it every few years. Interestingly, I actually had it DVRed the last time TCM put it on, but my DVR erased it. Luckily, TCM seems to agree with me that it is a classic film and re-shows The Third Man nearly as regularly as HBO plays The Devil Wears Prada. While I might have chosen to DVR the film in any case, I was especially drawn to it recently because I have been talking about going to Vienna just because there’s a really cool-looking hotel and a great opera hall there (and I am one of those people… those people who like opera). Also, in Vienna, you can visit a museum dedicated to the film (and post-war Vienna as a whole)! That sounds fun.

Presentation on TCM: The Third Man was shown as part of TCM’s annual 31 Days of Oscar. The films shown the same night as The Third Man were connected like a before-and-after puzzle. Love Letters was shown before The Third Man and was connected by Joseph Cotten starring in both films, while The Fallen Idol was shown after The Third Man and was connected by sharing the same writer and director. Ben Mankiewicz introduced The Third Man as the film in which Cotten “gives perhaps his finest performance” before he discussed the director Carol Reed getting an Oscar nomination for his “stylish and inventive shot selections.” Though Reed did not win an award for best director that year, Robert Krasker received the Oscar for black and white cinematography for his work on the film.

After the film, Ben Mankiewicz came out again and discussed the film’s ending. He said, interestingly enough, that Graham Greene wanted the film to end with a happy ending, but that the executive producer (David O. Selznick) wanted a more “nuanced” ending. Mankiewicz also added the interesting tidbit that, at the last minute, Orson Welles refused to go through an actual Viennese sewer, so the film’s climax had to be filmed on a soundstage in London. I was delighted to get not one but two appearances from a TCM host, a rarity for the films I tend to DVR.

Zither Credits
The film opens with a close-up of a zither, the instrument that plays the catchy and unforgettable score. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

Synopsis: Holly Martins (Cotten), a broke Western writer, arrives in postwar Vienna as a guest of his childhood friend Harry Lime (Welles). However, when he arrives, Lime is dead! Martin begins to investigate the death and discovers that there was a “third man” (LIKE THE TITLE) present at the death. He runs into trouble from the investigating British officer, Major Calloway (Howard) and begins a love affair with Lime’s lover, Anna (Valli).

Analysis (contains spoilers): So longtime readers of this blog (all—maybe—three of you?) may recognize that I have a bit of an obsession with filmic subjectivity. I like when we see things from perspectives in which it’s clear there is a narrator even though the film itself is not “narrated.” Well, readers rejoice! The Third Man has both a narrator AND extreme subjectivity.

But then again, the narrator isn’t really a narrator. Rather, it’s merely a voice at the beginning of the film who frames the story and explains the rules of the diegetic world—how Vienna is divided into four zones, how the black market dictates all, and how, all that being said, Vienna doesn’t look much worse than any other postwar European city. The narrator never returns to the film after he introduces it, but he does make it clear that it is from his vantage point that we will see the story. Indeed, the narrator’s voice is that of Carol Reed, the film’s director, so the film truly is from his perspective. He announces to us that he “was going to tell [the audience] about Holly Martins, an American. Came all the way here to visit a friend of his. The name was Lime, Harry Lime.” Reed announces that he is in control and has chosen the story he wants to tell, and his narration further makes it clear that we will only see things from his perspective. Thus, we will not see “the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamor and easy charm” because he never knew it, as “Constantinople suited [him] better.” This is a bit of an in joke, as the story he tells us is certainly Byzantine, but it also reminds us that the world of the film is one based purely on how Vienna is now, not how it was. And as much as we may want to explore the old Vienna, we can’t, for Reed wants us hear the story of Harry Lime. While all films present the stories their directors wish to tell, few overtly announce their directors’ control in the opening montage, but of course few movies are as clearly framed by their directors as The Third Man is. Luckily, Reed was at his peak as a director when he made it (he even sacrificed his health for the film, forgoing sleep with the help of stimulants to catch even the best b-roll footage), so his subjectivity makes for a terrific film-viewing experience.

The Third Man is meticulously crafted, and every aspect of it is crafted toward the vantage point of Reed. The zither score kicks in whenever Reed wants us to recognize something or have connections (between scenes, between ideas) made. And the cinematography is diegetic as well, as we do not see imitations of life in any way but instead shot structure that shows us how Reed wants us to see the film. Thus, so much of the film is shot with these fun, tilted camera angles. They help remind us that everything we see in the film is itself slanted and abnormal, showing us how Reed wants us to see the story while also offering his point of view that all the world is atilt after being destabilized by World War II.

Indeed much of the film is “about” the condition of the postwar world. The story was conceived by Graham Greene, who wrote a book called The Third Man alongside the screenplay (the novella was written as a treatment for the screenplay, but it was released alongside the movie, like a high literary equivalent of Burger King selling a Jurassic Park comic book). In Greene’s original story, Martins and Lime are British instead of American, but the story works better with Americans (especially when those Americans are played by two great actors with a rich history together, not unlike that of Martins and Lime). After all, with Americans, The Third Man seems more prescient. In the decades after the war, Vienna became something like a microcosmic America through the accident of American mass culture which impacted Austrian culture way more than any direct American foreign policy did (what the Austrian historian Reinhold Wagnleiter calls the switch from “the Monroe Doctrine to the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine”). Austrian youth ended up obsessed with jazz and—later—rock and roll records, American books, and especially American movies. The result was that Austria as a whole became essentially an American mall for a few decades. Thus, for The Third Man, it only makes sense that it would be an American dictating the terms of the marketplace in Vienna!

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This is a typical shot from the film. Nothing is centered, everything looks as crooked as the broken stairwell. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

More than all that, though, the film shows that the postwar world lacks moral clarity. And this is the struggle for Martins. He sees Lime as a childhood hero and friend, but the postwar Lime is a snake, selling often fatal, diluted black market penicillin to the needy of Vienna. Martins cannot believe it, in part because he and Lime are living in totally different worlds. Martins is a Western writer, and he seems to want to believe in the ideals of that genre: that there is an ordered world that can conquer and tame a rugged frontier as long as one man is brave enough, strong enough, and convicted enough to do so. Lime, on the other hand, sees the world as a warzone and recognizes that the entities in charge do no think in terms of right and wrong, of life and death. He tells Martins:

“Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat; I talk about the suckers and the mugs — it’s the same thing.”

Martins counters that Lime used to believe in God, and he challenges Lime to confront the reality of the victims his drug-stretching scheme has made. Martins is still thinking in simplistic terms of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and justice. Lime is beyond that. He is a man of shadows and deceit, trying to take advantage of a destroyed world. And he occupies a (to Martins) foreign new vantage point in which he distances himself from his deed and sees his victims as merely dots seen from above the world.

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Here we see Martins both navigating a spiral-like staircase and being preceded by the weight of his enormous shadow. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

Of course, the way Martins sees the victims is from his own vantage point, one rooted in outmoded ideals. Reed masterfully captures these separate vantage points filmically. When we see Martins, his shadow often precedes him and, as in most film noirs, towers over him. It is as though Martins’ rigid belief system and mythic understanding of the world are a burden on him and weigh down every aspect of his being. He cannot possibly understand the truth about his friend because he cannot possibly see past his own shadow, his own beliefs. Lime, on the other hand, successfully navigates the crevices. When we first see Lime, Martins is drunk and unable to see into the shadows. Lime, however, is watching a cat do just as he does—walk between worlds of light and dark with complete immunity. When Welles’s face ends up perfectly lit, he looks natural and comfortable as Reed’s own vantage point—the camera—zooms in. We see instantly how charming Lime can be if forced into the light (in part because he’s played by an iconic and charismatic star), but we also see how successful this character is at hiding in the darkness on the edges of the world. Lime lives and flourishes in the liminal spaces created by the destabilization of Vienna, a city that itself has four internal borders now due to the occupation zones, and Lime works them all, using the underground sewer system as his own highway.

Ferris Wheel
Only Lime can navigate both the surface and the shadows of Vienna. Here, Martins stands confused, the world spinning out of control behind him. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

In addition to the cracks between worlds, The Third Man shows the main world as a dizzying place. We see, for instance, Martins and others navigate a series of spiral staircases, and Martins literally spins around when he first sees Lime. But only Lime seems able to navigate these spinning realities. He is, of course, the only one truly 100% aware that he faked his own death, so the reveal that he is alive is not a reveal to him. But he also physically controls the world by being able to make a path in the shadows and the circles. It’s no wonder he makes his big speech and first face-to-face conversation with Martins aboard a Ferris Wheel, a contraption that both towers over the world and spins. Totally comfortable in the rotating amusement park attraction, he points down to the tiny people below, dots at that vantage point, and asks if anyone could care about a dot disappearing. Martins is sickened by it because of the romance he writes about and believes in, and he is naturally sickened by Lime’s request that Martins see the world his way and be cut in on the scheme. But really he just can’t see how Limes can view the dots as anything other than humans just as he cannot understand how anyone can manage the dizzying realities of Vienna. In another way, though, he cannot understand how someone can be so good in some ways (Lime is charming even while discussing dead children) and so bad in others.

Shadows
The world of Vienna is also shadowy, and Martins cannot figure out how to navigate the world that exists off screen, such as the world creating this shadow. He can see the shadow but cannot understand the reality of what created it. © 1949 – British Lion Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved

This is an American conflict. It is the battle between what is right and what is real, but it is also a battle between the lies Americans believe about their country and the realities Americans refuse to recognize. Martins believes in the legends and the myths, but Lime is a new type of American who recognizes what America is to become—a nation on the rise because of an ability to dominate a world off center through tricks, capitalism, and ruthlessness. Lime tells Martins that “the world doesn’t make any heroes outside of your stories,” and that’s ultimately Martins’ problem: He doesn’t recognize that the world is not what it is in his Westerns. While that world might never have existed, it certainly doesn’t exist now, not in Vienna.

Interestingly, though, Martins clings to that certainty of the old ways, especially when he is in the center of the world and not in those liminal crevices on the outskirts of the frames. It is interesting that Martins (and the audience) gets his facts about Lime in a montage. He learns a ton, but we learn nothing but the basic fact—that Lime is running black market drugs. We accept the truth because Martins does after getting hard evidence (photos, fingerprints, drug samples) that we only see in passing. Thus, Martins gets some tangible evidence and hard facts, where we only get subjective realities. But for Martins, everything he knows about Lime is now up in the air, as he cannot rectify the Lime he remembers from youth with the Lime he know has hard facts about in Vienna. Anna, who I have failed to mention up to now, although she is a fascinating character worthy of much analysis, tells Martins that “a person doesn’t change because you find out more,” but for Martins, everything has changed. He realizes he needs to help put a stop to Lime’s scheme and that do so he’ll have to enter the shadows to ultimately kill Lime.


And that death is a remarkable scene. Lime is chased through the sewers of Vienna and shot at from a distance by the British. He fires back into darkness, shooting a man cowardly rather than heroically. Martins is the final pursuer, and he would likely prefer to either not kill Lime at all or to at least kill him in a dignified way like would be done in a Western. Instead, he shoots Lime in the back while Lime dangles from a ladder. The look in Lime’s eyes when Martins is about to shoot him is incredible. It’s a look of sadness and shame but also a smirk. In a sense, it gives satisfaction that his attempts to bargain with his moral ambiguity are ultimately failures—he knows he’s a coward who shoots at enemies in the dark and gets shot in the back. But in another sense, the scene seems to show Lime smiling because Martins has finally gotten his hands dirty and entered the modern world.

Regardless, the world of The Third Man is a dizzying world of liminal spaces in which certainties are proven to not exist and in which bad things happen. Writing at the LA Review of Books, Martin Zirulnik refers to two Viennas, one that is comically ironic, and “one that exists in the margins of what’s presented on-screen, the one that only just eludes viewing… [and is] a truly miserable and humorless place.” This humor idea brings up the final thing I found particularly interesting on this latest viewing of The Third Man. For a dark dark dark movie, it really is a ton of fun. There’s a delightful mirrored structure (the film starts with Lime’s death and ends with it), a hauntingly upbeat zither score, some of the best lines ever in cinema (including the famed cuckoo clock speech that Welles claims to have written, although he also claims to have written all his dialogue in the film), a fascinating mystery, surprising twists, comic scenes, suspense, great acting, great shots, and really great pacing.

And finally, I love the shot at the end. Martins gets out of the car and stands cool, like a cowboy hero, to wait for Anna. She walks and walks and walks, and then walks right past him. Interestingly, the shot is long and stable—it is one of the only long shots in the film that is focused and centered and not askew—and suggests that the world is once again stable for Martins. He no longer will have moral dilemmas such as recognizing his friend as a killer, but he still has to face the consequences of killing Lime and ruining Anna’s life. She could run away with Martins and save herself, but she has avoided facing the reality of Lime’s evil, so why should she start dealing with his or Martin’s evil after Lime’s death? The touch of evil is now on Martin, and so there are consequences for his dabbling in the corners and the sewers.

So Lime was right after all—there are no heroes in the real world.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Um, obviously. I think I could watch this film a thousand more times and notice a thousand more interesting details or topics of analysis. It’s truly a classic.

 

 

Gaslight

HANTISE - French Poster by Boris Grinsson

Details:
Director: George Cukor
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Writer: John Van Druten & Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston
Cast: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury
Studio: MGM
Year: 1944

Why I DVRed This: For personal reasons, I have been very interested in the Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and in my research, I came across a behavior pattern known as gaslighting. The term refers to a mental abuse perpetrated by a narcissist (or actually any abuser) in which the abuser twists, spins, selectively omits, or outright makes up information to make the victim mistrust his/her own memory or sanity. So, for example, if you remember a narcissist berating you, the narcissist might tell you that you have an active imagination and remind you that you actually started the fight. Anyway, so I read about this behavior and found out the term originated from the play Gas Light, the source material for this film (and a British film called, like this one, Gaslight). Then I saw that the film was playing on TCM, and it seemed like kismet.

Oh, there’s also this great song called “Gaslight” that I’ve liked for a long time, so I suppose I would’ve been inclined to find out about the film Gaslight even without caring about narcissists.

Presentation on TCM: I don’t know why this was on, but it was on at 10 in the morning a few months ago. I waited to watch it because my wife wanted to see it too, so we needed a night in which we were both home and both in the mood to watch a film. We ended up doing a “woman-being-made-crazy-or-crazier-by-male-abuse” film festival, following it with a presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire also from TCM (but from a different date). But neither film actually featured any special presentation or announcement from the network.

Boyer Strangles Light
In an act of foreshadowing, we see Anton strangling the light out of the titular gaslight. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: As a young girl, Paula Alquist (Bergman) witnesses the murder of her opera-singing aunt. Years later, she meets and marries the dashing Gregory Anton (Boyer) in Italy, and the two move back into her aunt’s house in Victorian London. There, he changes her environment in subtle ways to convince her that she is going insane, all while he works on a scheme to abscond with precious jewels, unless the intrepid Inspector Brian Cameron of Scotland Yard (Cotten) can figure out the con in time!

Analysis (contains spoilers): This film is really over the top, but damn if it doesn’t work. The acting seemed completely overdone, but since everyone overacted in the movie, it works to great effect. Indeed, Angela Lansbury, Charles Boyer, and Ingrid Bergman were all nominated for Oscars for their acting (with Bergman winning), and though I usually prefer more subtle performances, I have to say I found everyone believable in the context of a plot that is completely unbelievable (I mean, Anton has a plan over a decade in the making to steal fucking jewels from a house he seems to know how to break into easily?). To be fair, Bergman has some nuance in her performance, but it’s very theatrical nuance. Regardless, I found the theatrical acting largely complemented the equally theatrical sets and atmospherics.

And those elements are indeed fun! There is a classic Victorian London square with a classic house, but the film also shows a fancy parlor concert, a Scotland Yard office, and a lavish house on Lake Como. Everything in the scenes is put together well and contributes to the overall mise en scène. The film has a feel of gothic horror (especially in the fog-drenched London night scenes), so that even when nothing sinister is actually happening on the screen, the audience never quite feels safe. And the sets in the house are so tightly packed that we feel trapped and claustrophobic even before any gaslighting starts to happen. Everything in Italy in the film seems light and airy, while London feels dark and drab, even though the house is gaudy and resplendent. Thus, everything that happens in London seems sinister and ominous.

Happy Claustrophobia
Even in happier times, the film foreshadows Paula’s being trapped by Anton. Note the light being shut out from behind her by his presence and—of course—the cell-like feel to the whole scene. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

The framing of individual shots contributes to this effect too. For instance, we see Anton and Paula framed by bars and shadows often, implying that she is or will soon be trapped. And we see Anton nefariously and surreptitiously pocket the letter that will be the most damning proof of his guilt and her sanity. Again, there is no subtlety in this movie or in its foreshadowing. Even the film’s big reveal about Anton being the strangler of the aunt is foreshadowed by the inordinate number of shots we see of his hands either caressing Paula’s neck or eerily disembodied from the rest of him. When he surprises Paula at the train station in Italy, for instance, we see his arms reaching out to embrace her before we see that they are his arms. Instead, they are just arms floating in from stage left. Gee, I wonder if he’s ever strangled anyone!

Still, the over-the-top aspects of the film are all in good fun and are indeed reminiscent of so many of the old Hollywood productions. The film might be more interesting as a film noir or something like that, but there’s nothing wrong with a well-crafted mystery film. I had three complaints about the film. One, I found the movement of the camera very very distracting, and I didn’t find it added anything to the film. Two, the classical lighting (which I know is a near-must for a movie of the time period) sometimes offset the effect of the dimming of the gas lights that Paula experiences. That is, she comments on (and the camera shows us) the lights growing dim, but the scene itself is still lit offstage, meaning we as an audience don’t see anything get darker. For a film that has a central tenet of lights growing dim (I mean, the title is Gaslight!), I feel like there ought to be more darkness and shadows in the diegetic world. Three, and this is a result of the first two—I think the film could’ve worked better if the direction were closer to Paula, if there were more subjectivity so that the audience got into her head a little bit more. It would help us see if she actually is growing insane or just getting pissed off that she’s being treated like she’s insane. But then again, those changes would make for a very different movie and maybe not as enjoyable a film. While I might prefer a noir, the director, George Cukor, chose to adhere more closely to Gothic conventions. Of course as the great David Bordwell reminds us in his article about the rise of suspenseful murder plots in 1940s movies, “We need to remember that female Gothics and films noirs are really ex post facto categories, constructed by later critics to point out affinities and differences among groups of films. These categories didn’t exist for contemporaries, and filmmakers and writers of the time carved things up rather differently.” Thus, let’s just appreciate Gaslight for what it is, not what it might’ve been.

Lansbury Side Eye
Pretty much every scene with Angela Lansbury has her looking quizzically at Ingrid Bergman or asking questions of Charles Boyer or the other maid in a judgmental way that implies she thinks the rich are fucking weird. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

With that in mind, overall, I can’t complain too much about Gaslight. It’s a fun picture that is totally engrossing, even with its ridiculousness. I loved Angela Lansbury’s cockney accent and the fact that her entire role seemed to consist of her giving side eye (as my wife put it) to all the principals. And Joseph Cotton’s detective work is fun, especially because literally every mystery of the film gets explained and connected, as it should in any mystery film. We are left with answers to everything, and it all adds up to a satisfying conclusion. Finally, I love the scene in which Bergman has Boyer tied up and calls him out on his bullshit. I won’t go so far as to say it’s empowering for all women, but it’s certainly more empowering than the rest of the film (in which she is made to feel insane by one man until another man saves her because her aunt gave him a glove once). And, if nothing else, it’s good acting from Bergman! (Also, interestingly, MGM insisted on Cotton’s character being rewritten as a suitable love interest for Bergman, so some of the weirder aspects of the film’s plot might just derive from the fact censors couldn’t simply have the implication that poor Paula would end up a divorcee because she married a killer.)

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes. I had fun watching this film, and that’s worth something. I’d recommend this film to anyone in the mood for an escapist suspense film. Or anyone who wants to hear a variety of weird accents and see a variety of dramatic atmospherics. Or anyone who likes movies about creepy husbands menacingly taking advantage of newlyweds (Rebecca, the more recent and underrated Crimson Peak). Or really just about anyone.

The Fearless Vampire Killers

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Details:

Director: Roman Polanski
Producer: Gene Gutowski
Writer: Gérard Brach & Roman Polanski (story)
Cast: Jack MacGowran, Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate, Ferdy Mayne, Iain Quarrier
Studio: MGM
Year: 1967

Why I DVRed This: I have always loved Roman Polanski, in spite of his personal proclivities. I remember seeing The Tenant in the theater at an impressionable age and being blown away by how strangely vast and close a film could be, and ever since then I’ve made it a point to see Polanski films whenever possible. They’re not always good, but I usually find something I like in them (I even find The Ninth Gate to be somewhat watchable). The Fearless Vampire Killers was a Polanski film I had not seen, so I recorded it.

Coffins
Roman Polanski juggled multiple tasks on The Fearless Vampire Killers. Like his character in the movie, he bumbled a lot of them too. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Presentation on TCM: TCM showed this on Halloween (presumably because it’s about vampires) and used a popup-book-style transition into the film, but the network did not offer any commentary about the film.

Synopsis: Professor Abronsius (MacGowran) and his moronic assistant, Alfred (Polanski), are on the hunt for vampires in 19th century Transylvania. While staying at a small inn, they become interested in the terror that seems to plague the town, and Alfred falls for the beautiful Sarah Shagal (Tate), the innkeeper’s daughter. She becomes the victim of Count von Krolock (Mayne), and the titular vampire hunters go on the chase to get her back.

Analysis (contains spoilers): So you know how I said I usually find something to like in all of Polanski’s films? Well this one might be the exception. Wow is it bad. Even worse, it just isn’t entertaining. Rather, it seems to be some kind of attempt by Polanski to make an intentionally bad movie, but that idea seems like the sort of thing a clever high school student would try to do as an in-joke for an English class skit. So, either Polanski had no idea how to do satire, or what Polanski thinks is funny is just plain lousy.

Gay
The Count’s son tries to seduce Alfred (PolanskI). It’s supposed to be a funny scene, but, like the rest of the movie, it isn’t. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

The film is done in a campy style—with cheesy special effects (for instance, we see cannons moved in a sped-up slow motion like from a silent movie), overacting or intentionally poorly delivered lines, and slapstick sequences. The camp aesthetic can be fun if done right and especially if the jokes are funny, but that’s exactly the problem with The Fearless Vampire Killers—it simply isn’t funny. Instead, it’s just smug. (Roger Ebert’s review of the movie is actually really funny and worth a read—I bring it up just to show you that I’m not some joyless misanthrope who doesn’t know what laughter is but to highlight my point that no one would find this shitty movie funny.)

I think the film was supposed to be a send-up of Hammer Films, the maker of titillating b-movie horrors of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. But the problem with sending up Hammer is that no one took Hammer seriously, thus making it completely pointless to satire or send up. (And some of the Hammer films are kind of fun in a schlocky sense, if one is in the right mood for them.) Instead, The Fearless Vampire Killers comes across as a softcore porn like the type played on Cinemax (Busty Aliens from Planet BangThe Erotic Ms. DraculaThe Invisible Bikini Model—these are all fake titles but only a little bit fake) but, of course, without any sex (or sex-like motions, as is more common in softcore porn).

Not that the film doesn’t want to titillate. The movie seems obsessed, for instance, with showing Sharon Tate in a bathtub. It is in the tub that she is first attacked by the vampiric Count von Krolock, and it is while she is in the tub that Polanski’s Alfred tries to save her but realizes she is fully committed to the new vampire lifestyle. And, to be fair, there are worse sights than Sharon Tate in a tub, but Polanski’s obsession with it is creepy in light of what we all know about Polanski, young girls, and tubs.

Anyway, this movie is a huge shame. Polanski made it between two delightful films—Cul-de-Sac and Rosemary’s Baby, the latter of which proved he at least knew how to make a good horror movie—and I guess it’s best to look at it as simply a misfire, especially since the movie seems in so many ways un-Polanski. There are some of his usual traits—cynicism, paranoia, a general mood of weirdness—but instead the film seems to be something new that Polanski just wanted to do for fun. All of the film, thus, could be read as a rejection or at least a reevaluation of all his themes. For instance, the paranoia that grips Rosemary, Jake Gittes, or Catherine Deneuve’s character in Repulsion (paranoia that always turns out to be warranted) is replaced in Vampire with denial—everyone in the village pretends that there is nothing weird going on, Sarah sees nothing wrong with being abducted by the Count, and the Count’s gay son does not understand why Alfred would scorn his rejections.

Similarly, Polanski’s films often feel claustrophobic—all of the Apartment Trilogy pretty much take place exclusively in apartments that feel tighter and tighter as the films go on, Polanski’s MacBeth seems to live in a place with unnaturally low skies—but in Vampire, the sets seem expansive, in a way. The backgrounds all look like Chagall paintings (Sarah and the innkeeper’s last name is Shagal too!) lending the film a dreamlike feel, but the coloring of the film and the lighting make everything so obviously look like a soundstage (as is typical in camp) that the sets feel both expansive and constricting at once. That is, the sets seem to trap in the action of the film, to admit that the limits to the campy horror on screen stay in a very small space, almost like the borders of an open-world video game (like a Grand Theft Auto, where the character eventually hits a limit point and gets bounced back into the real world or meets a worse fate). So the audience feels kind of claustrophobic, even if the characters in the movie don’t.

polanski
The backdrops are quite lovely in the film, and they all seem to have this ethereal quality. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Soundstage
But when characters are in front of the backdrops (like the professor is here), they look more staged and, as such, more confined. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Again, some of this could be fun (the sets are nice looking, I swear!) if everything about it were just humorous. Literally, though, the only thing I found remotely funny is Alfred’s statement to Sarah, who very clearly does not want to be “saved” from the monster’s ball at the end of the film: “It is I. Life has meaning once more.”

The only other mildly fun things about this movie are the fact that it makes use of all the vampire tropes (e.g., the vampire has no reflection, garlic keeps it away, he only comes out at night, like “Maneater”) without explaining them—at least Polanski expects the audience to be in on his in-joke. And there is something still remarkable about seeing Sharon Tate on screen. She is, after all, principally famous as a murder victim, and it’s sort of surreal to see her doing what she wanted to be famous for. I wonder about those people who are mostly famous for being victims—Tate, the Black Dahlia, Nicole Brown Simpson—I don’t know what I wonder about them, but it does seem to say something about our culture that we have lists of people who are mostly known for being murdered. I don’t know if that is a comment on the prevalence of violence in our culture or about the trappings of fame and scandal. I’m curious to read this book though.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: No. It reminds me of those bad Woody Allen films from the same time period, the ones that feel more “hip” and “clever” than funny (Sleeper, Bananas). Actually, in retrospect, the parallels between Allen and Polanski are uncanny—both are inconsistent but often brilliant filmmakers whose personal sexual proclivities are so revolting that we have to be willing to completely separate the artist from the art in order to enjoy it. But anyway, let’s all look the other way and pretend that Polanski isn’t detestable and also that he never made this schlocky piece of shit. That way we can all talk about how great the Apartment Trilogy, Chinatown, MacBeth, and so many other of his films are!

Hiroshima, mon amour

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Details:
Director: Alain Resnais
Producers: Anatole Dauman and Samy Halfon
Writer: Marguerite Duras
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada, Stella Dassas, Pierre Barbaud, Bernard Fresson
Studio: Argos Films
Year: 1959

Why I DVRed This: Over Christmas, I went to Tokyo with my beautiful wife for our honeymoon. It was my first trip to Japan, and since then, I have been (almost) completely obsessed with all things Japan (not like I’m wearing a kimono or anything like that—more like I just keep trying to eat Japanese food and drink tea). When we got back home, I noticed Hiroshima, mon amour on TCM’s schedule for January 4 (I got back to the US on January 1), and it seemed like fate smiling at me. It was A) a film I’d always wanted to see (especially given the 17-year old me’s obsession with this Ultravox! song) and B) about Japan. Then, I had this genius idea to write one post about December 7th and follow it up with a post about Hiroshima, mon amour. See, because one film is about the beginning of World War II and one about the end of it and the repercussions thereof, they would make good bookends. I thought it was kind of cute but in a horrifying way. And then it took me way too long to write this post, but that’s another story.

Presentation on TCM: Ben Mankiewicz introduced it, but my DVR did not start recording until he was just finishing up his spiel. Apparently, TCM wanted the film to fit in 90 minutes, so it introduced the film during the end of whatever movie was playing before. My DVR also cut out the last thirty seconds of the film, but I was able to find the whole scene on YouTube. This was the first time I’ve been mad at the relationship between my DVR and TCM, although I’m inclined to blame my DVR more than TCM (because, when in doubt, blame Time Warner, right?).

Synopsis: In present-day (1959) Hiroshima, two lovers, Elle and Lui (him and her in French), have a series of deeply personal conversations about love, their lives, and each other. Elle (Riva) is a French actress filming a movie about peace, and Lui (Okada) is a Japanese architect who lost his family in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. She recounts her young love affair with a German soldier in Nevers, France, during World War II. Both are married to others, and though their attachment to each other appears distant and undefined, they seem to linger with each other.

Analysis (contains spoilers): I adored this film. Absolutely adored it. It was beautifully shot, intellectually challenging and stimulating, well acted, and emotionally resonant. I have been thinking about it since I finished watching it over a month ago, and my opinions of it have not been diminished since then.

Hiroshima, mon amour is a film that could be discussed on so many levels, but my own interests led me to view it for what it was about and how the director, Alain Resnais, got that message across. The film was Resnais’ first feature, and he was originally commissioned to film a documentary about the atomic bomb (due to his successful documentaries about the concentration camps—apparently Resnais specialized in human atrocities), but Resnais declined the offer. Instead, he realized through conversations with Marguerite Duras (who would end up writing the screenplay), that he could make a film that combined fact and fiction around one central tenet: that talking about Hiroshima necessarily means confronting the reality that we cannot really speak about it.

The Couple
Elle and Lui start one of their personal conversations about seeing. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

This view is made explicit in the opening scene of the film. Elle and Lui are in bed, and we see his arms transform from those of a burn victim to those of Lui. Then, Elle and Lui discuss what she has seen in Hiroshima. She tells him she has seen so much, essentially, while he keeps telling her she has seen nothing. And while there is a bit of patriarchal condescension in his part, the film makes clear that she is in the wrong, for she did not experience Hiroshima. He didn’t either, of course, but family members of his died there. During this exchange, the film cuts between footage of what Elle has seen and their arms. She says she saw the hospital and the museum, and we see quick-cuts of images of the hospital and the museum of the bombing, the same images she saw. Lui repeats: You saw nothing at the hospital. You saw nothing at the museum. “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.”

I Saw Everything
Elle says this over and over. In a way, she is right. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
You Saw Nothing
Lui says this over and over again. In a way, he is right too. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

From this, the film makes clear that seeing and knowing are not the same things, especially when what is being seen is curated or filtered. Seeing anything in a museum renders the sight different from seeing it in real life. When an object is placed in a museum, it becomes an artifact, and its meaning becomes demarcated. Interpretation, truth itself, becomes proscribed, for the curator has already defined the meaning of the object. The film also implies that the very nature of film has this same power and, by extension, this same detraction. Resnais uses a combination of documentary and fiction that implies that supposedly “objective” texts (museums, newsreels) are themselves subjective, so when we see real footage of burn victims or the hospitals (or when we see smiling tour guides), we should remember that these are what we have been allowed to see. More to the point, the suggestion is that the act of narration fundamentally alters the truth.

It’s all a bit heavy. This is not a propaganda piece like December 7th. Nor is it a mere examination of the results of history. Instead, Hiroshima, mon amour is an art film and all that the label connotes. David Bordwell (who is among my favorite film scholars out there) has described the art film as a genre with conventions like any other genre of film, and Hiroshima, mon amour certainly agrees with his definitions. It feels ambiguous at times, has a clear authorial voice, suggests a higher meaning, uses classical sets but untraditional narrative strategies, and employs a clear style. Thus, Hiroshima, mon amour should first and foremost be viewed primarily as art cinema, a point I make only to excuse myself for sounding overly philosophical and turgid at times in this analysis. So, without further ado (see how grandiloquent I can be!), let’s return to the meaning of Hiroshima, mon amour

The main point that narration distorts truth comes across most clearly not in Lui’s insistence that Elle saw nothing in Hiroshima but, rather, in her recounting of a previous love affair in Nevers, her hometown. During World War II, she was young and fell in love with a German soldier occupying her town. She recounts the love to Lui over a few scenes, but the bulk of it is told over beers at a café. Her words reveal part of the story, just the bare minimum. He thinks he gets it and shrieks in delight later at being told that he alone knows this story. But, of course, he doesn’t, not really. The images that we in the audience see, the ones that accompany her spartan descriptions show so much more. We see her sacrificial haircut (a punishment from her townsmen that makes her look like Joan of Arc), the hatred inflicted upon her by other Frenchmen, the tortured look of finding her soldier lover dead, the delight in experiencing his embrace, the bucolic beauty of Nevers during the war, the isolation of her and her lover in the cave, the isolation of her in solitude and punishment after her affair is discovered.

Of this story, Lui only hears words, secondhand descriptions of her life. Just as the experience of seeing the effects of a bomb in a museum is nowhere close to the experience of feeling it firsthand, so too is the experience of talking about love different from the reality of feeling it. We know she is holding back in her descriptions, because we see everything. But, then again, of course we do not. We see only filmed images of love—they are closer to reality but then just by an inch or two. And, in any case, the “narrative” of love, the telling of it, changes the experience too. We see Elle grow more distant from Lui as a result, less willing, perhaps, to uproot her current life and husband and stay with him. This might be because she feels like she’s given too much to Lui already, or it might be, as some critics have suggested (and critics and scholars have suggested almost every reading of this film—here‘s an interesting one about mapping the film), because the experience of forming the narrative of her love affair and sharing it has healed her. In this reading, she comes out of the experience less interested in Lui because she’s finally realized herself fully. In a different reading, she feels different about Lui because she realizes that telling him about the soldier has corrupted her reality of him. The film, as I said, has some ambiguities, and it’s never quite clear how Elle feels about Lui or how she feels about sharing her story with him.

German Lover
The film only shows the audience Elle’s love for her German soldier; Lui only gets to hear of it. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Prison Elle
And only the audience gets to see her punishment, as she learns to suppress her love. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Interestingly, any of the meaning we get in the film is revealed largely through images Lui cannot see: flashbacks of both what Elle has seen in Hiroshima and of the aforementioned love affair. Aside from exposing new layers to Elle’s subjective narrative, they also puncture the traditional narrative structure of film as a whole. Instead of moving the story forward, the flashbacks actually anchor the film in the past. They make it clear that Liu and Elle’s stories are really about the effects of the past on the present, not about the lives they are living. Elle refers to knowing what it “is to forget” in the film, but the flashbacks remind us that the story’s main action occurs in the past. Incidentally, the film is interesting too because the flashbacks only privilege Elle, the woman (or I guess you could say the Frenchwoman, suggesting a Western bias, but let’s pretend that’s not the case here). In her flashback to love in Nevers, she recalls being imprisoned until she’s willing to contain her feelings, but in Hiroshima, she is able to let out her feelings fully in flashback form (unlike in real life when Lui slaps her at the café in order to keep her feelings in check). So the flashbacks, which are of course subjective and make us connect fully with Elle, allow her to be a full human fully experiencing the fullness of love and life.

Mirror Elle
The experience of remembering is too much for Elle to handle, and she apologizes to her German boyfriend for corrupting their love by sharing the story. © 1959 – Rialto Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The film is, thus, about “seeing” and “knowing” and what memory can do for us or to us. But the film also implies that words themselves change the truth. In addition to shaping memories into shared words, changing the reality of the story, we also know that words sometimes can have two meanings (not to quote Robert Plant…). For instance, Lui asks her if Nevers has any additional meaning in French, and she says no, but, of course the name has a very clear meaning in English. Her town suggests that the love she describes never happened, because the story itself is not the truth. It also suggests that she may never love again. And, of course, it implies that we as a society need to ensure that Hiroshima never happens again.

Place names are also significant here because they provide our understanding of who these characters are. At the end of the film, Elle and Lui announce that their names are their locations:

Elle: Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hiroshima. That is your name.
Lui: Yes, that is my name. Your name is Ne-vers. Nevers in France.

But these locations mean much more than their identities. She is simply French. He is simply Hiroshima. And Hiroshima carries with it so many signifiers. But at it’ root, what we know of Hiroshima is simply what happened there. The first thing virtually anyone in the world conjures up when the name is heard is the image of Big Boy being dropped from the Enola Gay, destroying everything below, creating damage lasting decades (or more), and bringing with it a new atomic age. I struggle to think of another place that has become synonymous with destruction or tragedy (maybe Chernobyl? Pompeii? Nagasaki suffered the same fate as Hiroshima, but the name does not endure as much…), and I struggle even more so to understand what it would mean to be from such a place. Most places that embody tragedy to the point of synecdoche are far more localized places that no one truly comes from: Auschwitz, Pearl Harbor, Three Mile Island. But to be from Hiroshima is to be from tragedy. Elle and Lui at least have the experience of love there, but it is a love that is fleeting. There can, perhaps, be nothing more.

Elle ponders this throughout the film. At the beginning of the film, she states that one of the lessons she’s learned through her visit to Hiroshima is that life goes on, but she immediately brings up the horrors societies and races commit on others. World War II, in particular, has impacted her and Lui’s life immensely. She has lost the respect of her family and the life of her first love; he has seen death firsthand (presumably) as a Japanese soldier and experienced the loss of family at Hiroshima. The war continues to impact their present, too, a decade and a half after its conclusion. They would not meet—and, thus, we would not meet them—if not for the war, for she would not be filming a peace movie in Hiroshima.

This is all getting too long. As you can probably see, this is a complex film. One could write an excellent PhD thesis on the film and its meaning (as indeed several have), but I should cut off my own analysis a bit before that. The last thing I wanted to bring up is the parallels I noted between Hiroshima, mon amour and two other films. First, there is the connection to Casablanca that other critics (namely James Monaco in his book on Resnais) have pointed out. Both are stories of two transnational illicit lovers having an affair brought about by wartime, and, in both, the central question is whether the affair can continue past the time allotted. Resnais even makes this parallel explicit by having the two lovers meet at the Casablanca toward the end of the film, although the scene there is far less melodramatic than any scene in Casablanca is. Elle sits at a table, alone, while a Japanese man tries to pick her up. Lui sits in a different table, watching. The two end up together at her hotel, but there is no romance at the Casablanca (perhaps because the romance of Casablanca is not possible in a world marred by tragedy).

Secondly, I noted parallels between Hiroshima, mon amour and Lost in Translation. This was probably heightened by the fact that I watched the latter film twice in the weeks before I saw Hiroshima. On my trip to Japan, my wife and I stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, so it seemed necessary to view Lost in Translation ahead of time. Then, it was also an on-demand choice on my TV on my flight home, so I watched it again because A) I had a twelve-hour flight, and B) I wanted to be able to point and say “I used that pool,” or “I sat at that bar,” and so forth. Anyway, both Hiroshima, mon amour and Lost in Translation open on a semi-clothed woman in a hotel bed in Japan; both involve illicit romances between mismatched foreigners in Japan; both are structured primarily as a series of personal conversations and deal with weighty issues; both primarily take place in hotels that look ridiculously awesome; and both have great soundtracks. Sophia Coppola has denied the influence of Hiroshima on Lost in Translation, saying that she “love[s] the title” but has “never seen it.” I  guess staying in ridiculously nice Japanese hotels just inspires a certain kind of film!

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, duh. I fucking adored this movie, and it’s been one of the best I’ve seen as part of this project (the others I’ve liked almost as much have been The Night of the Hunter, Peeping Tom, Mildred Pierce, and Monsieur Verdoux). I would watch this again in a heartbeat, and I’d also go to Japan again in a heartbeat, not that those are that related to each other…

December 7th

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Details:
Directors: John Ford, Gregg Toland
Producer: John Ford
Writer: Budd Schulberg (uncredited)
Cast: Walter Huston, Harry Davenport, Dana Andrews, James K. McGuinness
Studio: Navy Department, U.S. War Department
Year: 1943

Why I DVRed This: When I was in college, I took a class about postwar politics and culture, but the class started by looking at American culture before and during World War II. As part of that, the professor showed scenes from a number of John Ford movies, including December 7th. His thesis was that John Ford’s politics changed from fairly liberal to fairly conservative as a result of the war (I would argue that even Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is far less liberal than the source material was, but there is no denying that Ford’s postwar Westerns certainly feel conservative). For December 7th, the class watched part of the movie in which Uncle Sam sleeps while America gets sneak attacked. I found it funny then, because it’s such a stupid plot. When I saw it on the TCM schedule, I figured I would want to get the context for all that. Spoiler alert: It was still funny (No, I’m not laughing at Pearl Harbor but, rather, the premise of the film).

Presentation on TCM: TCM made no special announcements about this film. However, it is worth noting that TCM aired the uncensored version of the film (mostly created by Gregg Toland), rather than the half-hour long, censored version (mostly created by Ford) that was released in the 1940s. And, believe it or not, TCM aired the film on December 7, 2015, the 74th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks.

The Conversation
U.S. and Mr. C. discuss the dangers of the “hyphenated” Japanese-Americans lurking outside Uncle Sam’s Hawaiian home. © 1943 – U.S. Navy. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: The film has three sections. The first section takes place on December 6, 1941. Uncle Sam, “U.S.” (Huston), is relaxing in Hawaii, without a care in the world. His friend, Mr. C., his conscience (Davenport), warns him about the nefarious and perfidious Japanese who inhabit Hawaii while U.S. assures him there is nothing to worry about. In the second section, Pearl Harbor is bombed, and the film recreates very realistic visuals of the attack. Finally, in the third section, America meets the ghosts of those killed at Pearl Harbor and their parents, and the nation is assured that America is on the path to victory in World War II.

Analysis (contains spoilers): So, this movie is downright offensive. Yes, it’s a propaganda film, so there is a clear bias partially forgiven by historical context. But even in that context, this movie is hard to watch (indeed, this is more offensive than any of the other American propaganda films I’ve seen and is much closer to the propaganda of the Nazi regime). It all but endorses something even worse than the internment policies of Roosevelt during World War II and seems to encourage hatred and fear of a racialized enemy. The halfhearted attempts at the end of the film to imply that not all the Japanese are that bad (we see, for instance, Nisei and immigrant shop owners changing their signs from kanji to English) fall short after an hour spent riling up the audience with footage of Japanese laborers eavesdropping on American servicemen so they can report intelligence back to Emperor Hirohito, who Mr. C. reminds us, is worshipped by Shintoists.

All that being said, this film is fascinating as a historical document. Ford, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves, spent part of 1940 recruiting fellow filmmakers to join what would become the OSS Field Photographic Branch, a group tasked with documenting the coming war and creating propaganda and training films. One of the first wartime projects commissioned for the group was a documentary about the Pearl Harbor attack that would also serve as propaganda to reassure the American people that the US would come back stronger than ever. The Navy told Ford to create a short documentary with a very rapid turnaround time, and Ford commissioned Toland to direct. Toland, best known today as the innovative cinematographer of Citizen Kane, had long dreamed of directing (he was the photographer of several Ford movies before the war and had won an Academy Award for Wuthering Heights) and jumped at the opportunity. In January of 1942, he went to Honolulu to begin filming. The project was to take a month or so.

Combat
The film’s best sections are the combat footage. Toland combined archival footage with recreations of the attack staged at Fox Studios. © 1943 – U.S. Navy. All Rights Reserved.

Instead, Toland spent nearly a year flying between Honolulu and Los Angeles and recreating battle footage in the special effects studios on the Fox lot. And instead of a simple film about the heroism of American servicemen, he created an 85-minute film that spent significant amounts of time delving into the lives of the Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii and reminding everyone that hundreds of thousands of such Japanese-Americans were responsible for the attack. Admiral Harold Stark hated the film, writing that “This picture leaves the distinct impression that the Navy was not on the job, and this is not true.” To appease the Navy, Ford re-edited the film to avoid inflaming small-town Americans into acts of violence on the Japanese-Americans interned in their towns and to, of course, make the Navy look better. Even after Ford’s edits, the film was pretty much un-releasable (and by 1943, a documentary about Pearl Harbor didn’t really need to be released), but it still won Ford an Academy Award for short documentary. Toland never directed again, though he continued to work as a cinematographer until his death in 1948.

All of this makes clear that the film’s authorship is not totally clear. It officially is credited to Ford (with Toland credited for cinematography), even though the version TCM showed was Toland’s. Thus, while I would love to compare December 7th to the myth-versus-fact themes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Fort Apache, I will refrain. Instead, I feel like the film is principally Toland’s, and indeed the only parts of the film that aren’t outright offensive are those that reflect Toland’s talents as a cinematographer. The action scenes are impressive, and the whole film is shot well.

The politics of the film are, however, another story. The entirety of the first section of the film exists as a debate between a relaxed Uncle Sam—called “U.S.” throughout the picture as if to cement what is already obvious, namely that he here represents America at large—and Mr. C., the conscience of Uncle Sam and, by extension, all of America. While U.S. relaxes, Mr. C. rails against the “hyphenated” American identity of the Japanese in Honolulu. He reminds U.S. that they print newspapers in Japanese, practice a Japanese religion, and eat Japanese food. U.S. counters that they also work in America, speak English, and support American life. But Mr. C. persists—that is not good enough. Mr. C. reminds all of America to be suspicious of cultural pluralism and “hyphenated” Americanism. As the voice of our conscience, he’s telling us what we deep down inside are supposed to already know. The message is reminiscent of the Barry Goldwater ad from 1964—“in your heart, you know he’s right.” Mr. C. confirms that our conscience is right too, as he shows the Japanese gardeners, dancers, barbers, cab drivers, etc. eavesdropping on conversations and reporting what they hear back to Japan. Any one of them could be a spy, and apparently anyone who retains aspects of their native culture is not to be trusted.

The second section of the film shows us why—it’s basically a half hour of recreated footage of the attack. This section is technically impressive. Indeed, I actually could not tell that it was all recreated, as it looked very real. Of course, the fact that it’s not archival footage poses a problem for a project that was supposed to be a documentary, but that did not seem to be a concern for the filmmakers.

Dead Soldier
A dead American (emphasis on American) speaks from beyond the grave. © 1943 – U.S. Navy. All Rights Reserved.
Family of Dead
We also meet the families of those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor. The families chosen show the diversity that makes up true “Americans” as opposed to the “perfidious” Japanese-Americans. © 1943 – U.S. Navy. All Rights Reserved.

In the third section, the film cements its vision of the “true” American identity. We are introduced to the ghosts of soldiers killed at Pearl Harbor and their families. Toland shows a diverse array of people—a Jew, an Italian, an Irishman, a Latino, even a Black—from a wide array of places—New Mexico, Brooklyn, a farm in Ohio. The narrator asks them why they all sound the same, given they’re backgrounds. One of the ghosts says it’s because they’re “all Americans.” The film makes it clear, thus, that a true American is one who gives up the hyphenated identity and assimilates entirely into a classless, raceless American identity (obviously this is a thing that has never existed in America, but neither Mr. C. or U.S. are particularly interested in the truth).

This message was embraced by the liberal consensus of the early Cold War years, and World War II certainly helped to create it. But it’s very tough to watch a film that outright promotes xenophobia and hatred of an entire group of people. And again, I have to emphasize that this film is even more offensive than most propaganda films.  It’s very strange that Toland went from Citizen Kane to December 7th in a matter of months.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: I mean, I’m happy I saw it. But I wouldn’t watch it again. I did not like this movie, in case that wasn’t clear.

 

Peeping Tom

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Details:
Director: Michael Powell
Producer: Albert Fennell, Michael Powell (both uncredited)
Writer: Leo Marks
Cast: Karlheinz Böhm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer, Maxine Audley, Pamela Green
Studio: Michael Powell (Theatre), Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors
Year: 1960

Why I DVRed ThisPeeping Tom is one of those films I’d heard about for years and years but never had the opportunity to see (I mean, yeah, I could’ve Netflixed it or gone back in time and gone to Blockbuster to rent it if I really wanted to see it, but it wasn’t just presented to me ever…). It is one of those movies that divided audiences in its time but that has come to be regarded as a classic. I don’t know the context for this being on TCM, but I saw it on the schedule one night and DVRed it.

Presentation on TCM: TCM just played its “open all night” diner montage to indicate that this film was being shown in the wee hours. As I said above, I have no idea if TCM put it on for any reason or to fulfill any theme.

Mark shows Helen
Mark shows Helen a glimpse of his childhood. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: Mark Lewis (Böhm) is a freelance pornographic photographer who also works as a focus puller for a film studio. Additionally, he owns an apartment building he inherited from his father, a deranged psychiatrist who used his son as his guinea pig for experiments about human fear. He is unhappy and lonely and starts a relationship with one of his tenants, Helen (Massey). Oh, and there’s one more thing: Mark also likes to kill women by using a dagger attached to a camera. His goal is to try to capture fear on camera.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Peeping Tom is one of the defining horror movies of all time. It, along with Psycho, helped pave the way for the more sinister and psychological horror movies of the late 1960s and 1970s (as compared to the campy b-movies of the 1950s). However, unlike Psycho, which became a box office sensation (albeit with mixed reviews),

Watching Murder
The audience sees its first murder from the perspective of Mark’s camera, making it feel like the audience itself is killing the prostitute. Note also the red pillow behind her. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

Peeping Tom essentially ended the career of director Michael Powell. He continued to work but not to receive the acclaim or fanfare he had received as one of Britain’s premier filmmakers of the post-war years.

And that’s a shame. Peeping Tom is a delightful film and one that seems to have been years ahead of the times. It is a film that is largely subjective in view and works best when it makes the viewer culpable in the action shown on the screen. If Psycho made everyone in the audience feel like a victim, Peeping Tom makes everyone in the audience feel like a killer. And, unlike Psycho, there is zero mystery about who the killer is, so the film becomes more an examination of human psyche than a straight thriller or mystery. But the psyche most explored is the shared bond between the killer and the spectator.

From the opening shots, Powell establishes this subjectivity. He makes it very clear the film will not be subject to mimetic staging (which works like a stage set—the world of the narrative is contained in a rectangle that is separate from the “real world”). Instead, the film shows primarily the perspective of Mark, our obvious psycho, but at first, we don’t see Mark—we just see Mark’s view, which becomes our view and, by extension, our actions.

Opening Shots
Through his camera, Mark sees his first victim, a lady of the night wearing a dress so blindingly red that it manages to stand out even in the expressionistic hellscape of the nighttime streets. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

The film opens on a closeup of an eye opening before we see a very expressionistic depiction of a street. A man snaps a photo of a woman through a hidden camera. We switch to his camera perspective of her. She is a prostitute (“it’ll be two quid”) and we follow her into her apartment (still in the camera view). She undresses for us (in a very untitilating way) before we begin to attack her and she screams at us. Then, and only then, do we cut to a projector showing the very movie and a man, Mark, watching it while some piano-heavy music plays and the title is revealed.

Horror movies primarily rely on an impulse in the audience to want—no, to need—to see things that should not be seen. That is why we scream “don’t open the closet” while praying that the victim does open the closet. Peeping Tom takes the whole notion further—we beg Mark to kill because we need to see the action. Of course, in seeing the action, we become sick too, but it’s our own fault for watching the film. With such logic, it’s no wonder the film offended so many during its first release. Today’s audience is more desensitized to such violence (see the success of the Saw franchise), so Peeping Tom seems thrilling more than sick. We enter a world we don’t know and commit actions we would never commit in real life—and that is the thrill. The thrill is of living vicariously through a psychopath, not of living vicariously through a detective investigating a psycho.

Peeping Tom also does a very good job of making it clear that, though Mark is psychotic, there are different manifestations of the same psychotic behavior in others. Mark works as an occasional pornographer, and there is a terrific scene early in the film in which he talks to the owner of a newsstand. The shops owner asks Mark which magazines sell best, and Mark replies “those with girls on the front covers and no front covers on the girls.” In the same store, an elderly man is buying pornography and a daily newspaper, and the shop’s owner reminds him not to forget the newspaper he’s purchased. This scene establishes that many others in England are equally sex-obsessed as Mark; it’s just their obsessions manifest themselves differently (and, obviously, more healthily).

Unlike those of the casual masturbators, Mark’s impulses are primarily violent. But his violence is itself established as normal in the world he navigates. When Mark photographs naked prostitutes, they both ask him to cover up their bruises. This implies that they are used to getting roughed up by their johns, and it also implies that they want to be aesthetically pleasing in the magazines. There is a girl with a cleft palate who is particularly worried about the way she is photographed, and Mark precedes to obsess over her deformity. The world is ugly and violent, but Mark is comfortable with—if not outright intrigued by—it.

Prostitute 2
Mark becomes infatuated with the cleft lip of this model, here framed by her red hair, a red stool, and a red drape. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.
Prostitutes
This model, also wearing red, is more worried about her bruises being covered up. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

While the girls being photographed are, of course, obsessed with the way they will be captured on film, other victims of Mark show an equal concern with their looks. Indeed, aesthetics and appearances seem to be an important part of the film. This is, of course, because the movie is mostly about looking. The Peeping Tom of the title is not Mark but, rather, the audience, looking at what Mark sees (or at what others see Mark see, as when he shows them his home movies). We in the audience become dazzled by the expressionistic technicolor canvasses that make up the disgusting figures that occupy one of Mark’s worlds, the filmmakers and actresses that occupy another, and the ordinary Britons that occupy the house Mark owns.

Color features prominently in the film too. While the worlds Mark occupies are all lavishly colored, he himself is always dressed drably in browns and dark greens. This provides him with an everyman status and helps explain his ability to navigate the interstices between his three worlds. The police are the only ones who even seem to suspect him of being capable of anything heinous, and only really after they follow him between worlds (a person who works on the set might not be a suspect in the murder of an actress on the set, but a person who works on the set and works as a pornographer certainly could be a suspect). Mark’s apartment too is plain and unassuming, with drab wallpaper and boring furniture. However, he of course has two rather interesting things in his apartment: a projector and a darkroom. He uses the projector to show Helen the films of the cruel experiments on fear that were performed on Mark as a child, and he also shows her the darkroom, a room that seems to serve as his objective correlative—it is the only world that unites all three of Mark’s worlds and that provides access to Mark’s dark inner life. And, as if to make even more manifest what is already apparent, the darkroom is colored red—the color so often used in the film to mark desire and sex.

Mark meets Helen
Mark meets Helen for the first time. Note his drab appearance and drab apartment contrasted with the bright reds of Helen. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.
Mark in Brown
In front of the newsstand, Mark is again in brown, but the object that carries him between worlds is bright red. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red is indeed the clearest motif seen in Peeping Tom. All of Mark’s victims either have red hair or something very red about them (a pillow in the background of his first victim who was first seen in a garishly cerise skirt). When we meet the redheaded Helen for the first time (when he shows her the darkroom), she is wearing a red dress. All the other victims are similarly red either in hair color or costume or both. And many of the scenes seem to have a red tint to them, as though the whole film took place in a red light district (which it kind of does—the red light district of the audience’s minds!). Red is, of course, the color of fire and blood, so it is associated in art and literature with war, danger, strength, power, desire, and passion. And Mark himself seems to gravitate to the color, like a bull.

One final note: Many have remarked that the film clearly delineates good girls and bad girls. We see, for instance, prostitutes and nude models contrasted with the innocent Helen. But it seems the film actually implies that there isn’t really a difference. After all, regardless of if they are good or not good, Mark has access to them. He can work the seedy underbelly of London’s streets and porn shops just as easily as he can charm a nice woman like Helen. And both the good girls and the bad girls often have red hair, implying that, to Mark at least (and arguably to any pervert/psycho), the good and the bad are all the same—easily preyed upon women. As Powell seems to put the onus for all the violence on the audience (the sick fucks watching Mark’s films), the implication seems to be that the very act of looking or gazing on another automatically corrupts her. That is, it doesn’t matter if a person is good or bad once that person becomes an object of lust.

Powell is all too happy to direct us to this conclusion too. It’s worth noting that the doctor in Mark’s childhood movies is played by Powell (with his son playing the young Mark). Mark’s dad was interested in studying fear and human emotion. The filmmaker’s job seems to be not to study fear and emotion but to force them out of an audience. Given the cruelty we see imposed upon the cast by the director of the film Mark works on (not to mention the obvious cruelty inflicted on the stars of Mark’s movies by the filmmaker), it seems the process of making and screening films is not a job for the benevolent.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, yes, yes. This film is so rich, and I could’ve discussed it on so many levels (the career of Powell, the psychology of Mark, the idea of spectatorship, the connections between Peeping Tom and other voyeuristic films, etc.). However, at the end of the day, I was most drawn to the look of the film and the question of how the film is supposed to make you feel. I felt drawn in to Mark’s world, and so I felt disgusted by my own culpability in the action of the film (while not wanting to turn the movie off), but I imagine a person with better morals might end up feeling superior to Mark and disgusted simply at the film’s very existence, as though the attempt to make the audience feel guilty for Mark’s acts was itself a venal sin. Regardless, this is a film that I know I will come back to and probably draw a totally different conclusion about when I do.