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 Ginjirō 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 he 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 Ginjirō’s motive announced, Gondo has been redeemed and the motive seems cruel. And Ginjirō’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 Ginjirō’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 Ginjirō’s sunglasses reflecting back something that almost looks like the fire he 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 the 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 Ginjirō 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 vantage point from which he can’t ever see reality.

Other shots show us the real world Ginjirō 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 Ginjirō 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 Ginjirō may have made good points about class structure, but in the end he is both morally and socially low. While Gondo and Ginjirō 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 Ginjirō 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 Ginjirō 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 Ginjirō, 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 Ginjirō 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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Footlight Parade

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Details:
Director: Lloyd Bacon (Busby Berkeley directed the song and dance numbers)
Producer: Robert Lord (uncredited)
Writers: Manuel Seff and James Seymour
Cast: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Renee Whitney
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 1933

Why I DVRed This: My wife is not nearly as interested in classic films as I am (not to say that she doesn’t like them—she’s just more choosy than I am), but she loves Disney World. Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park has a ride (or “attraction” in Disney terms) called the Great Movie Ride (which is now sponsored by TCM actually). It’s a typical Disney attraction—you ride on a car and drive by animatronic scenes while a “cast member” reads some inane script full of terrible puns and trivia. The animatronic exhibits include recreations of scenes from classic films, and there are a number of scenes from movies that my wife has not seen (and some I haven’t seen too). Because of that, several years ago, she made a goal of watching all the movies featured on the ride. Anyway, one of the movies neither of us had seen was Footlight Parade, which Disney uses as an example of the big Hollywood musicals of the 1930s. We actually had this sitting on the DVR for almost two years, because neither of us was evidently that excited about watching it. But we kept on it for the Disney goal, and I’m glad we didn’t delete it when our DVR was at 100% full.

Presentation on TCM: There wasn’t any at all. The movie just started playing. I have no idea why it was on, either, because I DVRed it A) a million years ago and B) before I paid attention to such things (as my DVRing of movies on TCM long preceded my writing about the DVRing of movies).

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Chester Kent, framed heroically here, will save the theater and his struggling business. © 1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: Broadway director Chester Kent (Cagney) realizes talkies will make Broadway shows obsolete, so he starts producing “prologues,” short live musical numbers that movie theaters show before the feature presentation. But a rival is stealing Kent’s amazing ideas, likely with help from someone in his own outfit! And his business partners are putting pressure on him to make increasingly more prologues at increasingly more movie theaters at increasingly more spectacular levels! Kent is so overworked he doesn’t even realize his secretary, Nan (Blondell), is in love with him. And he has to handle getting a divorce from Cynthia Kent, his wife, and Nan has to win him over from Vivian Rich, her gold-digging friend!

Analysis (contains spoilers): Boy does this movie move fast. Elements of it are slow (as are all movies in the classical style)—long scenes, long takes, long musical numbers—but in terms of the plot, everything is so quick and abrupt. In a matter of minutes, we see Kent realize he’s out of work, get dumped by his wife, and come up with his new big plan (when he realizes an economics lesson that I thought everyone knew: that a company can make more by charging less when purchases are made in bulk). Nan falls in love with him seemingly instantly too, success comes rapidly, then conflict is set up and resolved equally rapidly (there’s a short scene in which Kent finds out his plans are being copied; then, immediately comes up with the solution of locking in his dancers and singers while they produce their three big numbers for the grand finale). All of this speed serves to getting the audience caught up on the why before it is shown the big reveal: three spectacular show-ending numbers.

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The creative process is a grueling one, as the film makes clear in short scenes that always resolve themselves with lightbulb moments. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

For a movie that’s at least partially about creating, we see very little creating, too. Obviously, no one wants to watch hours of James Cagney sitting at a piano trying to write songs, but there’s an odd amount of such footage in the movie. There are a number of short scenes in which Kent is hunched over a piano in despair, as the pressure becomes too much, but he always comes up with some ingenious solution. It’s as if the filmmakers want the audience to know that the creative process is hard but not so hard that the audience should feel guilty for watching the film. Likewise, for a movie in which one of the principal sets is a rehearsal studio, there is very little rehearsing. The film instead makes such work appear very casual and fun. Sure, Kent is stressed about writing , but then—lightbulb—“This just might work!” And, because the rehearsals are never shown, there are no spoilers for the lush and lavish musical numbers at the end.

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The musical numbers, such as “By a Waterfall,” all involve lavish stages, multiple cameras, and expansive casts and settings. They are dazzling in their unreality, and Berkeley makes full use of filmic elements to bring them to life. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Indeed, those musical numbers are impressive, and they are largely the reason Footlight Parade has been preserved by the National Film Registry and endures as a classic today (the Disney ride display captures this too, as it shows the waterfall of women). The three at the end are incredible and largely suggest one of the larger points of the movie—movies are better than Broadway. The montages could not possibly work in a theater, and Busby Berkeley’s direction requires multiple cameras and extraordinarily large staging. The waterfall sequence, for instance, takes place in a waterfall but contains giant fountains and cavalcades of synchronized swimmers. His camera pushes the audience into the waterfall and even in to the pool, as the world of the stage expands limitlessly. In his essay, “Genre: The Conventions of Connection” from The World in a Frame,  Leo Braudy describes this expansion as an affirmation of the “the capacity of the world of style” and a mocking of “the narrowness of the ‘real’ world outside the theater walls, populated by bland tenors, greedy producers, and harried directors.” Indeed, the genre of musical is already a heightened, stylized form of reality (in real life, for instance, the only people who bust into song are former members of Ivy League glee clubs and the deranged), and Berkeley pushes those conventions to extremes. But his decision certainly is in the best interest of the audience who is better served by getting, for instance, an aerial view of the synchronized swim sequence, and a moving camera walking everyone into the Honeymoon Hotel, or what I took to calling the Sex Hotel.

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Nope, nothing racist about this. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

That reminds me—this movie is weirdly risqué. Two of the three big numbers are rather adult in theme. The one alluded to here is the “Honeymoon Hotel” number, about a hotel that is used for affairs and one-night stands. But the final one is even less family friendly—“Shanghai Lil,” about a beautiful Asian prostitute who services servicemen and sailors. The film also makes allusions to prostitution in the “real world too” in the form of Nan’s roommate and to Scotty (Powell) being a “kept” boy for Mrs. Gould, the producer’s wife. Footlight Parade was pre-code, so all of this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but, not knowing it was pre-code when I started watching it, I was shocked by some of the humor. I expected a musical for the whole family!

James Cagney knew the film would be good—he begged Warner Bros. for the lead role so he could show off his song-and-dance chops after years of playing tough guys—and he was right. The production comes off as a clear classic, and it no doubt left 1933 audiences with great cheer. The waterfall number ends with unmitigated support for the New Deal and the dream of a brighter tomorrow. While Hollywood movies would later show the negative side of the transition from silent films to talkies (see Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, etc.), in Footlight Parade, a transition is merely a new opportunity to excel in America. Chester Kent should be out of a job, but a little ingenuity saves him, just as the New Deal will save us all.

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“By a Waterfall” includes this heroic imagery of America’s newly elected savior. ©1933 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Indeed, the correlation between this film and the New Deal cannot be overlooked. The film opens on dark economic times and a theater that is chaotic and poorly run and ends by showing the limitless possibilities of the creative world. Gerald Perry, at Jump Cut in 1974, suggested that Chester Kent is essentially a fill-in for FDR, and while this reading might be a bit strained, the film very clearly shows a love for all things Roosevelt. And, Chester Kent’s decision to spend a lot of money to make a lot of money certainly sounds like Keynesian Economics to me… It’s been well established that movie musicals (still a brand-new genre in 1933) offered escape for Americans suffering in the Great Depression, but this musical goes a little farther, offering not just escape, but wholehearted liberal propaganda.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, absolutely. I loved watching this. It’s so fucking charming. The casting is perfect, the musical numbers (although sometimes quite racist) are catchy and visually enthralling, and even the set design is fantastic. I loved all the art deco flourishes both in the “real” world and in the musical world. Overall, I’m glad my wife insisted on watching the Great Movie Ride’s movies, because I would never have chosen to watch this on my own. But I would certainly would choose to watch it again.

 

 

Waterloo Bridge

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Details:
Director: James Whale
Producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Writer: Tom Reed
Cast: Mae Clarke, Douglass Montgomery, Doris Lloyd, Frederick Kerr, Enid Bennett
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 1931

Why I DVRed This: True confession: I started watching this live when it was on and then DVRed it. Then, I never actually watched it on DVR. Instead, I watched it live and deleted the DVR. I have made this website a house of lies, and I apologize for anyone who is personally offended by my actions.

Presentation on TCM: …But to be fair, I got very excited to be at home at the exact time a movie started and that had a TCM host introducing it. I was getting ready to pack for a trip to Wisconsin to go to a friend’s wedding, and the film was the perfect length of time (less than an hour and a half) for me to procrastinate but not procrastinate so much that I either A) had to stop watching the movie or B) would be unable to pack.

Anyway, Ben Mankiewicz introduced the film as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. That night’s programming highlighted the work of Mae Clarke, an actress I have to admit I had never heard of before. He said she was most famous for her role in Frankenstein, which was also directed by James Whale. In fact, as Mankiewicz recounted, Universal was so impressed with Whale’s work on Waterloo Bridge (because he had come in severely under budget) that the studio let him choose any project he wanted next. He chose Frankenstein and brought Clarke with him. (Prior to Waterloo, she had been famous for getting a grapefruit smashed into her forehead by James Cagney in The Public Enemy.) Obviously Frankenstein was a huge hit, and the rest is history. But it was all news to me. The things you learn on TCM sometimes!

Much of the film concerns a girl who is overwhelmed by the horrors of the world and her situation. Here, Myra looks sad and overwhelmed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Much of the film concerns a chorus girl who is overwhelmed by the horrors of the world and her situation. Here, Myra looks sad… and overwhelmed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: In World War I London, an American chorus girl, Myra Deauville (Clarke), supports herself through prostitution on Waterloo Bridge. During an air raid, she meets fellow American, Roy Cronin (Montgomery), and they fall in love. But her self-hatred prevents their relationship from blossoming, despite his devotion.

Analysis (contains spoilers): So this movie is a weird one. It’s “precode,” meaning it could get away with a lot that a code era movie could not. For example, the protagonist is a self-loathing prostitute. That is not something you tend to see in movies enforced by the Hays Code. Those movies instead tended to be saccharine and show nothing controversial. “White slavery” and prostitution were outright banned as subjects. Thus, Waterloo Bridge as a whole could not exist.

Because of that, in fact, the film would be remade twice. First, it was remade in 1940, with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor in the leads. Then, in 1956, it was remade as Gaby with Leslie Caron and John Kerr. In the Vivien Leigh remake, there is no prostitution; in Gaby, the main character only turns to prostitution after her doughboy lover is rumored to be dead at D-Day (Gaby also takes place in World War II, not World War I). But in the original film (based on a less-than-successful play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood), Myra simply chooses to prostitute herself so she can pay her rent and even returns to prostitution voluntarily after meeting Roy (who is apparently an idiot who cannot figure out what she does for a living despite obvious hints—it would be a different movie if he understood what she did and was accepting of it, but that type of movie absolutely could not be made in 1931).

Note the rather phallic divide between them on the bed. Still, for 1931, it's a bit of a surprise to even see two unmarried lovers near a bed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Note the rather phallic divide between them on the bed. Still, for 1931, it’s a bit of a surprise to even see two unmarried lovers near a bed. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

This plot actually still seems kind of shocking to me, especially the ending—after reuniting with Roy and presumably giving up her career, Myra should have a happy ending. But walking across the very location she prostituted herself, Myra is struck by a bomb (remember, the war is going on!) and killed. It’s an abrupt and strange ending that reminds me of the advice on endings offered in National Lampoon’sHow to Write Good” article (for a story set in England, try this ending— “Suddenly, everyone was run over by a lorry. –The End—”), but to be fair, the ending is alright diegetically. The film makes clear that there are air raids during the war (that’s how Myra and Roy meet actually) early on, and so there’s a Chekhov’s gun element to the ending. More though, there seems to be a moralistic tone to the ending. Myra cannot have a happy ending after the choices she’s made (not just the prostitution but her dishonesty and maltreatment of Roy, who she runs off on), so she must die for her sins. This ending is actually very much in line with the Hay’s Code, which necessitated that criminals be punished by film’s end.

The titular bridge/prostitution hot spot, during an air raid. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The titular bridge/prostitution hot spot, during an air raid. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Incidentally, Waterloo Bridge was made while the Hay’s Code was in effect; it just was made before the Hay’s Office was being run by Joseph I. Breen, who more actively enforced the code. That’s what historians mean by “precode” in this case (though it’s obviously a misnomer). (For a decent history of the Code, see this New York Times book review or this NPR article.) Because Universal did not want to offend people (though the film would still be protested and banned in certain cities), the film is not, as such, as immoral as it seems. There is no sex, for instance, nor any overt hints at sex (and yes, I recognize the oxymoron of overt hints); indeed, the scene in which Myra is shown to solicit a gentleman only implies that he is getting a carriage for the two of them to go out together. Of course, the audience knows what’s going on, but, it could be argued, that the audience’s assumption of sex is its own problem, not that of the filmmakers. Still, the writing makes it clear what she is doing is “wrong,” because she’s ashamed of it, and it makes it clear that she and people like her cannot ever be happy. What the film seems to imply, however, is that it is a sad world we live in because Myra deserves to be happy, even while society precludes that possibility. That is, in a different movie, Myra would find success as a singer and find and keep true love. Instead, the war, poverty, the harsh reality of show business, and the general miasma of the period force her onto a path she cannot exit with happiness. So, like so many other pieces of art from the 1920s and 1930s, World War I is shown to be a breaking point for humanity, and now people like Myra are denied happy endings because of the horrors of mechanized war, human progress, etc. But that’s probably giving the film too much credit. It’s not really art, just a movie that’s kind of ok and has some decent acting (from Mae Clarke) and some really not decent acting (from Douglass Montgomery).

A young Bette Davis also appears in the film, as Roy's sister. She doesn't do much in the movie—really, only Mae Clarke is impressive in this film at all. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
A young Bette Davis also appears in the film, as Roy’s sister. She doesn’t do much in the movie—really, only Mae Clarke is impressive in this film at all. © 1931 – Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

As such, this movie is interesting to watch more as a relic of a different filmmaking era. The acting (overall) is fine, the script is fine, the directing is fine. In general, the film is fine, if a little stagebound. It feels a little rushed and would not generally be placed in the canon of classic films. But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching it. It feels like the kind of movie that today would be remade as a prestige picture released around December—the kind of movie you might see once and say was pretty good but that doesn’t leave any kind of lasting impression on you (it would probably star Benedict Cumberbatch and Kate Winslet and receive a few Oscar nominations but not any wins). Waterloo Bridge is from an era in Hollywood when there was no such thing as an auteur (I mean, of course there was—there was Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin—but the idea did not yet exist) and so directors were just assigned projects until they got power to pick their own pre-approved projects. The reward for making a fine movie that made a profit was that you could then make a bigger budget picture like Frankenstein. It seems like a nice world to have been in, I guess.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: So this was an example of a movie that I definitely would not have DVRed simply because I had no idea it existed. I had never heard of it nor of anyone in it (excepting Bette Davis, but she’s barely in it, so that hardly counts) nor of anyone associated with it. However, I’m very glad I watched it. I can’t say I’d necessarily watch it again, but I enjoyed it enough. Plus, I was able to make fun of the melodramatic ending for a few days (even though no one understood the reference).

The Night of the Hunter

night-of-the-hunter-poster-danish-discreet

Details:
Director: Charles Laughton
Producer: Paul Gregory
Writer: James Agee
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves
Studio: United Artists
Year: 1955

Why I DVRed It: This is quite honestly one of my favorite movies, so I see it whenever I have the opportunity. The last time I saw it was at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn in December of 2013. At that presentation, the photographer Bruce Weber spoke about the documentary he was making about Robert Mitchum, so it felt like even more of an event. Watching the film on the big screen (and with some food and alcohol in front of me) was a significantly better experience than I knew watching it on my television in (due to my work schedule) two increments would be. But, still. I had to DVR it when I saw it on the TCM schedule.

Presentation on TCM: For once, I actually captured a movie that was properly presented on TCM! Before the movie aired, Ben Mankiewicz interviewed Jan-Christopher Horak, the Director of the UCLA Film & Television Archives. While I was thrilled to finally (FINALLY!) DVR a film with an introduction, I have to say, this introduction was pretty dull. Horak talked about The Night of the Hunter being on the cusp of the classical Hollywood and modern film era. Mankiewicz agreed, then both Mankiewicz and Horak lamented that the film has largely survived as merely a cult classic, because, if it had been an instant classic, the director, Charles Laughton, might’ve directed other films. But both agreed that Mitchum and Gish’s performances alone make the film one worth preserving. Get all that?

Mankiewicz and Horak discuss The Night of the Hunter on the TCM set.
Mankiewicz and Horak discuss The Night of the Hunter on the TCM set.

This conversation largely added nothing to my viewing of the film, as the two basically said the same stuff anyone who’s seen The Night of the Hunter would say. Of slightly more interest was Horak’s discussion of the archiving and restoration process, but even that was pretty dull.

After the movie, they talked again about Lillian Gish (who Horak met once), the restoration work done at the Eastman House, and the communications UCLA has with other archivists (they all like to make sure, for instance, that they are not preserving redundant films). So, all in all, this interview portion was not that helpful and could’ve been fast forwarded, even though that meant I would not have been able to gaze at Horak’s impressive socks…

Synopsis: In Depression-Era West Virginia, the maniacal Reverend Harry Powell (Mitchum) torments two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), in hopes of getting $10,000 stolen by their late father. The children escape after Harry kills their mother (Winters), and the Ohio River takes them to the home of Rachel Cooper (Gish). Harry follows. A showdown ensues.

Analysis (contains spoilers): This is one of the great all-time films, and it is so rich with imagery and themes that I am actually a bit overwhelmed with what to say about it. After all, most of the truly brilliant film historians and analysts have already discussed so much about it that it seems virtually impossible to not merely echo them. Making matters worse, the TCM presenters already touched on so many good talking points (the wishes that Laughlin would direct another movie, the amazing performances from Gish and Mitchum, the film encapsulating the best of the classical period as well as anticipating elements of later cinema). All of these are points I largely agree with, but, to the “acting” thoughts, I would add that Shelley Winters is just terrific in this film—she does such a good job of playing the woman no one wants to marry in this film, A Place in the Sun, and Lolita. I can’t help but wonder about the psychic scars she must have from being forever typecast as the frumpy victim, but I have to admit she was so wonderfully adept at playing that role. In this film, her role is even more interesting. Her character, Willa Harper, is a woman wronged twice over and a woman smart enough to see what’s coming but seemingly powerless against preventing it. She is a woman who knows enough to be suspicious but who is not confident enough to convince herself that her suspicions are justified. Winters gives so many great faces in the film and seems to have so many moments of anagnorisis about Harry, but they are always too late.  She realizes her marriage to Harry will not be a loving one the night of her wedding when he won’t sleep with her, when it is too late to not be married. She realizes the children are right to not like Harry only after it is too late to have Harry not be their surrogate father. And, of course she realizes that Harry is only after the money just in time for him to murder her and throw her into her hauntingly ethereal watery grave.

Willa is always too late to realize her suspicions are justified. © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Willa is always too late to realize her suspicions are justified. © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

That image is, of course, one of the great images of the film, but this time watching it, I was especially taken with an earlier group of images involving Willa, ones that quite successfully foreshadow her tragic fate. There’s a great sequence after Harry is released from prison. Willa is at work at the diner when the owners tell her she needs a man. She says she does not, and Laughton edits in images of a black train. Willa again says she does not want a man, and the train moves closer. Then we see Harry. The long black train is bringing her death, but she is fated to meet the train and Harry Powell, Willa’s personal Thanatos.

Willa's ending is foreshadowed throughout the film. Here, she resembles a corpse in a coffin, even though we never see her getting a proper burial. © 1955 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Willa’s ending is foreshadowed throughout the film. Here, she resembles a corpse in a coffin, even though we never see her getting a proper burial. © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Later, on her wedding night, Willa’s sexual advances are rejected by Harry. She turns to sleep alone and places her arms over her chest, like the arms of a corpse in a coffin. She is a woman who wants to forego marriage after her first husband wrongs her by stealing $10,000, and she is a woman who largely knows to avoid the temptations of Harry Powell. She can see she does not need a man, and yet she ends up marrying him and believing herself to be a sinner. After all, if a preacher tells her she’s a sinner, then she must be one, right? That, of course, leads into one of the major themes of the movie: who speaketh for God in a world gone wrong?

The film opens with pictures of the stars and Rachel’s face preaching a true sermon to the children she has taken in. She warns them of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, obviously foreshadowing Harry, a bluebeard who claims to speak to and for God. The children are lost souls—we learn later that the Depression has made orphaned children a common problem—but Rachel (named presumably for the child-less wife of Jacob in the Bible) has taken them in and given them moral direction.

Rachel preaches to her
Rachel preaches to her “many birds.” © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Others may be taken in by a fast-talking charlatan, but Rachel can see through him, for she alone knows the true purpose of religion the film evokes: community, love, guidance, not selfishness. Harry wishes and claims to speak directly to God, but Rachel is a student of the Bible. She knows she does not know everything but claims to only be certain that she “good for something in this world” because she is a “strong tree with branches for many birds.” For Rachel, being able to follow the teachings of the Bible is enough. She compares John to Moses (because he came to her floating on the river) and speaks only what the Bible says. Harry, on the other hand, makes up his own sermons based on his love and hate tattoos. And, of course, rather than using God’s teachings to do right and raise up orphans, he uses it to control Willa and justify his killing of her. He misinterprets or outright makes up the voice of God.

Ultimately, the film takes a stance that is not so much anti-religion as it is anti the use of religion to justify misery. Religion, it seems, is meant to be a tool for good. I got choked up at the ending, in which John and Pearl have a real family with a real foundation. They celebrate Christmas, and Rachel even manages to buy John the watch he wanted, even though she is not rich. Money is ultimately trumped by faith and family, but John still gets the material possession he wanted!

The film is highly recommended. As I stated above, I can’t even begin to do it justice on this forum. The imagery is too incredible to be captured in stills (it makes use of expressionist techniques that make the whole film exist in this dreamy yet realistic fairy tale yet world), and there are too many sequences that need to be witnessed in context to have them make sense (such as the great sequence when Rachel pulls out her shotgun while Harry sings hymns). It’s simply a must-see.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, didn’t I make that clear? As I said, I always try to watch this film when I can, and I have no regrets about DVRing it. I highly highly highly recommend this film, and it appears even richer on repeated viewings.