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.

 

 

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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!

Peeping Tom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

936full-the-loneliness-of-the-long-distance-runner-poster

Details: 
Director: Tony Richardson       Producer: Tony Richardson
Writer: Alan Sillitoe
Cast: Michael Redgrave, Tom Courtenay, Avis Bunnage, Alec McCowen, Topsy Jane
Studio: Woodfall Film Productions (Company) British Lion-Columbia Distributors/Continental Distributing (Distribution)
Year: 1962

Why I DVRed It: This is a film I’ve long wanted to see but never gotten around to it. I first heard of it in 1999 or so, when I was perusing the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century and being intrigued by the title. Years later, I got into running (although I want to make perfectly clear I’m not one of “those runners,” the kind who wear running clothes all the time and only talk about which trails they prefer and that kind of shit) and  became familiar with the sensation of being lonely on long runs. I used to run greater distances than I currently do (a foot injury has sidelined me from runs greater than 3-4 miles for the past two years), and I remember feeling quite lonesome on some of those runs. I’m not the type to feel fueled by the energy of others, and I remember running my first marathon and getting downright depressed when crowds of strangers would cheer for the marathoners like myself. It made me feel that there was something wrong with me, and maybe there is, but at least the title of this film says otherwise!

The film's opening shots reveal the pleasures of distance running but also the titular loneliness. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The film’s opening shots reveal the pleasures of distance running but also the titular loneliness. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

In actuality, that loneliness is precisely what I’ve loved about running my whole life. It’s also what I love about film. Watching movies is primarily an individual experience, and almost of my TCM movies are watched in isolation. I do, of course, love going to movies and watching movies with my girlfriend, but I don’t need the company to enjoy a film. Solitude and loneliness aren’t always bad words.

Regardless, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is movie that has fluctuated on critics’ lists for decades. Sometimes it’s off the lists altogether. Right now, the greatest movies list at  They Shoot Pictures Don’t They has the film at 995, but it wasn’t on the 2013 list. However, the movie tends to be more popular with English audiences, which makes sense—the film is largely about English working class life, a state most Americans only know of through popular songs such as the Squeeze jam “Up the Junction” or the underrated Kinks classic “Dead End Street.” This movie isn’t near as catchy as those tunes, but what movie is?

Presentation on TCM: Once again, I watched a TCM movie with no introduction or anything like that. It was on at 6:15, before a night of programming centered around B-sci-fi pictures. Obviously, this movie is not that, so I really don’t know why it was on.

Synopsis: An angry young man, Colin (Courtenay), is sentenced to a boys’ reformatory (what people in England call a “borstal”) where his prowess for long-distance running earns him the favor of the school’s governor (Redgrave) who hopes Colin can win a big race against another reformatory school. Colin likes his special status at first but reconsiders it in light of his own recollections of his past that he thinks about on his unescorted long training runs.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Before I get too far into this, I will admit that there were entire stretches of dialogue that went right past me. The cockney accents of some of the characters made it hard for my American ears to decipher meaning. I wish that Tony Richardson had thought about this when making the film; I mean, couldn’t he get his statements about class differences in England across without making use of working class accents? I am the most important viewer of this film.

Kidding aside, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a terrific film. It tells the story of an angry young man, placing it into the “teenage delinquent” genre popular in American cinema in the 195os, a genre that, at least in the US, tended to be pretty lousy. Think of Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and Blackboard Jungle. The best of those is probably Rebel, but aside from the iconic aspects of James Dean’s performance in it, it’s a pretty lousy movie. English versions of the genre include Loneliness and later efforts such as A Clockwork Orange (based on a novel published in 1962, the same year as Loneliness was mad) and the delightful If…, about a boarding school that turns violent. (Note, teenage delinquency was considered a crisis in the US in the 1950s (see this (much briefer than anything I have ever written) blog for more information), but the UK did not start to worry about the phenomenon so much until the 1960s, explaining the discrepancy in time periods.) The English versions tend to be better than their American counterparts, and Loneliness is no exception.

Look at how pretty that looks! © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The film opens on a man, Colin, running alone on a road in England, in a rural area. It looks like a bucolic setting, and one might think this is going to be a nice movie about a nice young man who lives in a rural area and does nice people things (falls in love with the girl next door, goes to sock hops, learns to say “thee,” takes a job as a ‘prentice for his uncle). But then, we cut from him running to him in a prison-type van, going to a juvenile detention center. Immediately, the film disorients the audience, something Richardson will do again and again. Indeed, the structure of the film is itself jarring—the film cuts from the present to the past and back again as Colin recounts his life of petty crime and anguish while solitarily running. We see the violence of the reform school as well as the emotional turmoil of his home life, and the only parts of the film that are remotely peaceful are his runs. But, of course, those runs turn into ruminations on pain shown from Colin’s perspective.

The film is highly subjective and disjointed, then. Loneliness makes frequent use of handheld compositions and occasional use of POV shots; for instance, the first night Colin is at boarding school, we see through the shaky eyes of the guard as he inspects the bunks. This shot gives us a subjectivity that then reverses into the viewpoint of our main subject, Colin; that is, we are looking from a guard’s perspective until we get to our narrator and switch back to his perspective. Occasionally, the film gives us other viewpoints as well, as some of the scenes involving the governor showing off the school to rich donors or talking to his peers do not feature Colin at all. These scenes give us a privileged viewpoint, although they do not complicate our own viewpoint. They simply reinforce that Colin is right to be defiant and angry. It’s not a terribly profound viewpoint, but it is an absolute one.

Richardson seems to have an especial fondness for clever editing. He likes to cut scenes so quickly that the audience is thrown out of the comfort of one scene and back into another, as though letting the audience get adjusted and used to something would be the gravest sin. He makes several uses of contrapuntal sound; that is, the sight of one scene often starts before the previous scene’s audio is finished, breaking rules of the “classical” style as the sound and image do not align. For instance, a destructive food fight’s audio plays as we cut to a calm and sedate board meeting of the school administrators meeting to discuss the fight (providing cause and effect). Then, we see school administrators brutally beating a student while the audio plays the end of the calm meeting (providing judgement and punishment).

Frequent flashbacks to Colin's former life reveal a bleak existence, albeit one that is perfectly composed. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Frequent flashbacks to Colin’s former life reveal a bleak existence, albeit one that is perfectly composed. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Richardson also makes use of other anti-classical techniques. The film features several rapid camera movements and zooms to show us the character’s own focus. For instance, when Colin is doing free association with the psychiatrist, we zoom in on the tape recorder, which obviously has Colin feeling ill at ease. And structurally, the telling of two linear narratives (Colin in the borstal as he prepares for a big race and Colin’s journey from freedom to the borstal) is itself disorienting, even though the flashbacks are largely shown linearly and add up to a cohesive and simple story (boy’s dad dies, boy’s mom moves a bit too quickly on a new guy, boy feels purposeless and then gets into trouble). Thus, the structure of the story and the style of the film are far more interesting than the story itself or the film itself.

These stylistic flourishes seem somewhat antithetical to the gritty realness of the movie and its statement about the stark realities of working-class life in Britain, but they are actually in line with a style of documentary films Richardson and others made in the 1950s. In fact, almost all the stylistic flourishes used in Loneliness are trademarks of the “Free Cinema” movement with which Richardson was associated. Free Cinema was a style employed in a series of highly influential independently produced documentary films showcasing the working class in England. Christophe Dupin, writing at the BFI’s Screenonline website, describes the signatures of the movement as follows: The filmmakers “used black and white film and hand-held, portable cameras, avoided or limited the use of didactic voice-over commentary, shunned narrative continuity and used sound and editing impressionistically.” Loneliness makes use of all of these to disrupt the audience’s expectations and to promote a general rebellious spirit throughout.

As a fiction film with a realist bent, Loneliness feels somewhat documentary-like, but Richardson also uses several absurdist elements that further promote an antiauthoritarian and rebellious air. Courtenay’s mouth contorts in comical ways throughout the film, providing an indication that the words he says are not the words he means. Further, the governor’s pompous proclamations (such as his insistence that sports are ultimately what make boys into good honest men) are very clearly satirized, and, indeed, there is something absurd that Colin learned to become a world-class running man (to quote a great Mr. Show sketch) by “running away from the police” as he puts it, but that he is seen by the governor as a great athlete with a chance to reform himself through running. Richardson makes an even clearer absurdist statement in the flashback scene in which Colin and his friend mute the bloated politician on the telly (I felt like employing an English-ism at least once here!) as he rails against the youth of the UK. This makes the politician powerless, as an orator without a voice is a form without a purpose, a series of inscrutable faces and hand gestures, creating a simulacrum, an empty image. The kids laugh at the way it looks, but the audience laughs at the overall rebelliousness of simply cutting down the figure of power by cutting him off.

The big race provides Colin with a final act of defiance. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The big race provides Colin with a final act of defiance. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Much of the movie, indeed, is rebellious without being rebellious in any sort of teleologic or hermeneutic sense. That is, the protagonist is an angry young man who does bad things (according to society), but he does not make a grand gesture or provide anything much to examine. He’s not James Dean in Rebel, who acts rebellious because he is stigmatized as a rebel (and has an emasculated dad!), nor is he Marlon Brando in The Wild One, who defiantly implies he’s rebelling just because he can (“What are you rebelling against?” “What do you got?”). Rather, the protagonist here is a kid who never had a chance. Add to that that his dad is dead and his mom doesn’t seem to care and has moved on to a new (in Colin’s words) “fancy man,” and we have Hamlet if he didn’t have the directions from a ghost. And we know Hamlet could barely handle fulfilling his assigned mission—what can the youth of this picture do without a chance or a purpose? He truly is, thus, a rebel without a cause. His only cause is to not be left “scarpering” for favor. As he puts it to another schoolmate (McCowen):

What’s the point of scarpering? The best thing to do is be cunning and stay where you are. You see, I’m gonna let them think they’ve got me house trained, but they never will, the bastards. To get me beat, they’ll have to stick a rope around my neck.

Colin is punished for his defiance by losing his privileges and being forced to make gas masks with the other borstal boys. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Colin is punished for his defiance by losing his privileges and being forced to make gas masks with the other borstal boys. © 1962 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The movie ends with Colin living up to his goals of gaining human freedom and promoting a sense of defiance. Colin chooses to throw the race at the last minute, the film making very clear that he could win if he wanted to. But, like Clint Eastwood walking away from the town he saves in virtually every Eastwood Western, Colin is better off not tied down and beholden to anyone. The film ends with him being another loser kid at the school, stuck making gas masks in the shop. But at least he won’t have to breathe the noxious air of the governor.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, I enjoyed The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. TCM.com calls it an “essential,” and I agree. Speaking of which, it will be on TCM again on September 5, and I think it’s worth DVRing again (although I probably won’t, having just watched it!).

Bunny Lake is Missing

Bunny_lake_is_missing_(1965) Details:
Director: Otto Preminger         Producer: Otto Preminger
Writers: John Mortimer & Penelope Mortimer
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Carol Lynley, Keir Dullea, Martita Hunt, Anna Massey, Noël Coward, the Zombies
Studio: Columbia Pictures      Year: 1965

Why I DVRed It: There were two things that drew me to this movie. First was the Zombies, one of my favorite (that means top 100 or so, not like top five) bands of all time. The group appears on camera and contributed three songs to the film’s soundtrack. The second thing that drew me to the movie was a love of Laurence Olivier. I am especially fond of Olivier in movies that are pretty dumb (like The Boys from Brazil or Marathon Man), and this movie’s premise promised that it would be a fairly dumb movie.

Presentation on TCM: Well, once again, TCM plopped the film down with no introduction. I could not figure out why it was on either, although I know it was on during the late afternoon on a Monday. So far, since starting this website, I am 0 for 5 on movies that have any sort of introduction from a TCM person, and I have to say I’m disappointed and dispirited about it.

Synopsis: A recent emigre to England, Ann Lake (Lynley) goes to retrieve her kid, the titular Bunny Lake, from her fist day of school only to find out that (as might be gleaned from the title) she is missing. But no one at the school seems to remember her at all, and the Scotland Yard investigator called in to investigate, Superintendent Newhouse (Olivier), begins to suspect Bunny may not exist. Ann’s brother, Steven (Dullea), a reporter, tries to prove otherwise.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Bunny Lake is Missing is better titled than most movies (especially if you add an exclamation point when you say it aloud), but the film does not live up to the promise or excitement of the title. In fact, this is the first movie I’ve written about for this site that I just downright didn’t like. The movie is dull and lifeless, the acting mismatched (the heavy actors are great, the actual young stars awful), the plot twist at once obvious and too convoluted to be believed, and the film as a whole just meh, very very meh. But, bad aside, there’s still a little bit interesting in the film… just barely.

For one, the film opens with one of the better credit sequences I remember. A hand rips off pieces of paper to reveal the credits one by one, replacing the pieces again, like a person disassembling and reassembling a puzzle. Finally, the camera cuts away the final paper to reveal an English garden. The sequence (designed by Saul Bass, who also did credit sequences for Vertigo, Psycho, and West Side Story) is fun, and the score that plays over it (which serves as a leitmotif throughout the film) is catchy.

The look of the film as a whole is good too, with Preminger and the cinematographer, Denys Coop, making effective use of the deep focus lens. Everything is wide, bright, and strangely flat.

Many of the shots in the film make use or corners or tripod arrangements, but the lens makes them look flat, like here, where Newhouse and Ann's conversation almost looks to be cut in half by another police officer. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Many of the shots in the film make use or corners or tripod arrangements, but the lens makes them look flat, like here, where Newhouse and Ann’s conversation almost looks to be cut in half by another police officer. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

I say “strangely flat” because so many of the shots show corners, and the camera seems to never come on a subject head-on—it’s nearly always askew. Yet the depth of field makes each shot simply look like a 2-d shot cut in half, creating a splintered effect (perhaps to show the splintered personalities of Steven). Preminger also makes use of long tracking shots which provide an almost voyeuristic effect on the audience, as though we are creeping around the edges of the truth. This effect was especially strong on the sequence in which the creepy old man landlord (played wonderfully by Coward) watches Superintendent Newhouse drive away from Ann’s house.

So, the look of the film is good, and the music is also good. The Zombies songs on the soundtrack are all good, though they are not as good as anything from Odyssey & Oracle or some of the awesome singles (like my personal favorite, “She’s Coming Home”), but they contribute nicely to an important aspect of the film: its setting in “Swinging London.” The Zombies are not active characters in the movie by any means—they merely appear on the television twice as the band guest on a variety show—but they remind the audience that the movie is a 60s movie, even if so much of it is more like a traditional thriller of the 40s and 50s.

There are a number of movies set in that London, of course, but, while watching Bunny Lake, I found myself thinking fondly of Blow Up, a movie I have never liked as much as I think I’m supposed to like (because it’s critically acclaimed and super Mod, and people like me always are supposed to be super into Mod culture, and I like British Invasion groups and so on, I feel like I should love Blow Up, but I always just kind of thought it was ok). Blow Up was made just a year after Bunny Lake and has the same setting and similar stylistic elements (and they’re both kinda thrillers), so I don’t think my thought process was that strained; however, the movies are radically different, and, as I said, I found myself liking one in absentia a lot better than the one I was watching, probably because of those radical differences.

Part of the difference seems to stem from the dilettantism Preminger put into Bunny Lake is Missing. It is a movie about a specific time and place (London in the present of 1965), but it barely uses anything unique about London in 1965 as a setting, even though Preminger chose to change the setting of the book from the USA to London. The film references 60s era topics such as protests—Stephen mentions covering a student demonstration at the airport as part of his job as a journalist—and it has some rock and roll in the diegetic soundtrack, but largely the film is out of time. It shows a group of middle class Americans who are new to England but uninterested in exploring the world or really introducing the world to the American film audience. Despite their newness to the nation, Ann and Stephen seem surprisingly adept at navigating London until the unthinkable happens. But even then, they manage. They impress the antiquated detective enough to keep him interested in the case, and he shows Carol (and by extension the audience) a “traditional English pub,” but no one ventures past the superficial elements of England.

The Zombies play on TV in the English pub—they are not part of the movie, just part of the diegetic experience.  © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
The Zombies play on TV in the English pub—they are not part of the movie, just part of the diegetic experience. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Preminger chose to set the film in England largely so he could make use of some of his favorite London settings—including the creepy as Hell “doll hospital” at which Stephen is revealed as a villain—and these settings definitely contribute to the atmospherics of the film, but they are not places that only exist in 60s London. Rather, they could exist anywhere theoretically. Thrillers like this tend to be set in “no place” because the audience is scared that the plot could happen anywhere—including next door!— but it seems that a movie that uses a weirdly specific setting ought to more fully utilize that setting. The film should more clearly feel like it’s part of London in the 60s. But, of course, that’s not the point of this movie. Instead, it halfheartedly puts elements of the youth culture in it but does not embrace them (hence the Zombies merely being TV noise). The world of Bunny Lake may be transitioning into the 1960s, but the world shown is still pretty much the same it always was and will remain the same for the characters of the movie, aside from Stephen who will presumably be committed, of course. The setting is secondary to the story here, but if the film had embraced the setting a bit more, it all might have left a better finished product.

Blow Up, on the other hand, shows a bizarro world, following a fashion photographer as he shiftlessly investigates a crime through the swingingest parts of London (the plot is weird; I described it to my girlfriend once as an episode of Hart to Hart without Robert Wagner). The scene featuring the Yardbirds (themselves a more aggressive form of the Zombies) is prominent in the film, and the film shows rather than merely talks about protesters. It is an element of the 60s, a film that preserves the time period and serves as an artifact from it. Bunny Lake is simply a movie from the same era and a largely forgettable one at that.

And that’s fine. I’m not trying to suggest that Bunny Lake has the same aim as Blow Up. The former is a mass-market big studio thriller, the latter an art-house picture.

It’s just that both films do largely the same things (thrillers with oddly specific settings featuring rock bands), but Bunny Lake does it so halfheartedly and disinterestedly. I suppose one could say that shows something about how much the world changed between 1965 and 1966, but that seems a bit strained. Really, Blow Up is just a more competent film, and Bunny Lake is kinda shitty.

One lesson to draw from Bunny Lake is how important subtlety is to a good horror movie or thriller. Olivier’s presence reminded me of Rebecca, a film that feels creepy throughout and makes better use of its atmospherics (to see the atmospherics, here’s the opening to that film in Spanish). Bunny Lake makes use of extreme atmospherics and creepiness, but it never gets creepy.

This doll hospital is legitimately terrifying. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
This doll hospital is legitimately terrifying. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The doll hospital is creepy in a carnival-haunted-house-ride way, and the room the founder of Bunny’s school, Ada Ford (Hunt) (who sits in an attic-type room and writes down and listens to audio tapes of children’s nightmares), sits in is frightening too. The atmospherics though don’t contribute anything to the final product besides a general creepiness, because they are so overdone. And, of course, because the plot is just so stupid.

And the stupidest part of the plot is the twist that Ann’s brother is a schizophrenic. This is meant to be as terrifying as the setting (who knows what kind of evil lurks in your loved ones!), but it never gets interesting, nor is it a terrifying twist. The twist in Rebecca, however, is surprising and unsettling, in part because the film as whole is just plain better than Bunny Lake but in part because the atmospherics are more subtle and better done (even in spite of the hammy cousin and some of the more bizarre elements of Manderley). The psychological thriller component of Bunny Lake just ends up being dull and stupid.

Shots like this one so foreshadow the plot twist that it becomes obvious. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Shots like this one so foreshadow the plot twist that it becomes obvious. © 1965 – Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The result is a tired and uneven movie that has elements that should make it good (60s London, scene-stealing acting from Olivier/Coward/Hunt, a nice look, a fun sequence in a doll shop) but that largely just dress up a tedious swine in some Mod pearls.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: No, probably not. I didn’t like this movie, and it felt like a waste of time. I guess I liked seeing the Zombies in small doses, but I never got that interested in this film. Maybe if I saw it in the theater, it would’ve been better, but it definitely did not play well in my living room, off of DVR.

Point Blank

Details:
Director: John Boorman
Producers: Judd Bernard, Robert Chartoff, & Irwin Winkler
Writers: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse & Rafe Newhouse
Cast: Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Keenan Wynn, Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, Michael Strong
Studio: MGM   Year: 1967

Why I DVRed It: I had heard of this movie somewhere at some time, but I honestly don’t remember the context. Apparently (I found out later!), it is something of a cult classic, so my guess is that I heard of it from talking to someone who liked to put on airs by talking about “obscure” films from the past… someone not at all like me, the person writing about films from the past.

Anyway, in truth, I think I DVRed this because I had the Bruce Springsteen song “Point Blank” (from 1980’s underrated album The River) in my head the week I saw this on the schedule, and it seemed like too much of a coincidence to not embrace, especially when I read the description and saw the names Lee Marvin and John Boorman. What the hell, right?

Presentation on TCM: This was presented as part of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” series, which has turned out to have some real gems on it (spoiler alert: Point Blank isn’t one of these gems). No one introduced the movie, although my DVR did capture the ending of The Third Man, which included some discussion from a host I’ve never seen before. So, it was kind of like getting an introduction…

Synopsis: This is a simple revenge movie. At the Alcatraz drop point for a heist, Reese (Vernon) betrays Walker (Marvin), his partner, shooting him at point blank range (like the title!).

Walker looks on to the mainland after surviving his killing at Alcatraz. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Somehow, Walker lives and decides he wants the money he was owed… as well as blood. The enigmatic Yost (Wynn) gives him directions about how he can get revenge on the people who set him up, including Reese, Walker’s ex-wife (who is sleeping with Reese), and the crime syndicate (the clandestine “Organization”) that is connected to the heist and that refuses to acknowledge that Walker is owed anything, regardless of the relatively meager size of the debt Walker seeks.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Point Blank is a simple movie dressed up in a complicated package. There is nothing in its story that is particularly innovative, but the style is fresh. It’s glossy and makes uses of interesting shots as well as rapid cutaways and flashbacks. These allow the viewer a subjectivity not typically displayed in revenge films, except when those revenge films are crafted for us to empathize with the revenge seeker (because of the tragic death of his family, for instance). Point Blank is not a film that causes subjective empathy though, because very little is really on the line. Walker doesn’t seem particularly upset about his wife leaving him or his being left for dead. He’s a stoic absurdist hero or antihero (like Mersault in The Stranger). Walker is a man who simply “walks” in and out of trouble, and he could just as easily walk away from any of the action at any point in the film. While everything is shown through Walker’s perspective and psyche, Walker himself is hard to care about because he doesn’t seem to care about anything himself.

That is not to say that Walker would not be justified in his anger or any other emotion. He should be pissed off—Reese has taken his wife, his share of the money, and his life. Everyone assumes Walker is dead, and it is hard to see how he survived the assassination attempt, but he does (or does he?— some critics and fans posit that he imagines the whole movie in his last fits of death, a reading that defies textual evidence and logic albeit not as much logic as the fact of Walker’s surviving a shooting at point blank range…Far more likely is that these theories misinterpret a quotation from Boorman in which he states that Walker “could just as easily be a ghost or a shadow” as a real person, because of his ability to survive and infiltrate the Organization). But the phlegmatic Walker does not seem to care about his wife (who commits suicide after he confronts her) nor about his death. Rather, he only cares about the money he is owed, and even that he only seems to care about to a point. He uses it as a justification for his killing spree, but that’s all it is: an excuse.

Walker kills because he can and is blasé about it. But look at how pretty Boorman makes it look! © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Walker kills because he can and is blasé about it. But look at how pretty Boorman makes the violence look! © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Walker is, thus, very much a 60s type character: desultory, detached, disillusioned, and demoralized. The audience of the time is supposed to identify with his countercultural instincts, even while he stands for nothing, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde, but the film misuses the subjectivity it establishes, because it never makes the audience like Walker the way it likes Bonnie and Clyde, because Walker’s not compelling (though Lee Marvin’s screen charisma is undeniable); he’s just an animal clawing his way through a tough-to-survive world. Walker’s survival depends upon his distrust of others and his unwillingness to compromise on his one demand: the money he is owed and not a penny more. Really, though, it just depends on his expertise at killing and his lack of feeling for others.

The film gives him one character to care about, Chris (Dickinson), the sister of his now deceased wife, who tells him that she always thought he was the best thing that ever happened to her sister (poor girl if the best thing that ever happened to her is a relationship with a terse homicidal maniac lacking a first name). Walker and Chris establish a relationship (despite her not having a known last name and him never having a first name), but it is not a loving one. He uses her sexuality to gain entrance to Reese’s LA penthouse when it’s under lockdown, and later in the movie, while waiting for Brewster in his house somewhere outside of LA, she hits him until he agrees to have sex with her. Thus, Chris is a tough broad who, apparently, needs little from Walker other than to be used sexually, even if it means beating Walker up to get her way.

But even with her pre-and post-coitally, he remains one thing: cool. Yost tells him early on to “take it easy—you’ll last longer.” And Walker embraces the advice. He is always calmer than the world around him, allowing him to control each situation and stay alive. While each of his victims either rushes into confrontation, begs, or barters, Walker is fine with sitting back and waiting. This allows a would-be Walker assassin to kill Carter (Bochner) instead of him, as Walker hides in the shadows watching. This coolness under pressure is reminiscent of the Clint Eastwood characters that would come later, particularly in the Westerns, but Walker seems to stand for even less than Josey Wales (and certainly less than the fascist wetdream Harry Callahan). Again, I think the audience is supposed to just like him because he is “cool,” but so what?

Nothing about Walker as a character is all that interesting. I guess he could be read as a character embodying a dying ideal of manhood and purpose in a changing America. He does not seem to understand, for instance, that the world does not work the way he thinks it does—he can’t, for instance, just get money from the people who owe it to him. As he climbs up the Organization (the nefarious cabal that Reese was attempting to buy into), he learns from Brewster (O’Connor, a highlight of the casting) that money isn’t what it once was. Brewster tells him:

Let me tell you something about corporations. This is a corporation, and I’m an officer in it. We deal in millions, we never see cash. I got about $ 11 in my pocket.

Walker is framed by his last victim, Brewster, and the woman he uses to get his vengeance, Chris. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Walker is framed here by his last victim, Brewster, and the woman he uses to get his vengeance, Chris. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Walker would be better suited getting money from a bank or Western stagecoach, but instead he is attempting to rob a modern business, making him an anachronism, a man out of his element. That’s mildly interesting, I suppose, but the film doesn’t quite sell that point. Instead, Walker is just a man who seems to kill for no other reason than to kill, and he quits and “walks” away (sorry to keep emphasizing the obviousness of his moniker—I just think it’s kind of stupid) when he finds out he’s been a puppet for the shadowy Yost the whole time.

So what makes this movie a cult classic, which it apparently is? The movie (like most cult classics) was a bit ahead of its time. Most historians mark the birth of New Hollywood in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Point Blank, also released in 1967, is right on the cusp then, but it never found the audience of either picture. Part of it is because the movie isn’t quite counterculture enough to really be “New Hollywood.” Lee Marvin insisted that John Boorman, directing his first feature in America, be granted final edit and be in charge of all casting decisions. Boorman made the film look very much like a 1967 production, but the story isn’t that far off a typical Lee Marvin Western. And Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson (she of the Rat Pack) weren’t exactly the stars the youth clamored to see. So, Point Blank disappointed at the box office. A lack of financial success is, of course, a prerequisite for cult classic status.

Second, the movie could be seen as an influence for other directors looking to make movies that are overly violent but lack any real causality for the violence. Walker always has a simplistic raison d’être for his killing, but everyone can see through it. Really, he’s like Travis Bickle or Rambo: he’s killing just because he can. The character of Walker is incredibly common in films these days (see John Wick, Taken, or any number of Jason Statham movies), so Point Blank’s influence is easy to see. Cult classic films are usually influential too—that’s how they endure.

Third, the film has some elements that make it more interesting than my analysis would suggest. It contains several elements of the New Wave cinema, including sweeping and long tracking shots, the aforementioned quick cuts, and some interesting cinematographic techniques to distort the audience’s expectations. Chief among these are the focus on bright lights moving in and out of focus when helicopters land and the often disorienting splices into memory. Take the film’s opening sequence. Walker is in a prison cell, mumbling “How did I get here?” We cut to a flashback of a mob of men in suits fighting. One says, “I need your help.” That is a far cry from the beginning of a traditional revenge story. It is more similar to the beginning of Apocalypse Now (which also has some New Wave elements) than it is to, say, The Outlaw Josey Wales (which succinctly provides the reason for Josey’s revenge while also summarizing the Civil War). In Point Blank, the audience is just as confused about Walker’s circumstances as Walker seems to be. The director plays with this through the use of some very clever camera work. Boorman uses a lot of reflection and stacked images throughout the movie to make the audience unsure of exactly what he/she should be looking at in each scene. This keeps one confused throughout and makes the film much more compelling to watch than it has any right to be.

The film contains several “stacked” reflection shots like this one. Such shots allow the viewer to focus on what he/she wants. © 1967 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

So, all of this combines to make the film popular with a certain audience. I’m not that audience, even while I can find redeeming elements of it (e.g., the subjectivity, the cinematographic tricks, the screen presence of Marvin and O’Connor). As an aside, it was the first film to be shot in Alcatraz. So, we wouldn’t have The Rock (and other films!) without Point Blank I guess.

Should I have DVRed This on TCM: I don’t know. The movie was… fine. It was fine. I didn’t think it was unenjoyable; it just wasn’t anything all that great or informative or profound or anything like that. But that’s a good thing. It’s a simple revenge movie, and it doesn’t try to make any overly profound statements. I usually hate it when movies don’t know their place (that is, when an action movie tries to get “deep” for instance), and this one did know its place. I liked the New Hollywood styling of it—the quick cuts to flashbacks, for instance—and Marvin and O’Connor are enjoyable; I just never felt like I cared about Walker. When Walker “walks” away from Yost, the puppetmaster, at the end of the film, without his money, the audience is supposed to feel vindicated that Walker is his own man, but I just was bored by then.

If I were more inclined to liking action movies, I might say it was fantastic. I just don’t really like the genre, even when the movie is one that is at least somewhat influential on later examples of the genre (I noticed, for instance, similarities between Point Blank and Get Carter—movies lacking clear morals and personal stakes (unlike, say, Death Wish)). And I legitimately thought the movie was rather interesting to look at (like cinematographically). So, yeah, I guess I should’ve DVRed it, but I definitely would not DVR it again.