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

Poster
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!

Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis movie poster. Lithograph, 1944. Missouri Historical Society, Photographs and Prints Collection. NS 21652. Scan © 2004, Missouri Historical Society.
Lithograph, 1944. Missouri Historical Society, Photographs and Prints Collection. NS 21652. Scan © 2004, Missouri Historical Society.

Details:
Director: Vincente Minnelli        Producer: Arthur Freed
Writers: Irving Brecher & Fred F. Finklehoffe
Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake
Studio: MGM   Year: 1944

Why I DVRed It: A lifetime ago, I won a part in a staged production of Meet Me in St. Louis. After a grueling audition process, I won the highly coveted roles of both a nameless chorus member and an anonymous square dancer in a junior high production of the musicial in suburban Minneapolis. It was my first and last foray into the world of the theater, musical or otherwise. In fact, the experience was so unpleasant (believe it or not, middle school students are not nice to each other) that I was forever turned off by musicals (which I also wasn’t enamored of before learning all the words to “The Trolley Song”). Since then, of course, I’ve halfway come around to them. That is, I don’t seek them out typically, but I’ll go to a live one if someone else wants to go, or I’ll watch a movie musical if it’s supposed to be really good or at least doesn’t look awful. That has led me to see some good and some not so good films. Singing in the Rain was, of course, a delight, but even a fascination in all things Elvis could not make me stomach Bye Bye BirdieMeet Me in St. Louis is generally lumped (along with Singing in the Rain) into that category of “critically acclaimed musicals,” so I figured it couldn’t be terrible.

Additionally, I was looking to watch something that didn’t seem too intense. I’ve been watching and reading too many crime stories lately, and I wanted something saccharine—this movie seemed about as sappy as I could get.

Presentation on TCM: This was on at 4 in the morning, a time when TCM does not seem to bring out the big guns (Robert Osborne or Ben Mankiewicz). I have no idea why it was on at 4 in the morning, either—that is, there was no theme I could discern from that evening/morning’s lineup. I guess the mindset was that the type of people up at 4 in the morning (the elderly, laborers, insomniacs, hard partiers, and lunatics) would be the type most likely to watch a Minnelli musical in Technicolor.

Louisiana purchase centennial, World’s fair, St. Louis, 1904 (1903).
Louisiana Purchase Centennial, World’s Fair, St. Louis, 1904 (1903).

Synopsis: This is a musical in which the plot seems secondary in import to having ample opportunity for song and dance numbers. The year is 1903, and everyone in St. Louis is ridiculously excited for the World’s Fair the city will host the following year, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. In the Smith household, Esther (Garland) has a crush on the next-door neighbor, John Truett (Drake), and Rose (Bremer) pines for her boyfriend in New York to propose. Meanwhile, the youngest child, the doted-upon Tootie (O’Brien) has a morbid sense of humor, and the father, Alonso (Ames), decides to uproot everyone to New York—even though St. Louis is where the World’s Fair is going to be!

Analysis (contains spoilers): Meet Me in St. Louis is often regarded as one of the best of the big Hollywood musicals. In 1944, it was an instant hit and further cemented Judy Garland’s star. It was the first collaboration between her and director Vincente Minneli, her eventual husband. Garland was originally very uninterested in the film, both because it exacerbated her already overstrained schedule and because the film did not appear to have much potential. Indeed, the film was known around MGM as “Freed’s Folly” while it was being filmed. The choice of an unproven Minnelli did not help, and filming was difficult for all on the set. (For a great breakdown of the creation of the film, please visit The Judy Room.) Nevertheless, all were happy with the finished product, which raked in millions nationwide and had a profound impact on the morale of American theatergoers during the third year of World War II. Indeed, the film became something of a national treasure.

And it’s easy to see why: It shows America as the audience wants it to be, not as it is. I can’t say I particularly liked the film, but I didn’t not like it either. I just couldn’t get past a lot of the problems I have with musicals in general. The plot is quite thin (as was probably gleaned from my synopsis), and the music here pretty much never furthers the plot. All of the songs are performance pieces for characters in the movie (i.e., the characters sing standalone songs for each other’s amusement, rather than for the purpose of plot), and they could just as easily be cut for one to follow the story, not unlike the sex scenes in a porno. But, of course, the audience of St. Louis is primarily watching the movie to see Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, et al, sing, so cutting the songs would make as much sense as cutting the sex from a porno. If I were more inclined to liking musicals, I might think better of the film, but I’m not, and I don’t.

The song numbers, true, are very good. I’m far from the first person in the history of the world to note this, but Judy Garland’s got quite the voice on her. And her acting (along with that of O’Brien and Astor) makes up for rather mediocre acting from most others in the cast. I did rather like the look of the film: Set designers clearly played up and utilized all that Technicolor offered. The house, for instance, which is basically the only set for the entire movie, is quite richly decorated with lush tapestries and colorful furniture, and all of the characters wear beautiful costumes that create a variegated look to each scene.

Rose and Esther talk about the hot guy next door, but they do so in such vivid color! © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Rose and Esther talk about the hot guy next door, but they do so in such vivid color! © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

MGM spared no expense on this movie (remember, film stock—especially color film stock—and lighting were extremely expensive in the war years), and audiences certainly appreciated it. In truth, the look of the film makes up for a lot of its problems. The songs are all well sung but sparsely choreographed, leaving very little to focus on if not the colors. And Minnelli’s framing device, opening each season with a color postcard that turns into a live-action shot of the house, is clever for setting up the plot. I just couldn’t get past the thinness of said plot and the fact that I never really cared about the Smith family or their exploits.

What little plot there is centers around 1904’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition, a world’s fair that is today as forgotten as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 is celebrated. It was a big deal in 1904, of course, but today it is known only for its controversial displays of newly conquered “primitive Americans” (from Guam and the Philippines) and for being the place that popularized cotton candy, waffle cones, peanut butter, and other foods. In fact, the 1904 World’s Fair is probably best remembered today as the setting for Meet Me in St. Louis (even though the film only has one scene actually at the fair…). It is, however, the lack of historical import of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition that makes the fair such a perfect setting for a film that celebrates an idealized portrayal of American life; after all, few could challenge the veracity of the film’s portrayal of a fair about which few had much knowledge. The fair’s themes also underscore the idealized patriotic themes of the film. A decade after the “closing of the frontier,” the fair celebrated American expansionism (quite literally, it celebrated the centennial of the doubling of America), and, in 1944, the height of World War II, the setting of a fair celebrating world peace clearly harkens to an era of innocence. And this innocence appears permanent in the diegetic St. Louis of the film, rather than (as in the case of soooooooo many films about the 1960s for instance) as something just on the cusp of passing. If the film were set during the Chicago World’s Fair, for instance, world peace would still be on display, but so too would change—in the form of electricity. The St. Louis World’s Fair, though, just celebrated “nice things” and optimism about the future.

Of course, such innocence never truly existed, but that is exactly the point of the film. Meet Me in St. Louis showcased the idealized American life later (and concurrently) embodied by Norman Rockwell paintings, It’s a Wonderful Life (two years later), and Walt Disney. In fact, Disney’s theme parks much resemble the look and feel of the film, with the parks’ Main Street, USA showcasing the same Midwest of the early 20th century of Meet Me in St. Louis. Disney World’s Carousel of Progress, especially, bares striking resemblance to the film. In that attraction, the audience watches an animatronic old man describe all the great things technology has wrought and describes the story of America in the 20th century teleologically. The audience learns that technology is improving the quality of life for everyone while the narrator omits some of the events that actually brought about those changes (e.g., the Great Depression, World War II, the 60s). But, of course, no one wants to go to an amusement park and be bummed out about war and stuff. And that’s exactly the purpose Meet Me in St. Louis served. It offered an escape (it still offers an escape) from what was really going on in the world. The America of the film was simply a nice place in which everyone had enough of everything, including money, opportunity, love, family, and optimism.

Even the Smith's house (which is pretty much the setting for everything in the film) is an idealized
Even the Smith’s house (which is pretty much the setting for everything in the film) is an idealized “typical American” house. In reality, it is clearly the house of a wealthy family, but the world of Meet Me in St. Louis is classless, in that we never see anyone of another class (other than the family maid, but she’s sassy and a member of the family). © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

The film almost overtly projects certain ideals of American life. For one, it offers a very mawkish and romantic vision of American family life. The Smiths are meant to be an every family (even the name Smith is as generic as can be), and their middle class Victorianism is meant to look appealing to the audience. Indeed, the family is loving and affectionate to each other. Even after the father decides completely by himself and out of nowhere to uproot the family to New York (as is his right as the male in a Victorian family) and tears are shed, the family reunites over the piano to join in a popular song. Love unites the family, and music is the language of love (at least according to Shakespeare).

The film also offers the idea that the true center of American family life is out there, away from the corrupt cities of the East. St. Louis is where it’s at, and it’s where true families want to live. Tootie, a child strangely obsessed with death and disease (for more on that subject, read See St. Louis and Die) is particularly upset about the move to New York, and Esther tries to calm her by singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (yes, Meet Me in St. Louis is the source of that cherished holiday classic), but Tootie runs out to destroy the snowmen she and the rest of the family created in a schmaltzy sequence earlier in the film. In typical 40s movie fashion, Alonso watches from a window as Esther tries to stop Tootie from destroying the snow family:

Tootie: Nobody’s going to have [the snowmen], not if we can’t take them to New York! I’d rather kill them if we can’t take them with us!
Esther: Oh, Tootie, don’t cry. Don’t cry. It’s all right. You can build other snow people in New York.
Tootie: No, you can’t! You can’t do any of the things that I can do in St. Louis!
Esther: No, no, Tootie, you’re wrong. New York is a wonderful town. Everybody dreams about going there, but we’re luckier than lots of families because we’re really going… Thats’s what really counts. We could be happy anywhere as long as we’re together. 

Tootie destroys the snow family (a very heavyhanded representation of the Smiths and, by extension, the American family at large)—before New York City can. . © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Tootie destroys the snow family (a very heavy-handed representation of the Smiths and, by extension, the American family at large)—before New York City can.  © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

After watching this, Alonso reverses course and decides to stay in St. Louis. Interestingly, New York is the “desired place” but not the place the family is supposed to end up. The film makes a startling cry for suburban/rural domesticity and middle class values. (As someone who has been in New York too long, I guess I can agree with that sentiment—New York in July is a garbage city that smells like garbage, the same garbage that lines the garbage streets I have to walk to get to the subway overcrowded with assholes and maniacs, but I digress.) St. Louis has enough, apparently, for Tootie, whose happiness is utmost. Children were, of course, the most important aspect of any Victorian family, and Alonso knows better than to want more than what he needs: Though New York probably would allow him to get richer, he is rich enough with his gigantic house, servant, and loving children (plus, logically, the St. Louis hosting both the World’s Fair and the Olympics would probably have some ways for him to get more money if he really wanted it).

Morals do not come up in this film because no one is immoral, but they just as easily could. St. Louis is pure (note that the scene described above takes place in the driven snow), and Tootie implies that family itself will die once the family is away from America’s heartland. She will kill them all (as she kills the snowmen) if New York doesn’t kill the family first.  Finally, though, it is not the ills of New York that prevent him from moving the family; rather, it’s the joys of St. Louis. Alonso states that “New York hasn’t got opportunity copyrighted. St. Louis is headed for a boom.”

Indeed, the film ends on an even stronger pronouncement of that sentiment. As the newly engaged Esther and John gaze at the Grand Lagoon at the center of the World’s Fair, she looks right at the camera and says, of the fair, “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live, right here in St. Louis.” The film ends implying that the world is now coming to the United States, making the United States the center of the world. As World War II came to and end, this would be true, and the middle class values of Meet Me in St. Louis demonstrated just what the world should look like at war’s end (should, not would).

The world is coming to St. Louis. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
The world is coming to St. Louis. © 1944 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

It doesn’t matter that such innocence and optimism lack verisimilitude. Minnelli, in fact, makes it clear throughout that the film is a fiction and not realistic (for example, the framing device of announcing the seasons seems to suggest that the film shows an imagined story about what could happen in a picture postcard world). Instead, Meet Me in St. Louis provides exactly what musicals espouse: a world for us to aspire to and dream about, something, as Esther puts it of her first encounter with John, “strange and romantic.”

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t particularly like the film, but that’s just because I’m a misanthrope and cynic. It was well done, and it certainly provided me with something to think about (even if I only thought about it misanthropically and cynically). I think it’s important to at least occasionally watch movies that I might not normally pick (and to try new foods and listen to new bands, and all that “variety is the spice of life” shit), and I’m glad I made myself watch this one. I probably won’t watch it again, of course, but I might occasionally accidentally hum “meet me in St. Louis, Louis” or “clang clang clang went the trolley…”

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.