Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Stranger on the Third Floor

Discussions about criminal justice, and, particularly, the death penalty generally sort people into two categories:  Kafkas and RCMP Mounties.  Kafkas are cursed with a vivid imagination and sense that everyone could be plausibly, and, even, perhaps, justly, accused of a loathsome crime.  RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Polices) Mounties imagine themselves so stalwart, upright and virtuous that no one could ever suspect them of a traffic ticket violation let alone a heinous offense.  Kafkas are given to morose introspection; they read and think too much.  Mounties are beefy, attend Church for all the wrong reasons, and like guns.  Both camps are pretty entrenched and tend to glare at one another with hurt feelings when a debate between them ensues.  The 1940 film,  The Stranger on the Third Floor, depicts an earnest Mounty in the process of turning into a Kafka and its a dark, understated little gem.  The picture is directed by an unknown quantity, Boris Ingster, shot by the incomparable Nicholas Musuraca, and features the ultimate Kafka, tiny Peter Lorre slinking around the urban landscape, wordless until his final serenely insane speech.  Lorre always looks like he's guilty of something; his counterpart in this film, a Mounty, is a rock-jawed young journalist whose profile is a little like that of George Reeves, the Man of Steel famous for playing Superman in the latter part of the Fifties.  (I don't know the name of the actor or the leading lady -- they were minor contract players who have long since slipped into oblivion.)

The journalist witnesses the aftermath of a murder at a diner in Brooklyn.  (He's a regular at that place).  He doesn't see the actual murder just the suspect standing next to the man whose throat has been cut.  This killing turns out to be a benefit to the journalist -- he gets a scoop and by-line when he publishes the story in the paper and, then, is lionized when his confident testimony puts the bad guy on death row.  (The bad guy is the perpetually victimized and semi-hysterical Elisha Cook, Jr. -- here his baby-face convulsed by terror.)  The hero's problem is that his fiancée is a Kafka and thinks there is a reasonably doubt about the provenance of the murder. The trial, in which the Judge is paying no attention, the smarmy prosecutor and public defender gloating together over the crime, and the jurors asleep or almost asleep, is a nightmare to her and she quarrels bitterly with her boyfriend.  Aided by some melodramatic and accusing shadows, the journalist begins to doubt himself.  He recognizes that he has clashed repeatedly with a nosy, vicious neighbor and, indeed, when that neighbor is discovered with his throat slashed in the adjacent apartment, the journalist finds himself accused of that murder.  Then, Peter Lorre appears, haunting the premises of the two murders, and, of course, confesses to the girl with sinister nonchalance that he has killed both men.  After wrestling with the girl, Lorre runs out into the street and gets hit by a truck  This brings the film to an abrupt conclusion -- 30 seconds later, it's all over with Elisha Cook, Jr. revealed to be the taxi-driver who will take the happy couple to their marriage at City Hall.  In terms of plot, there's not much here but it's the details that make the film interesting.  For instance, the truckdriver immediately embarks on a lament about how he is not responsible for running over Peter Lorre -- there's a suggestion that the whole cycle of guilt and retribution is now firing up again, but in a different vein.  After the jury's verdict, we see the couple talking by telephone -- in both of their rooms, giant shadows of chairs are cast on the wall, reflecting the fact that the verdict and the criminal's execution have cast a shadow on their relationship.  About a third of the film is devoted to bravura fantasy sequence in which the hero imagines himself condemned to death by a stylized court and sleeping jurors, locked in a prison cell, and, then, dragged to his execution.  Critics debate whether this sequence signifies the inception of film noir.  (My vote is that it does not -- the fantasy sequence is too airy, involves sets that are too big and spacious, and, rather, seems more related to movie musicals of the late thirties:  the art director had worked with Fred Astaire on films like Top Hat.  Film noir is fundamentally claustrophobic and these sets, which are very large and open, look more like dance-floors. That said, the film's general sense of paranoia and doom make it a good candidate for a proto-noir whatever you think about the fantasy and dream sequences.)  Peter Lorre, of course, is great -- he was acting off the last couple days of his contract with RKO Radio Pictures and is scarcely in the picture.  But it's about him and his haunted face bridges the gap between Mounty and Kafka.  His first lines are indelible:  he orders two hamburgers raw so he can feed them to a stray dog:  "he is homeless," Lorre says about the dog, "and I am also."   

Saturday, March 17, 2018

X-Files (11th Season)

I was already approaching middle-age when the first nine seasons of the X-Files were broadcast.  Nostalgia, regret, and sorrow over forebodings of mortality provide much of the subject in the 11th season of the X-Files.  (This brooding sense of the imminence of dotage afflicted the 10th season when the show was rebooted after 20 years off-screen in 2016).   Accordingly, the show's pervasive autumnal cast makes me feel not just old, but ancient -- I am obviously ten or fifteen years older than the protagonists and if they are now long in the tooth and much afflicted by advancing age, a reader can, perhaps, imagine how I feel watching the program.  Even when the X-Files aims for campy horror and quotes itself in a post-modernist and ironic sort of way, the show isn't as much fun as it used to be.  Senility, it seems, is, indeed, creeping into the exercise.  That said, three of the show's episode were excellent and, even when the program is saturated in narcissistic self-pity, the program is still always pretty good.  Gillian Anderson is as beautiful as ever and the show's periodic gestures toward portraying her as a sort of wizened hag, of course, don't make any sense.  David Duchovny, truth be told, has not aged particularly well -- he look more Semitic than in days of yore and his face seems to have enlarged in an unbecoming sort of way:  the older we get, the bigger our faces, until, in the end, we are walking around with saggy masks of ourselves somehow tacked to our receding and grey hairlines.  This rule doesn't apply to the incandescent Ms. Anderson, but Duchovny isn't the dashing, saturnine leading man that he was once -- I'm not sure, for instance, that he is well-suited for a remake of his last show in "stud" mode, Californication.  He remains, however, a persuasive actor and the wry sense of humor that he shows in the program is one of its saving graces.

As everyone now knows, the so-called "mythology" episodes that amplify the shows's narrative arc -- something about humans bearing within them space alien DNA and a massive government conspiracy to repress this truth -- are generally dull, needlessly pretentious to the point of being sacramental, and incoherent to boot.  This was true when the show was in its first nine seasons and remains even more true today.  Accordingly, the first couple shows of the 11th season, programs that were suffused in stygian darkness and reprised the X-Files mythology, now even sadder and more grim because these episodes focus onan apparently irretrievably missing person, the son that Dana Scully and Fox Mulder conceived and, then, lost about 20 years ago -- the show  teases us with cameo appearances of the young man but he is forever being banished to the series' outer darkness much to the tearful dismay of his two now-aging children.  The mythology shows feature Mitch Pileggi as agent Skinner, Scully and Mulder's persnickety, curmudgeonly, but, ultimately, loyal boss -- curiously, Pileggi was cast as an elder to the principals because of his baldness.  He's still bald but, like many handsome bald men (my friend, Terry Dilley had this characteristic) hasn't seem to age at all; this makes him now look younger and more fit than the somewhat dissipated Fox Mulder.  Another reliable element on the mythology shows is the so-called "Cigarette-smoking man", the deepest of all deep State operatives and the program's leading villain.  Last season (season 10), the "cigarette smoking guy" was smoking through a hole neatly bored in his larynx, a horrible effect that has been (thankfully) abandoned in Season 11.  True to form, the "mythology" shows featured lots of whispered and tearful colloquies between Fox and Dana interspersed with slow-speed and inconsequential chases through the deepening darkness.  By contrast, some of "monster episodes", typically the programs by which the show demonstrated its quirky humor with campy, ironic homages to classic TV and movie "creature-features", have been highly successful, although even these shows haven't complete escaped the show's pervasive aura of sadness.  In one episode, Fox and Dana are dining at an upscale,  highly automated sushi place.  They are alone and communicate, like many long-married couples, by gestures and grunts.  (This show is almost completely silent.)  Fox's fish turns out to be inedible and, so, he refuses the automated waiter's request that he tip the "chefs" -- other machines shown to be industriously assembling sushi in the kitchen.  The "chefs" take umbrage and unleash various cyber-attacks on Fox and Dana, culminating by an assault on their respective homes by armadas of drones.  When Fox finally coughs up the gratuity, the drones all politely withdraw and a small robot thanks him for his generosity.  The entire episode is ingeniously plotted, beautifully shot, and turns the show's signature sense of dread into comedy.  (The episode is also similar to the pitch-black episode "Metalhead" in Black Mirror in which an implacable and lethal mechanical dog tracks the protagonists and eliminates them one by one for some infraction that we can't even exactly understand.)   In another episode, children are seduced into the woods by a grotesquely masked, chalk-white clown.  This show was a little too dire for my taste -- a witch was punishing adultery by dispatching a hell-hound to kill the small children of the offending parties -- but the program was effective.  In the old days, The X-Files, even if were a weak episode, almost always delivered one frightening and uncanny image in each show.  Here the children in the town are all addicted to watching something like the Teletubbies, except that no one seems to notice that the dancing figures on TV are bloated corpses with black holes where their eyes should be -- this horde of zombies led by the monstrously masked psychopomp.  In the last "monster" show of this series, a group of vampire lives in a cult in an old downtown apartment building -- a gruesome, decomposing structure that looks like something from one of Ed Kienholz's environments:  rotting floral wall-paper and lightless shabby, genteel rooms.  The vampires are high-tech -- they seduce their victims into the apartment and, then, surgically suture them to their own bodies, back to back, with a tap between the arterial blood system of the victim and the vampire.  This is all portrayed horrifically with big close-ups of surgical incisions.  It's an allegory for the ultimate in what used to be called "Co-Dependence" and the victims don't seem to mind being slowly exsanguinated hunched on the back of their parasitic vampire like a nightmare rucksack.  The leader of the cult is a faded TV star from the Seventies, famous for her rendition of "The Morning After" (from The Poseidon Adventure) on a network variety show.  Her horror of aging, resulting in the blood cult, is equated slyly to Fox's problems with his vision -- he has to use "bifocals" to read the messages that he receives on his phone, always characterizes the lenses in his glasses as "progressive" as a sop to his vanity.  The show was excellent in all respects, although like most of the "monster" episodes it doesn't make a lot of narrative sense when replayed in the mind -- it's more like a fever-dream.  True to form, the last episode of this season, not yet available to be seen, will add to the show's mythos -- I'll watch but don't expect much to come of that program.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Berlin Babylon (final note)

I have written about Berlin Babylon before.  Unfortunately, my reviews are entered into the Blog last-in first-out for the reader.  Therefore, those readers who have an interest in my earlier comments on this German TV series (Tom Tykwer director) streaming on Netflix should look below.

Berlin Babylon's 16 episodes divides into two parts.  The first eight episodes involve a Cologne detective imported into the Berlin police force and his efforts to track down the source of an illusive image used to blackmail a prominent politician from the hero's hometown.  The first half of the show is used to establish the characters and milieu, something that is done effectively and with great nuance.  The protagonist is Geryon Rath, a shell-shocked war veteran, his police partner, the heavy-set and menacing Wolter, Lotte, a girl from the slums who dabbles in prostitution but desires to be a detective on the Homicide Squad (the German is more blunt -- she wants to work in Mord), Benda, the Jewish chief of police and his maid, Grete, a girl from the country who is friends with Lotte.  All of these characters are interesting and Lotte, in particular, is very engaging -- she looks vulnerable but is fantastically tough and stoic.  I thought the solution and climax to the first part of the show a bit underwhelming.  This is not the case with the second part, or the last 8 episodes that end the program.  If anything, the last few episodes are too emphatic and suffer a bit from grandiosity. 

In the last half of the series, Rath is involved in an intrigue circling around a shipment of gold from a wealthy family in Russia to Berlin.  The gold, a vast fortune, is hidden in a train car.  The other cars in the train contain illegal phosgene, a weapon of mass destruction.  The plot is complicated but involves right-wing nationalists attempting to circumspectly re-arm the Reich.  (The irony in the film is that the covert efforts to re-arm the German Wehrmacht, visualized as a group of superannuated generals, war-cripples, and misguided cops and military men, is foiled by our hero but to what ultimate effect? Of course, we all know that Corporal Hitler is somewhere nearby and that he will occupy the vacuum created by the defeat of the right-wing military conspirators.  In effect, the Germans are being saved by a leap from the fire into the much hotter, and more lethal, frying pan.)  The show's last half has a couple slow episodes but it gains in emotional force and becomes exceptionally powerful, if occasionally absurd, during its last three or so hours.  The climax is packed with remarkable stuff including a terrifyingly suspenseful terrorist bombing, a near-drowning with a car sunk in a deep green-blue lake, and a sequence that derives from Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew too Much, a coup orchestrated to occur by the assassinations of key politicians at a Berlin theater where Brecht and Weil's Dreigroschenoper (Three-Penny Opera) is performed.  The show ends with a spectacular sequence on the train laden with gold, the locomotive roaring across low, flat country under a morbidly stormy-looking sky.  This part of the film is choreographed in homage to a great predecessor film, Konchalovsky's Runaway Train, and is exceptionally well-made and beautifully designed.  There are a number of absurdities in the operatic ending to the series but it delivers the goods in terms of excitement and emotional impact. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Flint Town (streaming on Netflix)

Flint Town is a radiant documentary about police work in Flint, Michigan.  The program is divided into 8 episodes each about 35 minutes long.  The filmmakers, Drea Cooper, Zachary Cavepari, and Jessie Dimmock, were "embedded" in the Flint police department for about two years, and apparently allowed near total access to crime scenes, the police station, and the homes of the cops whose lives are chronicled.  (The degree to which the documentary is shot like a big-budget Hollywood movie is astonishing and, to some degree, distracting:  in one shot, a lady police officer takes out her keys to open the door of her small, shabby bungalow.  The next shot is an interior to the bungalow, a reverse shot of the first, showing her opening the door from the inside.  Obviously, the construction of a shot/reverse-shot narrative for something as quotidian as merely entering a house shows a level of Hollywood-style flair that seems incongruous given the nature of the material presented -- a tough, embattled police procedural.  Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of the five episodes of Flint Town that I have now watched is the documentary's lavishly beautiful photography.  Simply put, Flint Town is gratuitously beautiful and, in fact, contains some of the most ravishing night photography ever committed to film:  squad cars prowl through velvety darkness; the halogen street lights make the streets shine with a sinister gem-like radiance:  the vacant lots and sidewalks are the color of Tiger Eye agate.  In the winter-time, huge flakes are always plummeting down from the night sky and the police cars churn through snow, making tracks that glisten in the darkness.  Red and blue lights oscillate back and forth and the cops are always standing in halos of shimmering radiance.  In one sequence, the cars prowl neighborhoods, providing Steadi-cam tracking images of dark alleys and humble homes while enormous firework explosions, detonated seeming at about 45 feet above ground level decorate the gloom above the homes.  The night-lighting looks theatrical, operatic:  on the wide-screen, one half of the image is mustard-color street lamps and falling snow -- to the right, an American flag is suffused with radiance and glows like a stained glass window in the darkness.  The filmmakers are fascinated with drone effects:  cameras stare vertiginously down onto the spillway of the famously polluted Flint River or examine the patterns made by cars slipping and sliding through snowy intersections; drones rise like balloons, portentously pulling cameras from street-side up through the canopy of trees to gaze across Flint's modest de minimus skyline.  The police or community members sometimes appear for interviews facing straight into the camera posed against velvet-black backdrops that give the brightly-lit figures a kind of statuesque and sculpted quality.  The film simply put is a modern version of film noir imputing to the police a sinister, wildly melodramatic glamor.  Police work looks so fascinatingly beautiful and involves such beautiful weapons and light effects that it is instantaneously attractive.   In one sequence, a young recruit with his field training officer explores an abandoned house -- we see for an instant some clutter on the floor and there are X-Files lighting effects with respect to the beams of the flashlights penetrating the darkness.  Out on the sidewalk, the older cop says that someone is using the building because one of its rooms is full of "feces and urine" -- but we aren't shown anything like this.  The squalor is disguised by the glamorous, fashion-shoot lighting. 

The sheer beauty of the documentary cuts against its hard-bitten subject matter.  The Flint police force is undermanned and can't keep up with the number of calls for assistance that it receives.  Flint itself is poverty-stricken and mostly African-American -- the police force is half black, but also has its fair share of the truculent, overly muscular and baby-faced white thugs who gravitate toward police work, and so there are plenty abrasive encounters with the public, although no unwarranted shootings (at least in the first part of the show.).  The cops see themselves as victims and are increasingly told that they are targets and should expect to be shot.  Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders come to Flint for a debate and both decry the increasing "militarization" of police forces.  These speeches coincide with a new sheriff in town, Chief Taylor who has a hum-vee and, in fact, is militarizing the force:  he has set up an elite squad of cops, the CATT team, whose role is to aggressively fight crime -- a task they accomplish by heavy-handed zero-tolerance policing.  This leads to community complaints but also lavish media and community praise.  The local newscasters, white women, love the CATT program with its stylish tee-shirts and the local community leaders, all of them Black, also approve of the CATT team's work because crime statistics seem to show the effectiveness of the program.  (The film doesn't shy away from the fact that the most aggressive voices raised in favor of zero-tolerance tough law-and-order policing are African-American city council-members, church people, and beleaguered middle-class Black women.)   The chief of police is obviously a publicity hound and a loose cannon -- his coffee cup has a pistol-grip as a handle -- but he means well.  In fact, everyone means well and, even, the must thuggish of the white policemen are given little soliloquies in which they express themselves with some degree of eloquence.  (Of course, the Black cops are almost uniformly conflicted and, often, seem on the verge of  tears -- on several occasions, we see them arresting a kid, handcuffing him, and, then, after a profane sermon, letting the kid free.)  There are several engaging characters -- an attractive female cop is living with the most petulant, and aggressively militaristic, white officer; she humanizes him and gives him an opportunity to do something other than make self-pitying and bellicose speeches while flexing his impressive muscles.  A mother and son are both enrolled in Police Academy at the same time.  There is a lot of imagery of the cops reacting to footage of police shootings (both by police and in which police are victims) -- their responses are, more or less, predictable but worth seeing.  The plot involving the aggressive smash-mouth policing by CATT seems to be heading toward some kind of calamity.  The Chief of Police has now deputized a cadre of hare-brained citizens as police auxiliaries and put them out on the streets armed with "conceal and carry" weapons -- this seems to be an obviously bad idea.  The fifth episode shows everyone congratulating the police chief for decreasing crime and a black tuxedo Mayor's Ball in which Flint's mayor lavishly praises the CATT program (the mayor is a stylish African-American lady doctor).  After one shooting, victims bathed in orange light, are sprawled on a lawn begging for help.  "We're soldiers," one of the victims tells a buddy.  A middle-aged Black lady standing on the curb speaks:  "Black on black crime.  No one cares...It just makes me..." She pauses and sighs.  "," she says. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Black Panther

The latest installment in Marvel's comic book franchise, The Black Panther (2018), has been praised by the mainstream media as if it were the cinematic reincarnation of Rosa Parks.  The movie is said to strike a powerful blow for Black equality.  But, alas, the film is awful and insufferably dull to boot.  Coogler, an African American director, has been recruited to give cover to the film's insistent and offensive use of stereotypes about Africa -- imagine if a White director had made a picture about the so-called "Dark Continent" featuring polities that appoint their rulers by "ritual combat" and required the film's heroes and villains to ride around on armored rhinos, showed Amazon-warriors guarding their king with tight blouses form-fitted to emphasize the girls' perky nipples and staged battle involving troops literally chucking spears at one another.  A member of the Wakonda five-tribe council wears a six-inch plate in his lower lip.  People dash around in fetish-masks and live in a stylish city of skyscrapers shaped like the elegant mud towers of Timbuktu -- that is, all of Africa in its most outré aspects both Saharan and sub-Saharan is mashed together in Coogler's epic without any regard for cultural differences.   Of course, our hypothetical White director would be accused of the most arrogant racism if he produced a wild-eyed mélange of this sort, but, as with the use of the N-- word, different standards apply to different folks and the press has generally praised Coogler's incoherent spectacle with words that should be applied to Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright.

The film's plot relies heavily on deus ex machina contrivances including the introduction of a whole new tribe of mountain dwelling warriors about two-thirds of the way through the movie -- these are the "huff-huff-huff" people, burly warriors who either are supposed  to be coughing like lions or huffing like mountain gorillas as their war-cry  We have no idea who they are, but conveniently they are imagined to dwell in a glacial CGI mountain fastness where they can swoop down to the rescue of the hero when he is in peril.  It's the leader of these folks who inadvertently critiques the whole move when he interrupts a tender scene of resurrection, the Black Panther's powers having improvidently (and inexplicably) deserted him to the effect that he has almost died in one of the ritual combats by which the kingdom appoints its dictatorial rulers. (The bad guy, evil Black Panther, hurls the good guy, good Black Panther over the precipice of a waterfall, always a bad idea -- in fact, even a bad idea when Holmes did this to Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls -- because of course a character who has perished in this ambiguous manner hasn't perished at all.)  The husky leader of the mountain gorilla-folk derides the interruption in the action required to restore the hero to fighting status and insists that the Black Panther and his allies get back to their proper work -- that is, hewing and slashing and using explosive shock waves to hurl their enemies hundreds of feet in the air. This, then, triggers a final battle that is ridiculous even by the standards of movies of this sort -- the good guys seem to have super powers that are without limitation and not subject to any rules.  For awhile everyone will fight with great exertion, slinging spears and swords at one another, dodging rhino-knights, and, generally, stabbing and cutting with great aplomb.  But, then, the odds will shift and one of the good guys will be surrounded by a half-hundred enemies -- this poses no problem:  the hero just uses a blue shock wave to blast all his adversaries into orbit, then, reverting to the strenuous hacking and hewing until it's necessary to deploy his super powers again to defeat outnumbering forces.  Of course, it's totally mysterious why the good guys don't use their super powers all the time, or, at least, at the outset to bring this pointless battle to an end -- if one side possesses infinite power, there's not too much suspense as to the outcome.  The final combat also involves a typical confrontation between the two identically matched Black Panthers (in this film you get a good and a bad one) in a special-effects blue void -- here a sort train trestle suspended over an infinite abyss.  This is trite Star Wars stuff involving a bullet train that shuttles back and forth over the tracks, summoned by a magic pebble that one of the heroine's (fighting far overhead on the surface of the world) happens to be carrying in her purse.  As always with these super-hero movies, the film's direction and writing reaches a point of total incoherence where everything is possible and, therefore, nothing matters at all.  And, during the final battle, the token White man (played by the very, very White Martin Freeman) is flying around in a narrow gorge, a slot canyon really, shooting down enemy fighters -- also an effect that we have seen almost ad infinitum and here totally meaningless because there is literally nothing at stake.  In its first half, the movie features a White South African villain named Klaue who is made up to look just like Ohm Krueger and who brings his Boer belligerence to some amusing confrontation early in the film.  After Ohm Krueger/Klaue was defeated I seem to have fallen asleep for a half hour -- the movie lags horribly after this guy is killed -- with the result that I didn't wake up until there was another "ritual combat" at the mock-up of Victoria Falls, probably a better way to elect a head man, I suppose, than an election rigged by Russians.  By this point the film's plot had established itself -- it's a riff on Stalin versus Trotsky.  Wakonda, somehow, is a utopia in Africa that has concealed itself amidst the chaos of the Dark Continent -- it's location is a little obscure but its seems to be somewhere contiguous to Rwanda (those icy mountains) and the Congo.  Wakonda's rulers have preserved against imperialist outsiders the resources of their nation, a magical plant that confers visions and healing and a magical mineral, Vibernium, that can be used to create huge shock-waves emanating from the tips of weapons forged with the stuff.  The Kingdom seems a parody of Trump's America First platform -- Wakonda is a monarchical, quasi-Fascist State where everyone submits their personal autonomy to the power of the King; it's always Wakonda first in that country.  But success has bred an internationalist wing of the monarchy.  One brother, the bad Black Panther, is like Trotsky --he wants to export the Wakonda revolution and, thereby, free the wretched of the Earth; his Stalinist brother wants to keep Wakonda's secrets to itself and consolidate power in the hermit kingdom -- this is the Trump-like good Black Panther.  After dispensing with the Boer villain, the film is about the power struggle between the two Black Panthers.  Needless so say, the film's politics are as confusing as every other aspect of its mythology.  A better critic would have propped his eyes open during the film's incredibly dull middle portion.  The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak -- as far as I can see the Black Panther's only reliably effective power is to put audiences to sleep. 

The Night Mail

The Night Mail is a poetic documentary produced in 1936 by the British film group led by John Grierson.  The picture is 24 minutes long and quite interesting.  Unfortunately, techniques and esthetic strategies pioneered in this film have now become common-place and so the film isn't particularly exciting to watch.  The movie's ecstatic approach to the facts has been much imitated to the point that this picture that established some of the principles of lyrical documentary now seems a bit pallid and tentative.  As with Werner Herzog what you see is, often, not what you think it is -- the most important example of this film blurring the edges between fiction and documentary is the fact that all the interior shots in the picture showing mail-sorting as the train roars through the countryside were filmed in a studio.  (Apparently, the real train's lurching and lunging was inimical to the images of smooth, understated postal efficiency that the film promotes -- the performers were told to sway a little from side-to-side to simulate the train's motion  But I noticed immediately that the scenes in the sorting car were preternaturally smooth and free of any sense of motion -- a serious defect in the picture in my view since the film celebrates the locomotive's power and formidable speed.) 

The movie is mostly shots of the handsome locomotive, the Royal Scotsman, roaring through England and Scotland on its nightly route from London's Euston Station to Edinburgh and Glasgow.  The train's speed is emphasized -- indeed, at time the train moves artificially fast, an effect achieved by slow-cranking as seen sometimes in silent films.  There are interesting details as to how the mail is collected by the train that slows and stops only once on its route -- in fact, some of the imagery of big pouches of mail scooped up by the train or hung outside to be caught by other stanchions along the rails is fairly hair-raising.  The postal workers are ciphers to an American, mostly because we can't understand their accents and because the soundtrack features, most prominently, the rush and bustle of the train clattering over the tracks.  Although about 20 minutes of the film is conventionally informative, featuring various facts and figures (or instance the tonnage of mail moved nightly), the movie ends with a visual and aural aria -- Auden's poem commissioned for the film, "The Night Mail" a tour-de-force that uses onomatopoeic effects to simulate the train's headlong rush combined with a lavish, percussive score by Benjamin Britten.  This climax is undeniably impressive, although a big over-ripe in the manner of Vachel Lindsay -- Auden's train poem is a sort of proto-rap with many internal rhymes and propulsive consonants.  The picture reminded me, at very points, of Turner's great canvas showing a train blurry with motion blasting through the mist and terrifying a small rabbit in a meadow -- it's called "Rain, Steam and Speed:  The Great Western Railroad" (1844).  "The Night Mail" ends with a characteristic dying fall -- Auden notes that the night mail is important because "no one wants to feel forgotten"; it's a slight melancholy tint coloring the film's final images of several men, dwarfed by the mighty engine caring for the locomotive as if it were a savage and all-powerful god.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Julius Caesar

Joseph Mankiewitz (working with John Houseman) directed this 1953 film adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  The movie seems to have been made primarily as a demonstration that Marlon Brando cast as Antony can speak Shakespearian blank verse -- something that he accomplishes with apparent aplomb.  The movie is generally effective in presenting the play (albeit with the obligatory cuts -- Cinna, the poet, is not in the film).  The picture is tasteful, elaborately staged, and, generally, irritating in just about every way possible. 

The opening scenes take place in a vast space, presumably the Roman forum, and involve crowds of extras parading about as centurions, senators, and centurions. The first shot shows us a triumphal bust of Caesar decked with flowers -- this image is indicative of the problems that will vex the film as it proceeds.  The bust of Caesar looks nothing like Roman art, is not convincingly Greco-Hellenistic, and not stylized or abstract either -- in short, the set decorator wasn't sure whether to cleave to archaeologically exact replicas of ancient Roman art or whether to devise some other form of representation.  The image literally replicates the appearance of the actor playing Caesar -- he looks remarkably like LBJ.  But the scale of the image and is shape is subtly wrong and casts us into an uncertain limbo between stylization and realism.  This is fundamentally the problem with the set decoration throughout the film -- it is lavish but clearly theatrical (there are painted backdrops or matte images that are obviously stylized throughout most of the film).  Yet, some scenes like the large-scale battle of Philippi are shot outdoors in a dramatic and stony canyon in southern California -- this yields a strange mix of stylized and realistic settings that is disconcerting.  (For instance, Brutus has a field tent with his army that seems to be about the size of the Pantheon -- it is pointlessly large and elaborate and seems to claw against the representation of Brutus as essentially virtuous and disinterested, that is, not ostentatiously self-serving).  This mixture of realism and highly stylized imagery probably didn't bother audiences in 1953 -- Westerns characteristically mixed beautiful location footage with soundstage dialogue scene and the bluish half-light used to simulate night (day-for-night shooting) doesn't seem to have bothered anyone.  In fact, the set decoration on this picture was awarded an Oscar.  (The cast is all-star:  John Gielgud, surprisingly young, handsome and agile as Cassius, James Mason as Brutus, Edmund O'Brien as Casca, Deborah Kerr wasted in the tiny role of Portia.)

As far as I can tell, the acting is all exemplary.  Lines are read crisply and with proper prosody and, generally, everyone speaks clearly and passionately.  The film's peculiarities are rooted in its sources -- when I was a  boy, everyone read Julius Caesar in 8th or 9th grade and so the play is the one work by Shakespeare that, in America, is part of the common cultural property of those High School-educated in the public schools.  The fact that Julius Caesar is (or, at least, once was) universally taught in High School disguises the play's essential strangeness -- revisiting this play, which I have read four or five times and probably seen an equal number of times, I was struck by the play's peculiarity, it's curious form that straddles genres and the odd passivity of its principal characters.  At the outset, in scenes that should be filmed in claustrophobic close-up, Cassius sets upon Brutus and tempts him to envy Caesar.  (Cassius' strategy is clear and, also, clearly effective -- this makes Mark Antony's encomium to the dead Brutus asserting that he alone was never moved by "envy" seem ironic; Antony, of course, is the master of irony, saying one thing but meaning another, most notably in his famous oration over the corpse of Caesar:  the ending of the play, a scene in which Antony praises another corpse, this time Brutus, for not being "envious" is consistent with his earlier assertion, repeatedly stated and charged with vitriol, that Brutus is an "honorable man".  Neither utterance is objectively true and the play repeatedly measures the distance between people's words and their acts:  honorable men don't conspire to butcher their close friends.)  The play poses a fundamental question -- that is, the problem of personal merit.  Caesar is a sort of cipher in the play, a noble doofus.  Brutus is clearly more virtuous and Cassius more eloquent and more passionately ambitious.  And, yet, the populace worships Caesar to the extent that he is offered a crown, not once but three times.  Cassius' seduction of Brutus is fundamentally based on this argument:  what quality does he (Caesar) have that you don't?  But Caesar is, in some ways, blessed by the Gods -- he knows the tide that controls men's affairs and can act in accord with those natural cycles.  His merit is inexplicable but obvious and this maddens Cassius and Brutus.  A curious feature of the play is that it feels to me to be caught mid-way between tragedy and history -- in fact, the play resembles in my assessment Shakespeare's Macbeth.  It's about political envy and the consequences, I think, of imposing human values on a system that is, in effect, divinely instituted -- hence, all the imagery of gloomy horror and the omens/portents that congest the play.  Cassius is too petty to sense that the murder of Caesar has offended those very same powers that inexplicably promoted Caesar to the heights of power.  But Brutus understands precisely that once the die is cast, a fatal mechanism will ensnare and destroy him and that there is nothing he can do to repel this fate.  Hence, film's portrait of individuals caught in the toils of a remorseless  destiny who can't save themselves.  This is rendered obvious in the death scenes of both Cassius and Brutus.  Unlike Othello, for instance, who has no difficulty making his "quietus with a bare bodkin", the Romans can't kill themselves -- they are so engulfed in doom that they don't even have the agency for self-murder.  Cassius has to enlist a subaltern to stab him to death.  Showing a bit more agency, Brutus has someone hold a blade in fixed hands while he "runs upon it."  This peculiar and hopeless passivity of the principal conspirators suggests that they are mired in a nightmare machine that will rend them to pieces regardless of what they do.  We might call this machine "history" although it acts "tragically" -- that is, destroying particular people in accord with some malign rule.  The reason the concept of "tragedy" is misplaced is that the play doesn't really see characters as punished for their hubris -- that is, dying for reasons attributable to their own particular failings; rather, they seem to die because "history" demands it, notwithstanding and possibly even because of their individual merits. In this context, falling asleep is as noble and efficacious as leading a great army in a desperate battle -- this is touchingly demonstrated in the scene in which Brutus bids his slave-boy to watch with him awhile on the eve of the battle; in a reprise of Christ's agony at Gethsemene and is the best, and most touching, thing in the film. The staging of the battle scene further emphasizes this theme of passivity in the face of doom that characterizes the last third of the play.  Clearly, the two armies are shown to be  within arrow-shot of one another -- Antony's forces  are on cliff tops and concealed in rock fall from the defile, Brutus' army marching through that defile only a few yards awasy. Yet neither side sees the other and no one reacts to the fact that Brutus is obviously marching into an ambush.  The way the sequence is shot, the protagonists seem to be blind and their armies equally sightless -- huge forces are adjacent to one another but no one seems to notice this until the signal is given.  Closeups show Antony's handsome, feral face to be that of a sleepwalker. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Hour of the Wolf (Varqtimmen)

Hour of the Wolf (1968) is an Ingmar Bergman film about an artist losing his mind on a remote Frisian Island.  The artist is played by Max von Sydow, made to look maniacal or simply hapless throughout much of the film.  Von Sydow, of course, is a beautiful man with valiant features -- he looks like a saint carved in wood by the great German medieval sculptor, Tilman Riemenschneider.  But Bergman shoots him in extreme close-up with a lens that spreads his features and gives him a vaguely Slavic appearance; in other scenes, the artist's face is covered in pastywhite make-up and his cheeks rouge above painted lips..  It's characteristic of the film that Bergman vandalizes the appearance of his leading man -- the entire enterprise is self-destructive, willfully perverse, and deeply embittered.  Of course, Bergman was a great film maker but Hour of the Wolf is really too dispiriting to be any fun watching.  In many respects, the film seems to be re-make of Bergman's much greater, and equally disturbing, Persona -- however, the psychological horror on display in Persona here has deteriorated, I think, into a sort of fun-house ghoulishness.  (Bergman was sick with pneumonia during the production of the film and has said that he thinks the movie is far too personal.  The distance between Bergman and his fictional surrogate here is so uncomfortably close that the director himself disliked the picture.)

The film's premise is similar to The Shining.  An artist retires to a remote island to renew his talents and seek inspiration.  But he is afflicted by terrible nightmares that he paints and sketches in his notebook.  He keeps a diary, primarily an account of his night-terrors.  The artist's companion is played by Liv Ullman and her robust, freckle-faced beauty is incongruous among the various cannibals and vampires that inhabit the island.  She's pregnant and its apparent that the relationship between her and the artist is collapsing -- probably unable to bear the weight of commitment symbolized by the unborn child.  As it happens, the artist remains obsessed by a woman named Veronica Vogler, his previous lover and muse and, now, an angry ghost.  The artist is invited to a soiree at the island's castle.  The castle-keeper is played by Erland Josephson as a decadent art collector who has gathered around himself a nasty group of middle-aged and older sycophants.  These people seem to be sexually perverse and they stay up all night drinking and taunting one another with sadistic sexual innuendo.  About half-way through the film, a title is projected identifying the action as occurring thereafterduring the "hour of the wolf" -- that is, the early morning hour when most people die and when most babies are born.  During this hour, the artist is confronted by his demons, including the corpse of Veronika Vogler -- people pull off their faces and deposit their eyes in glasses of water and all sorts of other horrible stuff occurs.  The artist flees these demons and enters a dark, flooded forest, the sort of landscape that Tarkovsky employs in many of his films.  His girlfriend pursues him.  As in Persona, the artist's madness has infected his companion and she begins to see, and participate in, the nightmares that afflict her lover.  The film is all joyless horror and, in the end, the artist vanishes without a trace.  His lover keeps his notebooks and sketchpads and, it becomes clear, that he has probably transmitted his misery and madness to her.  Liv Ullman addresses the camera and says that relationships end with the person's assuming one another's identities.  But, of course, as dramatized by Bergman this is sexist nonsense -- we don't see the tormented artist becoming cheerful, healthy, and happy like his relatively clear-minded girlfriend:  in Bergman-world, the influence goes only one way:  the tortured man injects his madness into his reasonably normal lover.

The film is short (80 minutes) and has some hallmarks of an experimental picture.  Under the opening titles, we hear people giving commands, pounding nails, and using power tools to construct the sets for the film.  This eradication of the fourth-wall, however, is woefully lacking from the rest of the film which takes itself, and its various visions, with the utmost seriousness.  There is nothing playful in this picture -- everything is dark, dire, and miserable.  At one point, after discussing some childhood physical abuse, the nearly nude artist encounters himself as a ten year old boy and, after some provocation, kills the kid -- we later see little boy's corpse with bashed-in head floating in the cold ocean waters where the hero has been fishing.  The struggles of the artist with his corpse-muse are delivered to us with crashing literalness and the movie just suddenly ends -- we're told that the artist vanished forever and his story is preserved only in his diary and sketchpads.  We never see the artist's work and, so, of course, are deprived of the opportunity to assess whether his paintings justify all this campy Sturm und Drang.  In many ways, the film seems like a parody of Bergman, but it's humorless.  Anything by Bergman is worth seeing for his mastery of film technique -- and this picture is no exception:  its chock-full of strange visionary shots, weird and upsetting transitions and long, morose soliloquies.  But it's far from Bergman at his best and most powerful and, indeed, the picture is so sullenly morose as to be seem a bit risible. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Leopard

Luchino Visconti's opulent adaptation of Lampedusa's novel, The Leopard was released to international (if not American) acclaim in 1963, five years after the novel was published.  The film adheres closely to the first 2/3rds of the novel -- that is, the part of the book dominated by the fierce and conservative Prince of Salina (beautifully played by Burt Lancaster -- he speaks in English but his lines are dubbed into gruff-sounding baritone Italian).  Despite its international cast and epic scope, the film is meditative, contemplative and melancholy; it is also essential plotless in the sense that there is no real narrative -- the movie explores a character, the intelligent and sad Prince of Salina and his situation:  at the end of the movie, the hero crosses a squalid plaza in Palermo, ignores a scrawny cat that also slinks from darkness to darkness, and, then, vanishes into the shadows of a narrow poverty-stricken alley.  Although the film begins with resplendent images of the Prince's great villa and estate at Donafugata, lush groves of olive trees and bright gardens beneath a craggy barren mountain, the long film (185 minutes) ends in nondescript darkness. 

Although the film is devoid of much in the way of events, the movie's stately progression of beautiful images explores Sicilian politics and aristocratic family life during the Risorgimento -- the Piedmontese, that is northern Italians, have invaded the island with Garibaldi.  The Red Shirt guerillas and rebels wish to wrest the Kingdom away from Bourbon rule and annex the island to the mainland.  The effect of this campaign is to haul ancient Sicily into the political arena of the mid-19th century -- that is, to destroy the ancient royal prerogatives of people like the Prince.  Although the Prince reluctantly supports the expulsion of Bourbon power and unification with the rest of Italy, he also is clear-sighted enough to recognize that these developments signal the beginning of the end for his class.  Indeed, Visconti posits that the old Prince represents the last of his kind, the last "leopard" as it will to reign with autonomy over his estates and villages.  The old Prince is a liberal of a kind, enlightened and a student of astronomy and the natural sciences and he recognizes that modern democracy will make his class superfluous or, worse, merely parasitic.  As a patriot, he supports the modernization of Sicily, although he doubts that the project will succeed and, at the end of the film notes that the Sicilians, who have never had to rule themselves in the real world, have always retreated into a fantasy existence in which they are robust, unmannerly, violent, and child-like Gods.  Sicily, he thinks, will always resist the processes of modernity:  it's archaic blood-feuds and ancient families will somehow survive, but fatally wounded.  Like Lampedusa in his novel, Visconti develops these ideas through a series of philosophical and epigrammatic dialogues between the Prince and his priest or the Prince and his much-beloved nephew, Tancredi, the impetuous young man in which the old Leopard sees his younger self.  There are a number of long colloquies that stop the action, such as it is, interrupting the film with extended socio-political discourse -- these scenes are of varying interest to an American viewer:  some of them are thrilling and poignant, others are simply dull.  To the extent that there is a story, the film concerns the Prince's maneuvers to effect the marriage of his nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the fabulously beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinale).  These measures are fraught with peril for the old Prince:  his own daughter, Cosetta, a woman that the Prince greatly admires, loves Tancredi and is his natural match.  But the Prince feels that the blood-lines of the old aristocracy is deformed by marriages between cousins and, instead, promotes the marriage to Angelica, the daughter of a shopkeeper and bourgeoisie Don Colangelo.  Colagelo is nouveau riche, vulgar, and acquisitive -- he's always concerned with what things cost.  But he is the epitome of the new democratic economy in Sicily and has enriched himself by acquiring the estates of the impoverished aristocrats.  (Lampedusa was a great admirer of William Faulkner and the influence of that writer is clear in both novel and movie:  Don Colagelo is similar to the Snopes characters in Faulkner's books -- they are merchants who displace the old aristocrats from their place in the sun.)  Tancredi goes to fight with Garibaldi and there are some large-scale, if rather desultory, battle scenes:  the men seem more occupied with cutting a romantic, dashing figure in their bright uniforms than engaging in combat:  the real core of the fighting involves the summary execution of prisoners and a rabble of women who harry one man to death, hanging him by the neck in the ruins -- Visconti's point seems to be that "valor" consists of killing prisoners and the women are far more ferocious and lethal than the men.  He shoots the battle scenes from a high angle -- streets and barricades swarmed with red and blue-shirted soldiers, charge and futile counter-charges, a kind of absurd chaos.  (The futile cruelty of this warfare is emphasized in the end when Garibaldi sympathizers, now in disrepute, are shot at dawn, after a lavish Ball.)  Curiously Visconti puts more emphasis on the old Prince's trip from Palermo to his estate in the country than on the battle scenes:  the Count's entourage must pass through a checkpoint and Visconti stages this elaborately, with thunderous symphonic music and enormous, sunny landscapes.  The aristocrats picnic on the battlefield, as it were, and Visconti, who was a brilliant director of opera, creates huge tapestry-like images swarming with all kinds of human and animal life:  he is a master at presenting us with action in which there are multiple centers or focuses of interest:  people are grooming horses, girls promenade under little parasols, lackeys jockey for tips, and, yet, all of this teeming activity is organized around the figure of the stiff-backed, implacable, and handsome Prince.  There is a plebiscite and Sicily is annexed to the mainland.  A messenger from Rome pleads with the Prince to become a senator in the Italian government -- instead, the Prince proposes the vulgar and scheming Don Colagelo for that role.  The film ends with a famous 51 minute party and ball sequence that is one of the great glories of Italian film and that has been echoed repeatedly in American movies:  the wedding at the beginning of The Godfather, with all its complex cross-currents is a homage to this scene; similarly, the long wedding scene that comprises most of the first half of The Deer Hunter is an effort to translate this sequence into the American vernacular, specifically lower middle class people in an iron and steel town like Bethlehem, Pa.  Here Visconti's skill at creating multiple centers of focus while retaining the emphasis on the central character is unparalleled.  We see all sorts of things, but the Prince is never far from our thoughts and, indeed, Visconti stations him in most of the images, although sometimes as a small melancholy figure far from the glamorous center of things.  Although the party is spectacular and involves fantastically beautiful and gay dance scenes, the brilliance of the sequence inheres in Visconti showing us everything through the perspective of the old Prince -- the skull is everywhere visible and obvious through the voluptuous flesh of the faces of beautiful women's faces.  Somehow, the scene is both lushly glamorous and, also, a memento mori.  Inexplicably, American critics didn't much like the picture when it was released -- I think it may be too closely concerned with Sicilian and Italian history to interest some people and critics had trouble with Lancaster's dubbing and his mutton-chop whiskers.  The movie was cut from 185 minutes to 161 minutes and, generally, panned.  The absence of plot probably confused American critics -- the film is about a situation and a dilemma and the story, which is really just a procession of beautiful, complex images, is secondary to the old Prince's situation.  But, at its full majestic length, notwithstanding some dull sequences, The Leopard is a film masterpiece and a master-class as well in staging spectacle.  (And, sometimes, Visconti just gets "lucky" -- in a scene in which Tancredi impetuously storms out of the palace, hurrying to join Garibaldi's volunteers, the women clutch at him to hold him back and there are many tearful embraces; just as the young man is about to leave the palace, the Prince's huge great Dane, omnipresent throughout much of the picture, runs up the young man and playfully seizes him by the wrist to keep him from leaving.) 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is lavishly directed in a maximalist style that doesn't always exactly suit the material.  Mamoulian stages the action ingeniously and, often, deploys conspicuously perverse camera angles that, in fact, mirror the perverse elements in the plot.  I have always been surprised at the elaborate and florid prose style that Stevenson uses in his novella -- a style that masks, I think, something fundamentally simple-minded about the story.  Mamoulian's often bizarre camera angles and prolonged superimposed images suggests something of the complexity in Stevenson's prose as well as, perhaps, its fundamentally hollow character.

In the first four or five minutes, Mamoulian fuzzes up the edges of his rectangular screen and makes us see everything as if through Jekyll's eyes.  The opening sequence, really a throw-away that does nothing more than introduce us to Jekyll and his daily routine, is all shot in the first-person.  But when Jekyll lectures on his idiotically simplistic theory of good and evil ("each of us contains good and evil!"  he thunderously declaims), the camera films him from the subjective POV of the learned men to whom he is lecturing before advancing into extreme and unrealistic camera angles -- half of the speech is filmed from a very low angle, as if the camera had burrowed into the floor in front of Jekyll's lectern.  The clash between the subjective point of view in the first few minutes and, then,  the Soviet-style montage filming Jekyll from just about every imaginable angle couldn't be more vivid, startling, and disconcerting. 

The story is familiar and, rather, barren.  The noble Dr. Jekyll (Frederic March, so young here as to be unrecognizable)  who sacrifices himself for charity patients, is engaged to a debutante, Muriel (Rose Hobart).  For reasons that are never fully established, the marriage between Jekyll and Muriel is delayed for a month -- the girl leaves town for several weeks.  Jekyll, who is sexually frustrated, tries out his potion, an elixir that distills from him the simian and vicious Mr. Hyde.  Hyde goes out and finds a member of the demi-monde, "Champagne" Ivy, to torment.  It turns out that Hyde is a vicious sexual sadist.  ("Champagne" Ivy is played by Miriam Hopkins and her performance, alternately lewd and pathetic, is the best thing in the film.)  Muriel returns but, by this time, Jekyll perceives that his inherent sexual sadism makes him unworthy of her.  Further, Jekyll has lost control of the transformation process -- whenever he is aroused, he reverts to the ape-like Hyde.  As Hyde, he strangles Ivy and, then, attacks Muriel.  Hyde is hunted down and killed, his hideous corpse, then, reverting to the placid, serene profile of poor Jekyll.  The transformation scenes are handled with alarming aplomb -- I believe that the effect was achieved by changing the lighting so that make-up otherwise hidden in normal light, gradually appears when red filters are used.  Hyde is horrific:  he has a mat of tangled Negroid hair over his brow, which seems, as Shakespeare puts it:  "villainously low".  There is something of the otter about his sleek head with its massive array of Jack-o-lantern teeth -- he has so many teeth that they seem to bulge out of the sides of face.  In a great early scene, Hyde luxuriates in a downpour, allowing the water to spill into  his gaping open mouth, and he twitches extravagantly -- he is purely and exuberantly bestial.  When challenged, Hyde acts with decisive violence:  he leaps down stairwells, swinging from floor-to-floor like an orangutan and he dives through the fork of a tree as if shot from a slingshot; he scales walls and dives through glass windows.  The scenes in which he torments the pallid and quivering Miriam Hopkins are effectively vile.  Love scenes are shot with opposing rim-lit profiles, the actors posturing as "movie stars" interposed, with huge moist close-ups.  When Mamoulian wants to emphasize a point, he uses a frontal posture -- the actor facing the camera directly and acting for the lens.  The décor is lavish and symbolic:  when Hyde kills Ivy, she sinks out of sight revealing a huge effigy of Cupid and Psyche made from a licked-smooth white alabaster.  Some of Mamoulian's effects are simple and brilliant -- in every scene in Jekyll's laboratory, we have seen a fully articulated but grim-looking skeleton in the corner of the room.  When one of the characters shoots, Hyde, the gunman steps to his side revealing the skeleton looming behind him -- it's just a matter of blocking but the shot takes your breath away and, of course, this is what is intended.  This is a pre-Code film and highly sexual:  Ivy claims a broken rib to get Jekyll to caress her breast:  Jekyll, who seems obsessed with Ivy, is shown strolling through London's streets with Ivy's superimposed white thighs showing through him:  she suggestively swings her foot back and forth and we see this as a leit motif in a double exposure as Jekyll walks home.  Some of these effects are so obvious as to be lurid and tasteless -- there is a repeated image of a pot boiling over to suggest Jekyll's sexual frustrating and many of the forced perspectives full of phallic finials and balusters are pointlessly emphatic.  There's no need, for instance, to film a final confrontation through a veil of flickering fire.  It's an impressive movie but, also, strangely primitive -- indeed, the film has some of the double aspect of its hero: it's suave and ingenious but, often, in the service of ugly notions. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Sam Wood's version of Hemingway's celebrated novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was released in 1943 as a 170 minute film with intermission.  When I saw the movie many years ago, the picture had been cut to 134 minutes.  Turner Classic Movies has a 168 minute version with the Technicolor restored and, even, an intermission -- a photographed piece of vellum with medieval lettering and an illuminated "I".  At something close to full length, the movie is much better than I recalled, although it is still pretty unsatisfactory.  Curiously, the shorter version seemed duller -- the editing has knocked the rhythm askew and the picture is actually more gripping at its longer length.

Wood was solid, dependable hack director, a guy to whom studios could entrust their most bankable stars without risk that the film maker might harm them in some way.  Gary Cooper as Robert Jordan, the American Spanish teacher (with a specialty in dynamiting things) is wooden to the point of being featureless.  He scarcely smiles throughout the entire film and makes love to the supernaturally beautiful Ingrid Bergman as if it were his solemn and, somewhat, unpleasant duty.  Cooper always seems ancient; he's manifestly too old for Ingrid Bergman who plays a badly traumatized 19 year old victim of rape and torture.  (She has a passionate speech about how her parents were murdered before her eyes and her subsequent gang-rape that is very effective).  But the film's glory is in its secondary roles, particularly the fearsome Katina Paxinos, a Greek actress who plays the female guerilla leader, Pilar.  Paxinou has a lot of Hemingway lines to speak -- a misfortune for any actor because Papa couldn't write plausible dialogue to save his soul.  But she snarls at the camera,and devours the part -- a combination bawdy earth mother and psycho-killer.  The film luxuriates a little too enthusiastically in the deeply sexist Spanish peasant culture -- the women are always expected to selflessly serve the men who brusquely order them about.  But Paxinos Pilar is a force to be reckoned with and she has a great speech about being an ugly woman -- although she is quick to note "I have loved many men."  As with many other aspects of the film, the casting undercuts the characters -- no one could possibly regard the exceptionally handsome and statuesque Paxinos as "ugly."  And she looks great in her raven-black garments firing her carbine at the bad guys.  If anything, Akim Tamiroff is even better as Pablo, a spectacularly gruesome-looking guerilla who has been so brutalized by the war that he is more of an ape than a man.  Pablo's motivations are always unclear -- Pilar condemns him for becoming a coward, but this doesn't describe adequately his curious vacillation, a wavering that is, really, the film's only plot -- Pablo doesn't want to risk his guerilla band in what he regards as a pointless attack on a bridge in the High Sierra.  Throughout the film he subverts Jordan's plot to destroy the bridge and the narrative doesn't really explain his motives -- is he jealous of the suave Hollywood-actor taking over leadership of his gang?  From time to time, the other characters try to urge Pablo into a fight so that they can kill him although he resists the temptation to be provoked -- one of his colleagues brightly announces that they should "blind him" and, then, drag him down into the valley to sell him to the enemy.  Pablo has been a savage fighter and the film shows us a scene that is about as harsh as American film making in the 40's could be -- Pablo's rebels have seized a town and they march the city council out of their chambers, make them run a gauntlet of jeering men with harvests flails, and, then, toss them screaming into a gorge.  This sequence is powerful and effective and Wood does well also with a battle on a mountaintop and, then, the final firefight around the bridge. (I even like the obvious miniature shot of the bridge collapsing and, with it, a German tank plunging into a toy gorge -- it's a pretty little effect.)  The film's politics are inscrutable.  This is because the Spanish Civil War was a jumbled mess with Communists fighting Fascists, anti-clerical Spaniards murdering priests, and foreign intervention -- there were monarchists, loyalists, nationalists, and republicans locked in the fray augmented by various kinds of anarchists, international brigades, and Soviet commissars.  The whole thing has never made any sense to me except as a premonitory orgy of violence, a sort of appetizer before the main entrée that was World War Two.  The film has not political perspective that I can ascertain -- the Catholic Church, an institution that strongly supported Franco, required that all references to "fascism" be excised from the movie.  Therefore, it's not clear what the fighting is all about.  (On a more granular level, the attack on the bridge is coordinated in some way with an offensive and there is an elaborate subplot about someone carrying a message somewhere -- this narration is wholly garbled in the film and I don't have any idea where the attack on the bridge fits into the context of a larger battle or is totally meaningless.)

When I saw the movie years ago, I was appalled by the fact that half of the film is clearly shot in a studio.  At least two-thirds of the stilted Hemingway dialogue is expelled from the lips of the characters in a dimly lit, rather Rembrandt-tinted cave.  This is where the men are forever gruffly ordering Pilar or Bergman's character, Maria, to serve them cheese and wine.  A number of outdoor sequences rely upon fairy-tale-like rear projections of mountains and sinister, precipitous gorges.  Most of Cooper and Bergman's love scenes are set in a luminous rocky bower with starry skies painted behind them, some stylized snow-capped peaks and a big luminous tree, its boughs decked with implausibly pale and sticky snow -- this set is operatic and it just glistens with gem-like highlights and it's a beautiful location for the rather awkward romantic scenes between the two stars. (The obviously middle-aged Gary Cooper would be a more plausible match for Pilar -- as she herself proclaims -- than for the dewy, dreamy-eyed Maria; Paxinos was 42 and Cooper was 41 when the film was shot; Bergman was 27.)   I would have objected to this kind of thing twenty-five years ago -- now, I find the glamorous set rather charming:  the film pauses and puts its lovers in a strangely warm winter wonderland atop high and crystalline mountains.  It's a distancing effect that I think is quite stunning.  Much of the actual outdoors footage in the film seems to have shot in the Sierra Nevada somewhere uphill of lake Tahoe -- there are immense slabs of granite everywhere and the landscape, which is austere and terrifying, plays an important role in the action: the guerillas struggle up boulder-filled ravines full of waterfalls and there are huge fields of house-sized boulders lying under the snow-covered summits.  It's the same landscape that we see in Raul Walsh's High Sierra and similarly effective in this film. 

At the climax of the picture, Jordan who is paralyzed from being shot off his horse, bids Bergman's Maria to flee.  His speech to her would have pleased Gertrude Stein, indeed, at this point Hemingway's dialogue, probably was vetted by Stein:  Cooper says:  "If you go, I go.  We go together.  So you must go so I may go.  For I go with you forever."  The speech is actually much longer than this and, of course, in real life, Maria's response would have to be something like "What?"  But weeping and screaming, she goes and he goes with her and together both go where both must go even though they go apart.  Jordan lies alone in a defile and as the bad guys approach he fires his machine gun right into the camera -- then, the title bell tolls in some space far from the narrative in the film.  Seen at its full length, the movie has a kind of warped splendor.  Furthermore, its salutary, for once, to be reminded of a time when the United States was not an International Bully and when our country stood for something approximating justice.  I'm tired of seeing trailers in the multi-plexes for films about well-nourished American soldiers, backed by the planet's largest and most powerful army, heroically fighting with Afghans, representatives of the weakest and most backward nation on the face of the earth.  (In recent movies, the filmmakers painfully aware of the irony of making movies about a powerful, well-armed and fantastically wealthy nation beating the crap out of a small medieval country whose only export is heroin, have tried to somehow even the odds -- for instance, one recent film shows American "heroes" riding into battle on horses; this is supposed to be some advance guard of special forces approaching something that could possibly, if for only a moment, be construed as a fair fight.  But those dozen troops improbably riding on horseback have behind them tens of thousands of Tomahawk missiles, a flotilla of missile-armed battleships, fifty-thousand helicopters, and limitless squadrons of bomb-laden fighter jets protecting their back.  I assume future features will involve brave cadres of American Special Forces compelled to fight with one arm tied behind their back or, maybe, para-olympic troopers who are all blind and deaf.  Jordan's lonely death in For Whom the Bell Tolls resonates as a gesture of solidarity with the world -- recent pictures about American's fighting in the middle-East are empty exercises in self-congratulation and, ultimately, profoundly isolationist in import as well.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Dumb Girl of Portici

The Dumb Girl of Portici (2016) is the kind of silent film that meets all expectations of people that don't like silent films.  The acting is ludicrously melodramatic -- it makes grand opera look tame and restrained.  The action and plot are unabashedly histrionic, involving massacres, rapes, floggings, and madness.  The mise-en-scene is a weird mixture of shrewd ingenuity and technical blunders.  This is the kind of movie in which male characters are forever unsheathing their daggers and, then, clutching at their hearts while the heroine literally flits from place to place.  Lois Weber directed and the film is constructed on the grandest of all scales -- there are immense castles, a Neapolitan city extending to vast fortified gates, palaces and royal buildings with rotundas like the capitol, a humble village of fisher-folk living on the edge of a tumultuous sea with the high mountains overlooking Malibu in the background.  The set design is opulent -- the royal palace contains mythological frescos and tapestries and there are innumerable extras in armor marching around with halberds, herds of horses, and, in one late scarlet-tinted scene, a midnight bonfire with about 20 heads on pikes posted around it.  Unfortunately, all this sound and fury doesn't amount to much of anything -- it's a little like the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre story from Intolerance but without the interpolation of the other parallel narratives.  References to opera are justified:  the film is, in fact, an adaptation of a long-forgotten opera, Daniel Auber's La Muette de Portici, an 1828 production that, in fact, apparently triggered a revolution when it was performed in Belgium:  the opera is, if anything, more excessive than the film:  the climax of the opera involves revolutionary fighting while Mount Vesuvius erupts. 

Critics in search of a new figure to admire are, sometimes, forced to re-evaluate artists whose contributions to the art have been overlooked or denigrated.  In Hollywood's early days, film making was regarded more as a craft than a discipline like the theater -- early films had to be laboriously developed, hand-tinted, and, then, methodically cut together.  It seems that, on some level, these techniques had more to do with being a seamstress than a theater director and, so, it is interesting to note that the industry was initially heavily populated by bright, aggressive, and hard-working women.  Lois Weber was the foremost of these early female directors who have been largely ignored and forgotten.  (In Kevin Brownlow's magisterial work on the silent cinema, The Parade's Gone by, there are chapters devoted to Griffith and, even, directors like Allan Dwan, but, as I recall, little or nothing about Lois Weber.)  Weber was a foremost director in Hollywood before America's intervention in World War One, fully the peer of Griffith and better,  I think, than someone like Thomas Ince.  Like Griffith, her old-fashioned and hypocritically moralizing style (denouncing vice while luxuriating in it) didn't translate well into the Roaring Twenties and her film company failed.  The Dumb Girl of Portici, probably, represents the apogee of her influence -- it's very different from her later domestic comedies and message-films about birth control and prostitution.  The film's plot involves the so-called "dumb girl", a mute named Fenella.  She is played by the great ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova, and the film's chief interest today, I think, is that it preserves for us the appearance and acting style of that prima donna:  she can't act to save her soul but her bizarre appearance and her peculiarly boneless gestures and deportment are absolutely riveting. The mute girl lives in fisherman's village much oppressed by Spanish nobility living in Naples.  Fenella's brother, Masaniello is revolutionary firebrand.  The tyrant in Naples, called the Viceroy, has two sons:  Alphonso and Conde.  Alphonso falls in love with Fenella and spends the night with her.  When word of this liaison reaches the Viceroy, he sends out Conde to kidnap Fenella -- she has to be eliminated since Alphonso is promised to another, a Spanish noblewoman.  Fenella is thrown into a dank prison cell with horrific-looking stains on the wall and floor and a lot of friendly rats (with whom she makes friends).  After a rather desultory flogging and an attempted rape by a fellow prisoner, Fenella takes advantage of the guard's drunkenness and the general porosity of the prison to escape.  She runs across the landscape and ends up intercepting Alphonso who is on his way in regal procession to church to get married to his royal Spanish fiancée.  Fenella's bedraggled appearance, with her back still showing marks of the lash, disconcerts the wedding party.  Then, the Viceroy makes a big mistake -- here's the intertitle:  The Viceroy foolishly celebrated the Day by taxing fruit, the fare on which the lower classes chiefly lived.  This fruit tax leads to a popular rebellion -- this revolution, staged on a grandiose scale, occupies the last half of the two hour film.  Fenella somehow gets entrapped in the royal palace that is beleaguered by hundreds of peasants with battering rams.  In the end, the rebels sack the place and, apparently, take power.  Fenella's brother, Masaniello, becomes the ruler.  Unfortunately, a bad guy gives him the well-known potion of madness.   In the middle of signing decrees, he goes mad and ends  up killing himself.  Fenella gets stabbed.  In the final scene, we see her ballet-dancing her way up into heaven over a blurry backdrop of clouds coruscating with a molten sunset.  The story is replete with dance sequences.  Alphonso, on a tour of the fisher-folk's shanties, sees Fenella dancing on the shore of the sea and conceives his love for her -- in the opening scene she does a little pas de deux with strands of sea-weed.  In fact, in the first shot in the film, we see a poetic image of tall marshes standing around a pool at sunset -- Fenella is superimposed on this image which gradually fades to black and wearing a white tutu (and en pointe) she treats us to an extravagant dance:  a weird, almost eerie, fantasia on classical ballet.  Pavlova is not, by any stretch of the imagination, attractive -- but she is certainly compelling.  She is skeletal with fierce, glaring eyes that seem too large for her rather narrow face and she has a rabbit-like (or rat-like) overbite -- we can always see her teeth protruding from between her narrow lips.  She is both a bit equine and haggard, ghoulish-looking, with ice-white skin.  Her grimacing and flitting around epitomizes the film's acting style which is insanely melodramatic -- the movie seems,in fact, surreal:  everyone is always clutching at their heart to show resolve or wringing their hands or snarling or leering or grimacing in ecstasy or rage.  An example is one scene in which the Viceroy's two sons swear an oath, eyes rolling and hands clutched together while the other fist beats on the breast and, in lower corner of the image, their mother sneers and shows her teeth like a hyena -- I can't recall what any of this emoting was for, but the sheer surrealistic spectacle of this perpetual over-acting is overwhelming and, even, a little nightmarish.  Then, there is the problem of the identical actors:  for some reason, Weber casts four men who are the same general height and build, puts them in shaggy fright wigs, gives them identical goatees and sideburns and releases them into the world -- there is no way to tell the men apart except by their clothing (and, even, that is not a reliable indicator):  two of the men are Masaniello (who can be identified for part of the move by his short short shorts and bare thighs often smeared with blood during the fighting scenes) and his side-kick who looks exactly like him:  Alphonso and Conde are conceived as identical twins apparently.  The problem is that as the plot proceeds there is simply no way to tell who is doing what -- four of male protagonists all look exactly alike.  Pavlova doesn't look like anyone living, but the other women all seem to be the same exact age -- this is inconvenient since they are mother and daughter:  I could only tell the women apart by their elaborate headdresses.  The muteness of the title character doesn't play any part in the plot at all as far as I can see.  (Compare to Griffith's similar Orphans of the Storm in which of the Gish sisters -- I forget which -- is blind; her blindness is integral to the plot.)  There are some extremely impressive battle scenes, including some with exciting tracking shots, very innovative and brilliantly choreographed for 1916 -- but Weber doesn't understand the 180 degree rule and often cuts to reverse shots that are confusing.  For instance, in the big siege of the palace, we can't tell if we are on the outside trying to ram our way into the building or inside trying to defend against the rebels.  There are sequences that don't fit into the plot at all -- in one of the battle scene, we see a title called :  "The Soldier's Revenge".  Then, there is a shot of a armored officer stealing some gems.  He finds a secret panel in the wall and enters a dark cabinet.  But before he can escape, another armored man fires his pistol right into the camera lens and there is cut to the officer seizing his chest, dropping his booty, and falling over.  But this little anecdotal sequence, maybe forty seconds long, has nothing to do with anything else in the movie.  Some of the titles are idiotic to the point of being surrealistically amusing:  Masaniello sacrificing everything to search for his sister soon got behind with dues on his hut.  The camera work is brilliant -- extremely deep focus and immensely expressive.  There are some chiaroscuro shots of Pavlova that exploit her narrow sinewy body to make her look almost like a nude by Rodin or an emaciated Pieta.  The film's politics are extremely confusing -- everything leads to the righteous explosion of the rebellion against the Spanish.  But once the rebellion occurs anarchy results and the film maker decries the involvement of "thieves and murderers" whom we see literally emerging from caves and cisterns in the revolution.  Weber is an interesting director, but she is leagues behind D. W. Griffith.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Shanghai Express

The Shanghai Express (1932)is the fourth film of a series of pictures made by Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich.  It's a curious and inconsequential-seeming movie that doesn't really succeed on any level.  Sternberg was a master of chiaroscuro and hazy sfumato effects -- his actors are haloed with rim-lighting and posed against complex networks of drifting mist and an angular shadow.  In The Shanghai Express, the effect is weirdly disconcerting -- the imagery is too stylized to be regarded as conventionally realistic and, yet, not sufficiently stylized to embody the heady decadent abstraction of some of Sternberg's other pictures.  As a result, the picture feels caught between two worlds:  it's too abstract to be realistic and, yet, too jarringly realistic to maintain successfully a tone of fairy-tale phantasmagoria.  In my view, the picture would have been more successful as a silent film -- the dialogue is stiff, stereotyped, and, even, often racist.  The beautiful silent star, Anna May Wong looks exotically glamorous, but she has a curiously proletarian voice inflected with a nasal twang -- one expects her to speak softly and with a musical accent, but, instead, her voice is loud and completely American (as one would expect, her parents were second-generation southern Californian Chinese).  Wong's brash-sounding American accent is particularly surprising since the film traffics in a number of unusual accents and, in fact, the way people sound to one another is an important plot element in the film.  Sternberg's train is never convincingly "train-like" -- it seems like a series of spacious well-lit rooms linked together; the director makes no effect to simulate the rocking motion of the train churning forward over the rails.  As a result the picture seems oddly static and pictorially inert.  Almost all the action takes place at night and, so, there is no attempt to create any plausible sense of the Chinese cities and landscape through which the train moves.  The picture is only 80 minutes long but it has an odd, stuttering pace -- Sternberg stops the action for the dialogue and, since the dialogue is not particularly good, this doesn't help the film.

A motley group of passengers departs Peking on a train running to Shanghai.  The passengers include a brusque, loud-mouthed American gambler (played by the croaking Eugene Pallette -- one of the best character actors of the thirties), a couple of high-priced courtesans (Dietrich's Shanghai Lily and Miss Hoo Fay played by Wong), a censorious Protestant minister, a comical French officer, a Germany mystic wearing a fez -- he turns out to be an opium smuggler -- and a stiff, hyper-vigilant British military officer, Captain Harvey.  Harvey is played by Clive Booth in a much more buttoned-down manner than his later portrayals of Victor Frankenstein -- in this film, he is a cardboard-figure of an English gentleman.  It turns out that Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) and Harvey were lovers five years before -- she imprudently tested the doctor's love by indulging in "a woman's trick", that is, going with another man to make him jealous.  This ended their love affair, although both have kept the torch of unrequited romance flaring in their hearts.  (This is notwithstanding Dietrich's famous statement:  "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." -- She is said to be a "coaster", that is, a woman who "lives on the coast of China by her wits.")  China is embroiled in a civil war, a place where "time and life has no value."  A sinister Eurasian, played by Warner Olund, turns out to be a war-lord.  He has the train stopped in the middle of nowhere to interrogate and torture its inhabitants.  Olund, in a role that is pretty obviously a racist fantasy, is the cruel, inscrutable Fu Manchu -- worse, however, because he has "mixed blood."  He brands the German with a red hot iron, rapes Anna May Wong, and, then, threatens to put out Clive Brooks' eyes.  Dietrich offers herself to Olund to save her lover, who remains conspicuously cold to her.  (Of course, Harvey thinks Shanghai Lily is seducing the War Lord out of sheer, sexual depravity.)  Wong revenges herself on the War Lord by stabbing him to death.  This murder seemingly solves everyone's problems and the train proceeds to Shanghai where Dietrich and Clive Brooks' Dr. Harvey express their love for one another and kiss in the train station.  There are lots of puzzling features in the film -- Dietrich wears a fish-net veil with black spots over her face through much of the picture and her eyes flicker back and forth; at times, it looks as if she's about to have a seizure -- she seems to be greedily surveying Dr. Harvey's face and figure, but the effect is like nystagmus:  it's vertigo inducing to watch her eyes so obviously unfocused and flitting about.  And, indeed, there's no real chemistry at all between Dietrich and Brook -- they seem completely mismatched as lovers.  The final sequence with its strange, stuttering rhythm exemplifies the disconnect between the two.  Harvey, standing ramrod straight, looks at Dietrich and mutters:  "How in the name of Confucius can I kiss you here?"  the camera cuts from a two-shot showing the lovers to a crowded, swarming train station.  In a close shot, Dietrich's eyes flutter about in a dizzying way and she says incomprehensibly:  "why there's no one here but you and I."  The film cuts to the crowded train station, a room holding about a hundred closely packed extras.  Then, we see Dietrich begin to kiss Dr. Harvey while she mouths:  "But many lovers come to the railway station to kiss without being observed."  The embrace fades into dissolve showing the big crowds of people in the station.  A couple of shots of the station crowd from different angles are superimposed upon the embracing lovers.  None of these images is particularly persuasive and the climactic clinch is  not dramatic and unconvincing -- particularly because it is simply difficult to see, the two lovers slowly vanishing into a tapestry of figures, a documentary shot that looks like a southern California bus station.    

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Moulin Rouge (1952)

John Huston's bio-pic of Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, starts rambunctiously and, then, withers into bathos.  Nonetheless, the film is moving and, in fact, one of those rare pictures that makes it's own narrative failure thematic.  The morose gloom that congests the picture and, finally, makes it unrewarding corresponds with the artist's affliction -- a spiritual deformity that exceeds the hero's physical impairment.  Although the picture isn't exactly successful, it contains a number of fine things and is worth seeing, if only for its first half-hour. 

In the beginning of the film, Toulouse-Lautrec is sketching on a table-cloth in the Moulin-Rouge and we are captivated to see performances from the great artists and dancers in that cabaret.  Two women dance with feral abandon with a suave black man and a Flaneur with a long pointed chin.  After the dance, the women fight, apparently, taking seriously the jocular scenario of the choreography.  Then, a beautiful courtesan appears and sings a song a heart-breaking beauty -- this is the very young Zsa-Zsa Gabor performing the theme from Moulin Rouge, a gorgeous lament by the great George Auric.  Lautrec is like the resident genius of the huge saloon and each artist comes to salute him at his table.  Finally, a group of can-can dancers appears and cavorts to Offenbach -- this is one of the best, and most thrilling, dance numbers in cinema, intercut with shots of fat, drunk audience members who are hysterical with pleasure.  The can-can girls' high-kicking and splits ends the show and everyone goes home and, only after this spectacle, is it revealed that Lautrec (played by Jose Ferrer) is deformed, a full torso and large, even leonine, head mounted on short stocky legs that are only knee-high.  Lautrec is lonely and, as he walks home, he encounters a blonde prostitute pursued by the local gendarme -- the prostitute spends the night at his house and becomes his girlfriend.  However, she is badly damaged and returns to her pimp.  Lautrec is heart-broken and, after the final break with the girl, goes to his apartment, turns on the gas and plans to die -- but, then, he is rescued by his genius:  he sees a way to improve a poster for the Moulin Rouge on which he has been stalled, uses his brush to inflect the painting with these new ideas, and is sufficiently inspired to shut off the gas and live.  He becomes famous and several years pass.  One morning, after a long night of partying -- the artist has become a drunk -- he sees a mysterious and beautiful woman on a bridge over the Seine.  She is throwing something into the river.  Lautrec thinks she might be suicidal but learns that she is, instead, very independent and self-reliant.  The woman has just broken up with a handsome aristocrat who has asked her to marry him.  Lautrec meets her later and she becomes his constant companion.  It is evident that she has fallen in love with him, but he continues to coldly rebuff her -- he has become an icy cynic about matters of the heart.  Ultimately, the woman opts to marry the handsome aristocrat, sending Lautrec a letter confessing her love for him.  Lautrec drinks himself to death.  Finally, he falls down a flight of steps in a scene that echoes an earlier flashback that shows how he originally broke his legs and became deformed -- he fell down the marble steps at his family's country estate:  his parents are wealthy nobles.  As he lies dying, his father announces that one of his pictures has been accepted at the Louvre.  Lautrec imagines the good old days at Moulin Rouge and there is a reprise of the exciting dancing and singing in the cabaret, this time performed by phantoms.  Then, he dies.  The final scene of the movie packs a powerful punch and I would guess that projected on the full screen in 1952, many audience members had to blink away tears while watching -- the film's ending also works emotionally because it is just this madcap infusion of energy and joy that characterized the film's bravura opening sequence that the movie has been painfully missing for the last eighty minutes or so.  Beginning with the excruciating scenes with the prostitute, the film takes on a gloomy note and simply and stoically chronicles Lautrec's deterioration.  The hero's self-destructive self-loathing is powerfully expressed but it is ultimately not a dramatic stance, a psychic situation that resists dramatization -- rather, Lautrec does everything possible to undercut himself, including ignoring the obvious affection of his beautiful and self-possessed companion during the movie's last hour -- he calls himself her "ape" and says that "beautiful women were often known to go out in public with an ape so to render their beauty all the more admirable in comparison with the creature attending upon them."  During the last half of the film, Ferrer speaks in brittle epigrams and bobs his head around to show that he is drunk and, in fact, makes his character so unpleasant that you long for his demise.  The part is well-written but extremely superficial -- I understood the conceit, that is the concept, underlying the role, but it doesn't really register emotionally.  The set decoration and gowns and lighting are all fabulous.  The Moulin Rouge is a smoky phantasmagoria with a full orchestra hanging overhead on a balcony and the fauvist color schemes are extraordinary -- the expressionistic use of color, particularly acid greens and livid yellow, here intended to invoke Lautrec's palette reminds me of scenes in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind.  When Lautrec swills absinthe, the images are half-dissolved in an eerie green light.  The chamber in which Lautrec's lady-friend declares her love for him is absolutely vaginal with pink folded curtains, mirrors oddly placed to reflect labial drapery, soft, yielding cushions and pillows everywhere.  Despite the lavish color scheme, Huston's direction is unassuming and not overly emphatic -- if he were to pile on directorial excess (as Baz Luhrman did in his remake) it would be excess upon what is already excess and, so, of course, a surfeit.  Huston lets the choreography play out in long takes.  He uses very few close-ups.  But those that employs are powerful -- one of the most indelible shows one of the great dancers from the Moulin Rouge reduced to penury, drunk and ranting on the street:  the shot shows the woman's misery but, also, captures the spirit that once made her wonderful.  There is a lot that is questionable in the film -- for instance, I doubt that Lautrec's posters "destroyed" the Moulin Rouge by making it "overly popular".  But this is a picture worth seeing -- in only for the flamboyant and exuberant first half hour.