Now You’re Talking! Let’s Chat about Film Dialogue for #MTOS

eveI’m honored to be hosting another #MTOS tweetalong! For those of you who haven’t yet participated in this enlightening Twitter event, MTOS or Movie Talk on Sundays is a weekly discussion of a subject pertaining to film. I invite everyone to join in at 8 p.m. GMT for some good cinephile fun.

This time I’ve chosen movie dialogue as our topic.

I realize that’s a pretty vast subject, and we’ll only be scratching the surface with the questions below.

So, fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

Q1. Do you seek out and enjoy dialogue-driven films? Why or why not?

Q2. To what extent is great dialogue about creating memorable lines? What other aspects/goals are important?

Q3. What’s a movie that, in your opinion, has brilliant dialogue? What makes it so good?

Q4. What’s a movie that you find “talky” or overwritten in terms of dialogue? Explain.

Q5. Of directors who don’t write their own scripts, name one who handles dialogue scenes well. What is s/he doing right?

Q6. Name a writer-director whom you consider a master of dialogue scenes. What makes his/her work effective?

Q7. Name an actor whom you consider especially gifted in bringing the nuances out of dialogue. Elaborate.

Q8. How does genre influence a film’s dialogue? Tell me about a specific genre and what you expect the dialogue to be like.

Q9. Within a given movie, dialogue/styles of speaking often illustrate contrasts between characters. Give an example.

Q10. What is your favorite movie conversation or dialogue scene (not just a movie line, please)? Why?

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Save the Phantom Stage! Hollywood Landmark Reportedly Slated for Oblivion

phantomUniversal Studios’ Stage 28 holds a lot of memories. Some of the most iconic American films, including The Bride of FrankensteinPsycho, and The Sting were shot there, to name only a few.

Built in 1924 for the silent Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, the vast soundstage still houses the 90-year-old opera set. Designed by Ben Carré, this recreation of the Paris original practically deserves its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, having appeared in movies ranging from Dracula to The Muppets.

Throughout the years, the so-called “Phantom Stage,” nicknamed for the first film made there, has earned its title in another sense. Legend has it that the soundstage is haunted. However, those ghosts might be homeless soon.

The website Inside Universal recently broke the news that the studio would close Stage 28 and probably demolish it. According to their article, “Phantom’s set pieces are rumored to be removed and preserved… While unconfirmed, the site is likely to be used for future theme park development.”

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Okay, so up to this point, I’ve been pretty cool, calm, and collected, but now I’m going to express myself quite frankly. WHAT THE &*#$@!?!?! Are you kidding me, Universal? You want to demolish a peerless piece of Hollywood history to make more room for your theme park? Even as you prepare to cash in on your horror icons with a new shared-universe franchise reboot, you’ve decided to dismantle your strongest physical link to the genesis of those celluloid myths?

Dear reader, this is where you come in. Two petitions have sprung up to halt the closing and destruction of Stage 28. The first, a petition on whitehouse.gov, requests that the government accord a National Historic Landmark designation to Stage 28 and aims for 100,000 signatures by September 25. The second, a Care2 petition, establishes a less specific goal, “save the historic Phantom Stage from demolition”, and hopes to collect 10,000 signatures.

I urge you to sign both of these petitions. And I’ll make this really easy…

1. CLICK HERE AND SIGN THIS!

2. AND THEN SIGN THIS!

Please sign now. Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow. Don’t go get a cup of coffee. Don’t check your Twitter feed. It will take you all of 60 seconds to put your name down for both. You will feel much better once you have. And Lon Chaney might come and get you if you don’t.

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Plus, if you really care about Stage 28 and/or film history and/or horror movies and/or me not crying, please tweet about this, blog about it, tell everyone you know. Encourage your friends and family to sign the petitions. If you have pull, use it. Harass Universal Studios in any (legal and respectful) way you can think of.

Sadly, the film industry tends to realize the value of its history only when it’s too late. This is the business, after all, that destroyed God only knows how many silent movie prints to reclaim the silver from the emulsion.

Come on, people, let’s save Stage 28. Let’s preserve film history. Let’s show the studio once and for all not to mess with movie geeks and our hallowed ground. And let’s do it now.

Because, if we don’t, the Phantom Stage might disappear forever.

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Isn’t It Romantic? Discussing Rom-Coms at #MTOS

sabrinakissFrom Girl Shy to Some Like It Hot to When Harry Met Sally, many of the most beloved and bankable films of all time fall under the fluid label of “romantic comedy.”

But does this genre get the respect it deserves? Or is it even a genre at all? I guess we’ll just have to tweet this one through…

In case you’ve never taken part in #MTOS, which stands for Movie Talk on Sunday, this weekly discussion brings together film lovers from around the world to chat on Twitter. The wide range of perspectives always makes this social media phenomenon a treat, so follow the hashtag and share your thoughts. I invite you to join in what promises to be a very cuddly, quirky, serendipitous discussion on Twitter this coming weekend, on August 17 at 8:00 p.m. GMT (or 4:00 p.m. EDT), and laugh about love again.

Allow me to pop the question(s)…

1. How do you feel about rom-coms in general? How often do you watch them?

2. The rom-com has a reputation as a “girly” or “feminine” genre. Discuss.

3. How do you define the conventions or characteristics of a rom-com? In other words, what do you expect to see in one?

4. Now, name a rom-com that intentionally *subverts* our expectations and does it well.

5. Okay, the big question—what, in your opinion, is the best romantic comedy of all time? Why?

6. What’s the worst rom-com you’ve ever seen? What was so awful about it?

7a. Who is the ultimate rom-com actor? Why?

7b. Name your favorite rom-com couple. What’s so special about them?

8. What, in your opinion, is the best “meet-cute” scene you’ve ever watched? What worked well about it?

9. Rom-com elements are often combined with other genres. What’s a successful example of this?

10. Some critics have predicted the end of the rom-com. Will it bounce back? Has it even declined? Or are we in for romcompocalypse?

Crime Spree: The Wicked Darling (1919)

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The streetwalker sits on the edge of the gutter, rubs her tired feet, then slips them back into her worn shoes. She scans the street with the relaxed resignation of someone accustomed to sizing up meager and often dangerous prospects. A trace of anxiety lines her mouth only as she pauses to size up a dope fiend shambling out of a nearby store. This is a tough part of town for selling anything, much less yourself.

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Then two legs come up behind her, stepping almost daintily into the frame, legs which she seems to sense as much as hear. She turns her head slowly to look at them. We haven’t seen the man’s face yet, but the intertitles inform us that he’s a thief who’s served time—a crook called “Stoop” Conners.

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Stoop’s face fills the screen. It’s a face you might call kind. If you’re used to Easter Island statues, maybe. With a contemptuous glance around, Stoop orders the woman to get up. As he towers over her in a wider shot, the hooker pokes up at the bottom of the frame and steps up on the sidewalk to face this creepy thug. To put it mildly, they know each other.

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And so Lon Chaney made his first appearance in a Tod Browning film, The Wicked Darling, sparking a partnership that would come to define the grotesque in cinema.

Even in this brief character introduction, Browning aptly sculpts Chaney’s potential for menace through cinematic space. The legs ominously enter from the side, the upper half of Conner’s body is only disclosed after the intertitle, and Conner’s presence suddenly places the prostitute in a lower relation to another character. Chaney, in turn, maximizes the value of each shot through his stiletto-sharp focused movements. As Conners proceeds to tell Mary Stevens where she should be plying her trade, his ugly facial contortions, pointing gestures, and invasion of her space all complete the portrait of a swaggering lowlife, the kind of man who really does think he can own a woman.

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The Wicked Darling, recently rediscovered in the Netherlands Filmmuseum after many years among the lost, probably won’t ever receive recognition on a par with Chaney’s later, more horror-inclined films. I myself only dug this one up out of interest about the beginning of the Chaney-Browning collaboration. On the surface, the plot sounds like a sentimental cliché: a prostitute steals some jewels, but falls in love with a decent man and tries to go straight—but her criminal associates won’t let her escape that easily.

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Boy, was I in for a shock! Compared with even an excellent gangster thriller of the time like The Penalty, The Wicked Darling strikes me as a much more modern, uncompromising depiction of crime. The seediness of Browning’s ultra-realist underworld, the ferocity of the acting, and the subtlety of the crescendoing suspense bowled me over.

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In addition to Browning’s brilliantly askew direction, the fierce energy of Priscilla Dean also brought out the best in emerging movie actor Chaney. Though sadly little-remembered nowadays, Dean was a top female star at Universal when The Wicked Darling was made. Neither a flapper nor a glamourpuss, Dean was a fearless actress, willing to look downright sullied and unattractive to boost her credibility in a role. Chaney’s female co-stars tended to play second fiddle to him, but Dean was that rare actress whose spitfire energy and rubber-face range of expression could counterbalance his own. Their antagonistic onscreen chemistry threatens to burn a hole right through your screen.

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Browning’s penchant for all things freakish, Dean’s tough honesty, and Chaney’s vicious intensity synergized to produce an extraordinary crime melodrama. Their pooling of gutsy talent layered on the despair and grime of a celluloid skid-row more sordid and gritty than most of what moviegoers would see for another half-century.

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In this story of love and redemption, Chaney incarnates—surprise, surprise—all the obstacles to Mary’s rise from gutter. Reading between the lines, we understand that Stoop Conners not only helps Mary work her pickpocket routine, but is also one of her regular johns who also works with Uncle Pet, her stringy pawnbroker pimp. In this supporting role, Chaney bravely confronts us with a morally defunct man, lacking in anything we might latch onto as likeable. Devoid of the qualities that make most of Chaney’s characters so charismatic, like Blizzard’s satanic gumption or the Phantom’s creative madness, Stoop would come last even in a scrawny punk competition.

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There’s nothing romantic about his two-bit gangster; he comically turns a 180 whenever he sees a cop coming and gets trounced no less than three times by big burly dudes with whom he tangles. And just because he’s attached to Mary in some way doesn’t mean he’s above slapping her around; actually, his strange brand of affection practically guarantees it.

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Dean and Chaney give us a cringe-worthy duet of scorn when Mary returns from stealing some pearls. Unbeknownst to her, Stoop has been negotiating with her pimp—if he turns over the pearls, he gets her and a nice chunk of cash in exchange. Leaning back, his thumb tucked in the armhole of his vest, he coyly questions her about the whereabouts of the loot that he implies they stole together. “We! Where yuh get that ‘we’ stuff?” She retorts, claiming she lost the pearls. He shrugs, assuming that she doesn’t want to talk about the stash in a public place.

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Then Stoop leans forward with a gesture that could only come from a hustler trying to imitate something he saw in a movie, flopping his hand on Mary’s and leaning in with a goofy grin. Chaney makes this awkward come-on both risible and lewd, like Al Capone trying to ape John Gilbert. When Mary pulls away in disgust, he informs her that he’s “picked out a nice pretty flat” where he plans to install her without delay. Her face modulates from mocking disdain to horror as she realizes how she’s been betrayed by her pimp.

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She jumps up to leave, but Stoop yanks her arm and screams right into her face. Though there are no intertitles, we can read his lips and his aggressive pointing. “You’re gonna move in with me. TONIGHT!!!”

She slaps him, not with the fury of offended honor, but with the anger of a woman who’d rather take her chances as a freelancer than have to put up with one very nasty client full-time. He hauls back, prepared to belt his lady love square in the face when the bartender, built like a tank, grabs his arm in mid swing. Real smooth proposition, Stoop. Real smooth.

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Throughout The Wicked Darling, Browning goes out of his way to depict Stoop as a real-life monster. Chaney, gnashing his teeth and grimacing, basks in almost as many close-ups and medium close-ups as Priscilla Dean! The shots of Chaney are enclosed moments of contemplation. They sometimes run the risk of diverging from the plot, like a mini freak show, as if the director and actor really want the audience to think, “Holy sh*t, do people this awful really exist?”

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For instance, in the midst of the climactic interrogation scene, as Conners pushes Mary around and twists her wrist to extract information, he breaks away after a particularly nasty blow and we get a cut to this medium close-up. Stoop, his teeth bared, draws the back of his balled fist across his mouth, wiping away the spittle he salivated while beating his ex-gal. If there’s a more potent, unpleasant face of male sadism out there, I haven’t seen it.

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In these close shots, Chaney’s mug is also carefully framed for maximum dissonance—he’s usually far off to one side. He also sticks his face quite close to the camera. We recognize a total incomprehension of boundaries and personal space as one of Stoop’s strongest mannerisms. He sidles right up to whomever he’s addressing, even if that means sitting on their desk or edging his chair right up to theirs.

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Most frightening, when he turns up at now-reformed Mary’s workplace, he sneaks up right behind her and doesn’t budge except to smile, immediately crowding her with an air of entitled possession. Through a number of tight close shots, Stoop makes the audience feel like he’s invading their personal space, too.

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Now, Browning as a director tended to focus on outsiders, lost souls living on the margins of ordinary, tax-paying society. While the director often portrayed these living jetsam with tenderness and warmth, Stoop elicits no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather than facing up to his own slum exile from normalcy, he drags Mary downward to have someone he can place below him…. on the food chain, that is.

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Interestingly, though, Stoop manipulates the audience and Mary, knowing that we all want to believe that there’s a glimmer of goodness in everyone. In a key scene toward the conclusion, he lures Mary away from the edge of a pier where she’s about to commit suicide… so that he can get her back to Uncle Pete’s lair and wring information out of her. Stoop’s subtly downcast eyes, his gravely fidgeting hands, and slightly bent stance all convince even wary Mary that he’s solemnly summoning her to her pimp’s deathbed. He tricks her into seeing the decency that she aspires to reflected in him. But whenever Mary isn’t looking, Stoop’s eyes flick over to study her reaction with merciless glee.

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In a lot of prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold sagas, the heroine acts like she wants to flee her immoral existence for rarified philosophical reasons. It’s a life choice for Garbo, Crawford, and co. when they turn the red light off. By contrast, Mary Stevens wants not only to better herself, but also to get the hell away from violent slimeballs like Stoop. Thus Chaney provides the muscle to back up The Wicked Darling’s brutal commentary on the hardship of a woman’s life, once she’s cut off by society and written off as “soiled.”

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Chaney’s true-to-life boogeyman, a sleazy, self-pitying, abject son-of-a-bitch, makes the viewer’s blood boil. In real life, Chaney empathized with criminals but despised bullies and often took it upon himself to protect vulnerable young women when he saw them being mistreated in Hollywood. I think he channeled a lot of his hatred for men like Stoop—and their high-ranking relatives—into one of the few utterly unsympathetic performances of his career.

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With all of his limbs at his command and a face barely touched with makeup, Chaney crafted what might be the most real and horrifying character in his gallery of nightmares.

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This post is part of the Lon Chaney Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In. Be sure to check out the other posts and explore the thousands of faces of Chaneys Sr. and Jr.!

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Tough Love: The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

devil_is_a_woman“[Dietrich] and I have progressed as far as possible together, and my being with her will help neither her nor me.” —Joseph von Sternberg after making The Devil Is a Woman

In the annals of creator-muse relationships, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich stand out as one of the oddest couples. 

He was a tyrannical aesthete. A diminutive, immaculately dressed monster who refused his actors bathroom breaks and grew a mustache to look intentionally “more horrible,” in his own words. She was a bighearted goddess. Her screen glamour belied the earthiness and generosity that led Billy Wilder to call her “Mother Teresa with better legs.”

The volatile Sternberg-Dietrich pairing produced seven of the most ecstatically, enduringly beautiful movies of all time. Beginning with The Blue Angel, these Baroque, decadent films usually revolved around an unpredictable femme fatale with a knack for enthralling and degrading the men in her life.

dsAlthough it’s often the woman who holds the whip in Sternberg works, ironically, the dictatorial auteur liked to refer publicly to Dietrich (and to all actors) as insipid puppets. Tempting as it is to describe their cinematic love affair as a Svengali-Trilby-style domination, the truth remains more complex.

In 1968, Sternberg wrote, “I am a teacher who took a beautiful woman, instructed her, presented her carefully, edited her charms, disguised her imperfections and led her to crystallize a pictorial aphrodisiac. She was a perfect medium, who with intelligence absorbed my direction, and despite her own misgivings responded to my conception of a female archetype.”

However, she was more than a passive creation. When they met, she was no ingénue; she could already draw on years of stage and film experience. After all, Sternberg respected Dietrich enough to concoct her own iconic cabaret costumes for The Blue Angel, effectively assigning her responsibility for a key aspect of the film’s look. He said, “She has an uncanny knack for what looks right,” and by the end of their collaborations, Maria Riva noted, Sternberg admitted that Dietrich knew as much about cameras and shot set-ups as a director.

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Thus, one must conclude that Dietrich and Sternberg co-authored her persona. Plus, Sternberg certainly can’t take credit for all of her allure! Without her mocking sensuality and her inner strength masquerading as matter-of-factness, their seven films together would’ve been icy exercises in gorgeous cinematography.

And today, I’d like to examine the last and probably the least well-known of their collaborations, The Devil Is a Woman. On the cusp of separating with Dietrich forever, Sternberg created a visual love song, half malice, half worship, originally given the musical name Caprice Espagnole, before Ernst Lubitsch changed it to the more self-explanatory final title.

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Set in 19th century Spain, the story begins with a hallucinatory sequence of the impressionable Don Antonio chasing an elusive, masked woman in the midst of Carnival. When Antonio goes to visit a bitter, lonely friend, Don Pasqual, at their officers’ club, he learns that the woman he saw, Concha Perez, drove Pasqual to ruin his reputation and retire in despair.

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Told in flashback, the sadomasochistic romance between the wheedling Concha and the stoic, embarrassed Pasqual emerges through a downward path of episodic encounters. Pasqual finds Concha, loses his heart and his money, and then she deserts him. This pattern repeats itself several times. When we jump back to the present, Pasqual and Antonio enter into yet another iteration of the jealous cycle—ending in a duel that will force Concha to show where her affections truly lie.

Oh, did I mention the fact that Don Pasquale or “Pasqualito” is a dead-ringer for Sternberg? Seriously. It gets creepy after a while.

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When film critic Alexander Walker asked Sternberg why he made Atwill look so much like him, the director replied, “Everyone in my films is like me… spiritually.” Well, that’s nice, Jo, but don’t avoid the question, please. Quite frankly, I think Sternberg knew that The Devil Is a Woman would be his last film with Dietrich, and he wanted to immortalize his doppelgänger in her arms.

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That’s not to say that I—or anyone else—should view Sternberg as a jilted man. According to Maria Riva, Sternberg called off his collaboration with Dietrich. He may have done so because he wanted her to make a commercial success with another director, whereas his efforts were decreasingly profitable. She objected—protesting that she resembled “a potato” when photographed by anyone else—but it was the end of a legendary partnership.

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Although their final movie together lacks the unity of Shanghai Express, which I consider the greatest of the Dietrich-Sternberg films, this tale of sexual obsession resonates with a poignant sense of personal desperation and pain. Some reviewers have observed that Sternberg uses his lavish mise-en-scene as a distancing technique; for me, it’s always the opposite. I feel that I’m meeting an exquisitely tragic (or tragically exquisite) person; I want to understand the anguish underneath the sublime bric-a-brac.

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Every gauze curtain, every hanging flacon, every glittering hair comb in The Devil Is a Woman possesses the idealized desirability of a mirage. But to call this movie a feast for the eyes would soften the element of defiance inherent in such a positive glut of beauty; its overstimulation borders on cruelty—rather like putting such a feast before starving eyes.

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Swathed in some of the most ornate costumes designed by Paramount’s Travis Banton, Dietrich never looked better. In fact, Maria Riva remembered that it was Dietrich who insisted on the preponderance of lace that becomes a major motif for her coquette-on-steroids. I’m not the first person to remark that the swirl of veils, nets, and curtains provide a visual equivalent for the layers upon layers of Concha’s identity. Is she a capricious girl pretending to be a femme fatale? Or a femme fatale pretending to be a femme fatale?

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Dietrich’s assurance and maturity as an actress surge forth from the screen. Capable of exaggerated, girlish shenanigans and dignified (if a little coy) reflection, her Concha harbors unexpected reserves of brains and guts. One cannot help but be amused by her tendency to interrupt others, her masterfully illogical arguments, and her ability to displace blame onto her lovers.

Despite the humor Dietrich infused into the film, a suppressed violence simmers in each frame. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sternberg deliberately channeled the style of Francisco de Goya, an artist who could slip from revolting horrors to refined beauty. The contorted carnival masks that fill the streets all leer at the protagonists like a swarm of demons. Concha’s one-eyed, old hag manager incessantly cackles at Don Pasqual, as though she can perceive his imminent humiliation.

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Most alarmingly, the viewer has to question how much Concha diverges from the version of her that Pasqual portrays. After all, some of his flashbacks visit places and times when he wasn’t even present. In one instance, we “see” the illiterate Concha dictate a letter to a curate, fabricating a dejection and heartache that she doesn’t feel. To get really brambly, he’s representing her as she falsely represents herself.

By contrast, perhaps the most important moment in Concha and Pasqual’s relationship takes place off-screen. Surprising Concha with another lover, Pasqual confronts her. Refusing to back down, she questions his right to tell her what to do—he’s not her father, her husband, or her lover. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. He hauls off and hits her.

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Cut to the shutters outside Concha’s apartment. Over the sound of raindrops, we hear short, sharp cries of pain and slaps. It’s a terrible moment of betrayal for the viewer, shut out of Don Pasqual’s point-of-view at a crucial moment in the plot. Not seeing the violence inflicted upon Concha actually makes it much, much worse. What we imagine will always be more brutal.

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The next day Concha shows no marks of abuse, but the scene leaves a bitter taste in our mouths. We, the spectators, have no cozy, righteous character to identify with. Our loyalties hover between Concha, an intentionally provocative manipulator, and Pasqual, who just beat up his lover, which is irrefutably wrong, no matter how appalling she seems. Although we tend to remember Sternberg-Dietrich movies for their pictorial beauty, The Devil Is a Woman plays with our ethical judgments, giving us a messy, uncomfortable coupling with no moral center.

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I’m also fascinated by how Sternberg edited the flashbacks. Within sequences, he made frequent use of lingering, romantic dissolves—but when travelling from the past to the present, he uses straight cuts. The jarring, split-second change of time and place feels like a slap on the face. It jolts and shocks us, while suggesting the rawness of past experience. As Faulkner would say, the past isn’t even past. Certainly not when you’re staging it for celluloid eternity.

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We tend to treasure movies that capture the beginning of an off-screen romance (To Have and Have Not comes to mind.) Well, there’s a special place in my heart for films that memorialize the dissolution of a real life relationship. Dietrich and Sternberg’s dying affair imbues the film with a peculiar mixture of rage and melancholy that keeps me riveted to the screen.

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Released under the iron rule of Joseph Breen once the pre-Code honeymoon was over, the film met heavy censorship. (A perverse musical number, “If It Isn’t Pain, It Isn’t Love” was recorded, but cut. Click here to listen to it.) Even once it was released, critics panned it, audiences shunned it, and Paramount withdrew it from circulation after the Spanish government threatened to boycott their films. The studio destroyed their print. The Devil Is a Woman—a hymn of rejection—was appropriately rejected.

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Yet, The Devil Is a Woman survives. How is that possible? Dietrich saved this masterpiece. She kept a personal copy. It was her favorite among her movies.

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This post is part of the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen and the Classic Movie Blog Hub. Be sure to check out this outstanding blog event and read the other entries!

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Blogathon, Italian Style: FINE!

Well, dear friends, cari amici, all good things must come to an end, and this week marks the final chapter of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon!

It started on Italy’s national holiday and it wraps up on the 4th of July. (A small fireworks ceremony was going to be arranged, but we are dealing with technical difficulties.) I invite you to peruse all of the fantastic posts from previous weeks in addition to this one. To all of the marvelous contributors, it has been a pleasure to feature your posts. To all you lovely readers, thanks for reading! And, without further ado, the last batch of posts…

Warbus

“If you’re worried about logic.. in a flick like this, you are already lost.” RayRay of WeirdFlix returns to the blogathon and takes a ride on Warbus. Yes, as in “war” plus “bus.” As in a busload of missionaries and G.I.’s truckin’ through the perilous jungles of war-torn Viernam. As in a “macaroni combat” film that’s “action-packed and a good bit of fun.” And remember, folks, never get out of the goddamn bus…

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Think you’ve seen Danger: Diabolik? Think again! Carol of Monstrous Industry offers up a strikingly original reading of Mario Bava’s fabulously flashy crime thriller. I did a spit-take by the third paragraph. That is intended as a compliment! Carol writes, “I don’t know how else to say this, so I’m just going to say it straight out: Danger: Diabolik is the most vaginal action movie that I have ever seen.” 

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Fisty and Bill of peanut butter & gialli debate the merits of the colorful suspense film A Quiet Place to Kill (aka Paranoia) which features a menage à trois, racing cars, nude Carroll Baker, and several shots blocked by a blurry red-liquid-filled glass (don’t ask). Fisty calls AQP2K “sexy, thrilling, and entertaining,” and Bill does his best to resurrect the reputation of exploitation auteur Umberto Lenzi: “He’s better than he gets credit for being.”

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Lastly, yours truly would like to introduce you to reel diva Francesca Bertini. This immortal of the screen co-directed and starred in the gritty drama Assunta Spintaand may have invented Neorealism before Neorealists did. If you haven’t heard of her, it’s time you did!

Well, that’s a wrap, folks. Now, let’s head over to Valmont’s Go-Go Pad for the groovy after-party. Ciao, amici! E grazie!

If you enjoyed these posts (and, come on, you know you did), be sure to check out the previous entries for Week 1Week 2Week 3, and Week 4. Gripping stuff!

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A Reel Diva: Assunta Spina (1915)

bertini“It had been my idea to wander around Naples taking ordinary people from the streets. Now everyone’s invented Neorealism! The real Neorealist film is Assunta Spinta!” —Francesca Bertini in 1982

In her nineties, Francesca Bertini, the first great star of the Italian cinema, seemed like the kind of woman who’d slap Norma Desmond and tell her to get a grip. Beyond the trappings of her wealth and fame—the designer dress, the lacquered nails, the perfectly coiffed hair—La Bertini radiated every bit as much vitality and trenchant perceptiveness as she’d exhibited onscreen in the 1910s.

No self-doubt, no pandering humility, not a trace of maudlin auto-elegy crept into her brisk demeanor as she faced down cameramen in the early 1980s—advising them on how to shoot her for a documentary. Telling men sixty years her junior to “Get with it!” she berated film archivists for not transferring nitrate originals of her films onto prints that could be exhibited. She expressed her wish that her work be shared with a younger generation through television. She was the sort of woman who, when she told you she was The Greatest That Ever Lived, you wouldn’t question the fact.

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One look at Bertini at any age and you’d know: this is a goddess. A diva. A woman demands and deserves to be respected, obeyed, worshipped. An actress, an intellect, a force to be reckoned with.

At the height of her fame, Bertini owned a production company and handpicked her roles. When she made Assunta Spina in 1915, she was the highest-paid woman in the world—even Mary Pickford didn’t make as much then.

The strengths Bertini projected in her roles were far from celluloid charades. The passion, the grandeur, the ferocity you witness in her surviving films must have blazed forth from her soul, for these qualities continued to illuminate the diva from within—even when her body grew as frail as a paper lantern.

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Francesca Bertini in 1982

Bertini’s creativity and resolution brought her best-remembered movie, Assunta Spina, into being. While walking through Naples one day, it occurred to her that the story of Salvatore di Giacomo’s famous play would translate ideally to the screen with its colorful scenes of working-class romance and betrayal. Bertini contacted di Giacomo who gave her his blessing to film an adaptation.

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I cannot overstate the importance of this film—and of Bertini as its auteur. With some help from her leading man, Gustavo Serena, she directed the film. She collaborated on the screenplay. She corralled ordinary Neapolitans to appear onscreen and infuse the film with an authentic flavor. She insisted on authentic locations wherever possible. To watch Assunta Spina is to witness neorealism being born—decades before anyone spoke of neorealism.

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Real policemen escort actor Gustavo Serena down a real Neapolitan street

Unlike the colossal period films or sophisticated melodramas that dominated early Italian cinema, Assunta Spina has dirt under its fingernails. This peasant dance of violence and perversity stabs right to the heart of what Italy really was in the 1910s: a place where corruption, monotonous poverty, and primitive codes of honor constricted the pursuit of happiness (especially the happiness of women) like a sweaty corset.

This sordid tale revolves around Assunta, a spirited young woman who runs a laundry. She loves Michele, a simple butcher, but her flirtatious nature and sensual obstinacy inflame his jealousy. The fact that Assunta’s spurned suitor has been anonymously accusing her of infidelity doesn’t help. About to be married, Assunta dances with another man in defiance of Michele’s hotheadedness.

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He responds with a typically grisly manifestation of Italian machismo and slashes her face with a knife. In spite of Michele’s brutality, Assunta defends him at his trial, in vain. Desperate to keep Michele in Naples, even if he’s behind bars, Assunta agrees to become the mistress of Don Frederigo, an unscrupulous politico. (That’s Italy, folks.)

But what’s going to happen when Michele wins his release and finds out? Nothing warm and fuzzy, I assure you.

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Assunta Spina opens with a shot of the Bay of Naples, white buildings gleaming and water rippling. Then, slowly, a dissolve makes a striking woman in white materialize out of thin air onto one of the docks.

A shawl wrapped around her shoulders, she looks into the distance, as if foreseeing the tragedy in her future. The figure turns to the camera and looks practically at the audience, before slowly pivoting away.

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Out of context in terms of plot, this lilting yet vaguely tense shot testifies to the power of Bertini’s presence. With hardly a motion and, of course, no words, she conveys that all we need to know about Assunta—a woman of unexpected depth, a troubled low-caste beauty, a part of Naples just as much as the sea and the sun.

Like some of the best neorealist films (Bicycle Thieves comes to mind), Assunta Spina can sustain mildly surreal touches such as that dissolve… before veering back to gutter realism. After all, isn’t life like that too? Don’t we find that the surfaces of our daily existence serve as mirrors for what’s going on in our souls? For instance, Michele’s “Bucheria” (“Butcher’s Shop”) sign looms prominently in the background as his jealousy flares up and foreshadows his act of unthinkable hate against the woman he loves.

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Assunta’s strangely distorted and warped reflection in the door of her laundry elegantly conveys her divided loyalties.

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These symbolic hints, rather than diminishing the documentary importance of Assunta Spina, elevate the film as a whole. These psychological insights teased from quotidian existence demonstrate that, as André Bazin would later suggest, realism can coexist with more metaphysical and spiritual explorations of humanity.

Cameraman Alberto G. Carta, who worked with Bertini on her most acclaimed vehicles, including Tosca, Lady of the Camellias, and two versions of Odette, imbued Assunta Spina with an ominous lyricism. Naples street scenes take on a jagged, fragmented look in contrast to the all-engulfing skies of sequences near the Bay.

Negative space, dead space often gobbles up most of the screen as we struggle to look at the main characters—taking up only a small segment of frame in a long or medium long shot.

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The lack of close shots in the film reflects Bertini’s belief that they distract from the drama of the moment and can actually prove disruptive to the audience’s identification. Admittedly, I don’t think that close-ups had acquired a truly important place in Italian cinema at that time. Even so, the decision to keep editing to a minimum and to allow scenes to unfold in long takes enhances the realistic ambiance of the work: undivided space, unabbreviated time.

Cutting doesn’t micromanage or pre-digest the performances, which inhabit and fill each long take with searing drama. For the most part, the audience must dwell with the characters in real time (apart from the occasional cut or intertitle) and scan the screen for signs of rising tempers and escalating grudges.

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More importantly, Carta’s camerawork emphasizes a certain pattern in staging. This film’s visual refrain consists of variations on the image of Assunta in the foreground with a man—whether her lover, her spurned suitor, or her “protector”—standing sinisterly in the background.

Not only does this recurrent compositional choice create suspense and tension within a single frame, but it also suggests the theme of a woman haunted and threatened by unappreciative and predatory men.

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(See Raffaele in between Assunta and her father here?)

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And yet, Assunta Spinta does not linger on a “women’s weepie” tale of victimization as much as it traces a tough proto-feminist narrative. This flawed but enduring woman possesses more positive traits than any of the men in her life. She bravely lives down the consequences of the tragedy that unfolds around her and shows agency in her struggle to respect the one man she truly cares about.

The men who hover around Assunta seem at times like exteriorizations of her inner anguish. Like furies, they torment her and give her no peace. Each man serves to bring out a different facet of her personality: the tender bride-to-be with Michele, the coquette with Raffaele, and the femme fatale with Frederigo.

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One woman, three personas: with Michele…

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…with Raffaele…

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.54.09 PM…and with Don Frederigo

Whereas her different admirers possess rather one-track motivations, Assunta’s multi-layered psyche defies you to interpret her. Bertini’s earthy, beguiling performance eschews all neurotic hand-wringing while conveying the enigmatic, passionate nature of her character.

Why does Assunta form emotional bonds with men who hurt and use her? Why does she play with men’s affections? We receive no clear answer; affection, love, physical attraction, preconceived notions about martyrdom, the desire for sexual power, and the hope for a happy home all compete within her.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.38.43 PMThis visual motif of men in the background while Assunta silently wrestles with herself in the foreground also provides some of the most oddly composed shots in the film. Characters stand too close or too far from the camera for comfort, as though distant slices of reality were stacked on top of each other.

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It’s almost as though these men are just figments of her imagination—they exist only by virtue of their relationships with her. Unlike films that try to capture “a woman’s world” or some such hermetically-sealed cliché, Assunta Spinta gives us reality as a woman and a woman as reality. Admittedly, that sounds like a paradox: how can a single person represent reality? Wouldn’t that be allegory, sort of the opposite of realism?

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At the risk of generalizing, I would argue that, whereas narratives revolving around men tend to be goal-oriented, narratives about women often seek to unlock the truth of social conditions. Even the fact that Assunta’s body is made to feel and carry the signs of her ordeal—being scarred by the man she loves, forced to surrender her virtue to a slimy Don—links her as a character directly to irrefutable impact of her suffering, to the empirical evidence of poverty and abuse.

Reality leaves its mark on her, inside and out.

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Assunta, marginalized and forsaken

Moreover, the film’s intense attention to the textures of slum life somehow seems to echo Assunta’s own unflinching ability to size up a situation.

When Michele slashes her cheek, for instance, she immediately calls for a mirror. This scene didn’t exist in the play or the book. Bertini added it. She understood that this woman needs to see. Neither we, the viewers, nor Assunta herself can look away from the collision course of her sad destiny.

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Much of the movie consists of shots of Assunta simply sitting or standing, mulling something over. Her internal world—not one of imagination and fantasy, but of grim decisions and common sense—is echoed in the grime and roughness of Neapolitan streets and the ironic whiteness and bustle of Assunta’s laundry.

I once saw an old religious painting (I can’t for the life of me remember its title, shame on me) where one of the people in the composition is staring off into space but, from the expression on his face, the viewer immediately comes to the conclusion that the figure is somehow seeing the entire scene within himself. We perceive the connection between Assunta and reality through a similar intuition.

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In fact, she delivers the most important “line” of the film, at the very end, mostly offscreen. As she’s led away while the camera lingers on the empty set—as though the realism of the scene speaks for her, as if its textures had absorbed her, imbibed her. As if she were the environment and the environment was the most eloquent possible elegy for her.

The subtle psychological probing of the film, coupled with its insistence on verisimilitude (real locations, non-actors, dialect, an immersion into Neapolitan culture), make it a potent forerunner of post-WWII art cinema.

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And through it all, Bertini owns the screen. The cinema is her home, her country, her fiefdom. The camera was infatuated with this firestorm of a woman whose naturalistic, yet vividly theatrical style must have been to the 1910s what Magnani’s exothermic charisma became to a later generation. So many Method-like details combine to produce a believable human being—not an actor—before us.

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The way she pops a piece of bread into her mouth and chews it disdainfully. The way her hand clings to the side of a wall as she begs a man not to desert her. The way she can’t bear to look at Michele as she confesses what she did to keep him close to her. The dignified honesty of her every movement justifies why she was not only one of the cinema’s first great stars, but also one of its first great artists.

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If you appreciate the hardboiled poetry of Neorealism, make a point of tracking down Assunta Spina. Kino’s edition comes with a documentary on Bertini, L’Ultima Diva, in which she, in her nineties, sits down with interviewers, watches Assunta Spina, and offers, basically, a commentary track on her masterpiece. Listening to someone provide a minute-by-minute explanation of movie’s production a century ago—can you imagine a better portal into film history? And Bertini’s vibrant descriptions and blunt opinions revive this key moment in cinema’s development.

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She was the godmother of Neorealism, the idol of an era, and one of the most versatile, sublime women to electrify the screen. And she knew it, too.

Now, that’s a diva.

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I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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