The Chase (1946): The Zigzag Path of Fear

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“There doesn’t seem to be any beginning. All I can remember is the end of it…”

—Chuck Scott

Mr. Johnson’s plump fingers wiggle around the bottle. “Napoleon brandy! 1815!” He beams with joy. Until he realizes that he’s all alone in the wine cellar.

Calling out to his absent companion, he totters along wooden racks of dusty bottles. After pausing in one aisle of the cavernous room, Mr. Johnson turns around, then hears a low, deep growl, and spins around again, to face us. His gaze is fixed on something just below where the camera would be. Something horrible and hungry. Clutching his precious find, the pudgy man backs away to a brick wall. His panic rises and the bottle slips from his hand.

Cut to the shattered glass on the ground. Rivulets of brandy run along the floor, as the sound of wild screams and the snarls of a vicious dog continue to assault our ears.

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This stomach-churning ellipsis should give you a taste of what The Chase, at its best, is capable of. Don’t say I didn’t warn you: this sick, dizzying film noir might be a few cigarettes short of a pack. Still, if The Chase doesn’t ascend to the trippy epiphanies or concise bitterness of truly great noirs, you’ll have a hard time forgetting the idiosyncratic classic.

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The plot meanders weirdly, falling into a subjective nightmare and never quite coming out of that nosedive. Rather than seeming engaging and twisty, like The Big Sleep, for example, The Chase floats along for a while, accelerates to a prestissimo, then drifts to its denouement. Events pile on top of one another, seemingly without any larger design, and wobble to and fro. This unstable plot structure is both a strength and a weakness. You may feel cheated by the way it deceives you, but you also share the trancelike disorientation of the main character.

vlcsnap-2013-09-01-01h11m08s62Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, the movie features a protagonist typical of the author’s work: an innocent schmoe who gets mixed up in crime. Robert Cummings is the schmoe du jour, Chuck Scott, a down-and-out veteran. When Scott finds a wallet stuffed with money on the street in Miami, he goes to return it to the owner. Unfortunately, that owner happens to be vicious gangster Eddie Roman, who, impressed by Scott’s honesty, hires him as a chauffeur. The gig’s not bad—except that Roman has his car rigged up to be driven from the back seat, as well. (Don’t ask.) Scott also gets to drive Roman’s wife, Lorna, to the beach for her nightly poetic sobbing.

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Motivated by that 1940s male urge to play the knight in shining armor, Scott agrees to help Lorna flee her sadistic husband and to book passage on a ship for Havana. However, faster than you can say “happily ever after,” Roman’s confederates have traced the couple and conspire to cut off all escape.

vlcsnap-2013-09-02-01h14m51s244Upon reflection, I’m inclined to give Cornell Woolrich the most credit of any crime writer for his contributions to the film noir canon. Often published under the pseudonym William Irish, his fiction distilled an impressive range of the genre’s tropes: the amnesiac investigating his own past (“The Black Curtain”), the dream crime that turns into reality (“Nightmare”), the elusive MacGuffin and the avenging angel (“Phantom Lady”), the voyeur who sees too much (“Rear Window”), the serial killer exploiting a mass panic (“Black Alibi”), and the conniving femme fatale who destroys others and ultimately herself (“Angel Face”). His works are like a treasury of film noir plots, a sampler copied and embellished by a lot of gripping movies.

In The Dark Side of the Screen, a book that I unreservedly recommend, Foster Hirsch notes that the words, “ ‘Black,’ ‘night,’ and ‘death’ appear with obsessive recurrence in Woolrich’s titles.” Indeed, The Chase is based on a novel originally titled, The Black Path of Fear.

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Alas, from what I understand about the source material, gifted screenwriter Philip Yordan would’ve done well to stick closer to the book, which sounds tighter and more coherent than the film. Instead of Woolrich’s well-constructed thriller, Yordan and undistinguished director Arthur Ripley put out a rambling fugue of pursuit and anxiety. Thankfully, the excellent supporting cast and the cinematography pull it together. Well, almost.

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Whenever the script allows, director of photography Franz Planer blows up the low-key lit esthetics of noir to dissonant extremes. Eddie Roman’s huge mausoleum of a mansion, all in white, resembles a funhouse with the multiple shadow textures Planer casts over it. The scenes in Havana, particularly the nightclub sequence, exhale a hot, evil wind. Tight, intimate close-ups of Scott and Lorna ooze despair and desperation, as though dawn will never come. The slowly tracking camera and the consuming darkness suggest a tropical night so tenebrous and mysterious that it borders on abstraction. It’s not merely night; it’s Night, the boundless Night that Woolrich evoked in his titles.

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The visuals remain startling and beautiful even in the DVD print I have, which looks like the negative was marinated in coffee for a decade or so.

As for the acting, Peter Lorre steals his share of scenes and gets most of the best dialogue as Gino, Roman’s skulking, perpetually annoyed toady. When Scott brings back the lost wallet, Gino sneers, “Silly, law-abiding jerk.” His laconic, eye-rolling reactions to Scott’s bewildered goodness walk the fine line between funny and menacing. In my favorite snappy exchange, Scotty protests to one of Roman’s quirks,“I don’t get it.” The ever-blasé Gino retorts, “Who does?”

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Michele Morgan, with her lush, orchidaceous face, glides through the film like a lost soul, a diaphanous dream woman not long for this world. The white horror flaring up in her wide eyes speaks to us of all the abuse that the Production Code couldn’t show. Within the confines of a rather decorative role, Morgan creates an achingly gentle woman who would trigger anybody’s protective instincts.

vlcsnap-2013-09-02-00h06m07s221 Of course, the movie really belongs to oily hunk Steve Cochran in his deadly prime. I sometimes have a hard time finding classic movie gangsters scary; more often, they’re impudent and amusing. Eddie Roman, as Cochran plays him, gives me the willies. From the manicurist who does his nails—and gets slapped if she nicks his nail bed—to his most formidable business rivals, no one is safe from Roman’s penchant for violence, both physical and psychological.

Even the simplest of lines spoken by Cochran slither into our ears like whispered obscenities. This man doesn’t just enjoy watching other people suffer; he lives for it. It was only Cochran’s sixth film, but he’d perfected the silent menace routine. Even disregarding everything else this film has going for it, you’d be well advised to check it out for Cochran alone.

vlcsnap-2013-08-31-00h18m35s6So, tune in to The Chase for a zigzagging ride that will leave you reeling and—if you’re anything like me—exhilarated. 

You can watch The Chase for free right now on YouTube or download it at the Internet Archive.

White Zombie (1932): The Evil Eye

posterLet me start out by saying that I’m happy we seem to be living in the Age of the Zombie. It’s nice to see zombies get their due share of attention.

I mean, once upon a time they couldn’t sit at the cool monsters’ table with Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Imhotep the Mummy. I’m glad for them. Really.

But… I guess I have some issues with what passes for a zombie lately.

Today’s representations of zombies tend to focus on the relatively new premise of a zombie apocalypse, on zombie-ism as a modern plague. Such a concept totally spaces out on the occult origins of this most exotic of horror creatures. Lately, the emphasis on zombies as horrific, contagious beings has led us to neglect the notion of the walking dead as victims of external control—a kind of interpersonal imperialism or supernatural bondage, if you will. I long for the days where one didn’t merely become a zombie, but was turned into one.

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I miss that key figure, the bokor, the wicked Voodoo necromancer capable of raising an army of cadavers from their graves and forcing them to do his wicked bidding. The concept of a sorcerer willing to enslave his fellow humans scares me much more than all the gross-out zombies in the world. Perhaps the bokor has gone out of fashion along with the idea of the soul.

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In place of the alienation or contamination metaphors that we get in post-Romero zombie films, the original celluloid zombies played out morbid variations on the theme of domination. Reaping the heritage of the Gothic, White Zombie traces a twisted story of sexual obsession, like most films of the original talkie horror cycle. The poster definitely plays up the kink angle with taglines like, “She was neither alive nor dead… Just a white zombie, performing his every desire!”

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The story centers on a perky, sweet couple—exquisite Madeleine and her affable fiancé Neil come to Haiti to celebrate their wedding at a friend’s plantation. Unfortunately, that friend, wealthy Monsieur Beaumont, carries a torch for Madeleine, so he asks the diabolical sorcerer ‘Murder’ Legendre to help him win the damsel to his will. Of course, that doesn’t work out so well for Neil—or indeed for Beaumont, because Legendre changes Madeleine into a white zombie (…and we have a title!) that he plans to keep for his own pleasure.

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Apart from its important status as the first zombie movie, White Zombie also deserves recognition as a landmark indie horror film. Brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, the film’s director and producer, were pioneers who borrowed sets from Universal horror flicks to shoot their movie in 11 days. Even without the infrastructure of the studio system, the Halperins delivered a classic that stands up to—and in some ways surpasses—the more high-profile horror monuments of the time.

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In particular, the soundtrack paints a rich, full sense of place, in contrast to an era of relative silence in cinema, ironically brought on by the talkies. The use of Caribbean-sounding music provides appropriate emotional cues. Better yet, a range of authentic diegetic sounds, from shrill cricket chirps to Voodoo drums to the wince-inducing creak of a sugar mill, make us squirm.

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White Zombie also excels at exploring psychological states through unusual trick effects, especially skillful double exposures. For instance, after Madeleine’s burial, Neil tries to drink away his sorrows in a dive bar, but sees his beloved’s face in every fleeing shadow. The contrast between the white veil of her apparition and the dark silhouettes on the wall imbue the scene with a phantasmagoric ambiance worthy of high German Expressionism.

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The Halperins also cannily showcase Bela Lugosi by featuring his hypnotic eyes even more prominently than Dracula did. His eyes mesmerize as they appear floating through the landscape, sparkling in a glass of champagne, or headed straight towards the camera, as he walks into a harrowing extreme close-up.

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His gleaming peepers, ever-present, seem to survey everything, omniscient and menacing. In fact, those disembodied eyes are the first we see of ‘Murder’ Legendre, superimposed over the Haitian landscape, until they shrink to little pinpoints on either side of his silhouette. We understand that this dark stranger can see you, whether he’s looking at you or not. Having viewed a nice print of White Zombie only on the small screen of my laptop, I can barely begin to imagine how looming and oppressive those glowing eyes must be when they flash on a movie theater screen. It must feel like the film is not being watched, but rather is watching you.

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On a thematic level, a number of ceremonies—and inversions of ceremonies—structure this chilling fairy tale. The film begins with a funeral, transitions to a wedding, then modulates back to a funeral, after Madeleine, the maiden bride, is poisoned and laid to rest in her crypt. However, the implicit fear of these ceremonies being undone adds a layer of complexity and dread to each ritual. The native burial that opens the film takes place in the middle of a road, in order to assure that the grave won’t be robbed and that its occupant won’t be compelled to live eternally as an undead slave.

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As the traditional wedding takes place at Beaumont’s plantation, Legendre performs another ritual in the garden below, carving a wax candle into a Voodoo doll of the bride. Whereas the Christian ceremony of marriage emphasizes purity, Legendre makes a mockery of this, whittling an anatomically correct nude figure. Even seen in a long shot, the gleeful obscenity of the sculpture reminds us that we’re dealing with pre-Code horror.

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Lugosi’s dancing hands and surreptitious smile leave no doubt that this kind of remote-control violation both echoes and undermines the simultaneous wedding vows. Even Madeleine’s solemn burial is shortly reversed when Legendre and his zombie henchmen break into her tomb and make off with her cadaver.

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Yet, for all this subversion of Christian ritual, White Zombie suggests that love goes a whole lot further than ’til death do us part. As Neil sleeps outside the castle where Madeleine lingers as a catatonic prisoner, a lyrical series of split screens and unusual wipes telepathically connects the pair.

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At one point, an image lifts like a curtain, recalling how a groom lifts the veil to kiss his bride. In contrast to the static wedding scene, this distinctly filmic visual poem, accompanied by angelic, soulful native choirs, represents a mystical wedding of souls. Love, the thing that justifies all of our rituals, has is own secrets, stronger than death or black magic.

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You can watch White Zombie for free, either on YouTube or at the Internet Archive. I strongly recommend the HD YouTube version, because it’s the best quality I’ve seen online.

Carnival of Souls (1962): Dead in the Water

soulsThe first time I watched Carnival of Souls, I was planning to make fun of it.

I soon found out that it was no laughing matter.

I had borrowed a DVD of this Public Domain film with a humorous commentary track by the Rifftrax guys (whom you might know best as Crow, Servo, and Mike from Mystery Science Theater 3000). These fellows routinely lampoon atrocious B-movies and deliver the kind of cathartic belly laughs that sustain me through this drab existence. So, I popped Carnival of Souls in and braced myself for an evening of comedy.

CUT TO: me, lying awake that night in cold sweats. Serves me right for wanting to dismiss a cult classic.

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While watching the movie, I didn’t even crack a smile. I can’t remember a single joke the Rifftrax boys made. I write that not as an insult to those talented comedians, but rather as an homage to the sublime creepiness of Carnival of Souls. Something about this film shoots you through will a chill that you can’t shake. I mean, I watch a lot of horror films, new and old, and while many have disgusted or disturbed me, few have actually scared me. This is one of them.

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Directed by Herk Harvey, an industrial filmmaker on vacation (who also played the chief ghost), this ambitious indie horror film yanked me into its vertiginous parallel universe. Despite my initial inclination to denigrate the low budget masterpiece, Carnival of Souls immediately impressed me with its stark cinematography. Harvey adroitly manipulated lighting and camera angles to conjure an oppressive sense of doom closing in.

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For instance, in the scene where Mary Henry, presumed dead, staggers out of a riverbed to the astonishment of onlookers, the screen floods with an atmosphere of the uncanny. We know, from the way the sequence is shot, that this woman belongs dead. As Mary stands on the edge of a sandbar, jutting out into the rapidly moving waters, almost an abstracted geometrical form, the world around her seems separate. Open space crowds her.

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Bystanders scramble down from a bridge to meet her, but we see them as tiny, pointless figures, even more dwarfed than Mary. Trauma is etched on these deep focus images that visually convey and anticipate the truth of that famous Toni Morrison line from Beloved, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.”

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Carnival of Souls offers many flourishes of unexpected creativity. On a recent rewatching, I noticed how Mary Henry, gazing down at the site of the accident, resembles a ship masthead figure, her Baroque 1960s ’do blown back and lit from below like a waxworks.

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As she reaches for her car ignition, we get a sort of trick match-on-action to her pulling out the stops on an organ. The fluid transition from the interior of her car to the somber beauty of an organ showroom reveals a great deal about her character. Even if the script didn’t clunkily inform us that Mary can’t “put [her] soul” into her career as a church organist, her detachment speaks to us through that false match cut.

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Mary’s visits to the abandoned amusement park wound us with their irony. For instance, her taut, worried face pointedly contrasts with the sensual pin-up girl on a poster. The grids of fences, lattices of shadow, tangles of streamers, and exotic pavilion-style architectural forms combine to create a shifting funhouse of suspense.

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In this movie of eerie silence, I detect a certain homage to silent films, especially when that silence begins to invade the usually bustling daytime world. However, we also see that link with silent films through the use of locations associated with iconic Roaring Twenties amusements. The tawdry dance halls and rotating tumbling cylinders of pre-talkie rom-coms appear as melancholy, strange relics that fragment the screen with disjointed shapes.

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At the risk of sounding rather grim (in contrast to my usual perky self), Carnival of Souls frightens me because it suggests that perhaps in the midst of life we are all actually dead. And that death, far from the state of peaceful repose or blissful ascension we might hope for, is a restless, ashen whirl of numbness.

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Above: Mary with her oily date. Below: Mary in the arms of a ghoul.

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The ever-circling ghouls of the condemned carnival aren’t so different from the living who plod forward in the compulsive pursuit of pleasureless things that they crave only because they’re told to want them. In fact, Mary only demonstrates any real passion in the scene where visions of ghosts torment her; as she practices the organ, she slips into a montage of dissociation. The first time she plays “with soul,” she gets castigated for blasphemy and fired! Paradoxically, it’s contact with the dead that can make her come to life.

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Why else select an abandoned amusement park, the real-life resort pavilion at Saltair, as the locus of terror? Deserted places of recreation possess an aura which unsettles me more than memorials to some tragedy or other. We brace ourselves for the presence of death in locations scarred by suffering and, thus armed, can sometimes emerge unscathed and unmoved. However, the ruins of a place that once echoed with laughter and joy remind us of the predestined end to all our amusements. The knowledge that sorrow could last forever haunts us less than the realization that pleasure (or a reasonable facsimile) doesn’t last very long at all.

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Director Herk Harvey explained that he wanted to make a movie in the art house vein, citing Bresson and Bergman as influences. Indeed, like a lot of European art films made around the same time, Carnival of Souls works at digesting the gristly concept of alienation. This film scares us on a metaphysical level; its shocks are not of the “Boo!” ilk alone. Instead it jolts us into an heightened awareness of everyday isolation, of the futility and awkwardness of “normal” human interactions.

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When we look into the grotesque chalky faces of the undead, we’re not as horrified by them as we are by the possibility that we might see our own faces among them.

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Carnival of Souls may strike modern viewers as somewhat tame. However, if you sit back and let it wash over you with an open mind, I think it’ll strike a chord with almost anyone. The piercing organ score, the blanched, smeary faces of the phantoms, the contamination of ordinary locations, and the depiction of destiny as a kind of cosmic Chinese finger trap will eat away at you. When you’re in a church at night. When you’re out shopping. When you’re driving down a lonely highway. When you’re somewhere that connects you to the past.

Even if you want, as I did, to chuckle at Carnival of Souls, I suspect that its coven of ghouls will have the last laugh.

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Carnival of Souls is in the Public Domain, so you can watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. Enjoy!

The Blue Bird (1918): Sweet Mystery of Life

I have only my brightness, which Man does not understand…. But I watch over him to the end of his days…. Never forget that I am speaking to you in every spreading moonbeam, in every twinkling star, in every dawn that rises, in every lamp that is lit, in every good and bright thought of your soul…

—the Spirit of Light, The Blue Bird (from the original play by Maurice Maeterlinck)

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I don’t know about you, but most of the time when people describe a movie as “magical,” I want to hurl.

That whimsical adjective serves all too often as a rationalization, a shiny foil wrapper for cynical, syrupy flicks designed to make adults think that they’re reliving their childhood when they’re really wallowing in empty brain calories. Not to sound hardboiled, but a “magical” film is a rare thing. It’s something that you seek only to be continually disappointed, something for which there is no substitute. And where magic truly is, there melancholy must also dwell. Ironically, we can only appreciate the helpless joys and sorrows of childhood once we have come to realize that our joys and sorrows as adults are just as helpless, if a little less pure.

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The Blue Bird is that fabulous movie which seems to enfold you with the gentleness of the one who told you stories as a child, if you were that lucky. This film understands everything you lost by crossing the threshold into maturity—and shows that it’s never lost if you keep looking. Director Maurice Tourneur gives this film a shimmery sense of yearning, weaving in every available special effect of the time to create a “fabric of moonbeams,” an ethereal, translucent dreamscape.

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Its plot follows an established fairy tale quest trajectory. In order to cure their neighbor’s invalid daughter, Tyltyl and Mytyl, brother and sister, embark on a journey to find the Blue Bird of Happiness. Travelling through a fantasy realm fraught with peril and delight, the siblings are accompanied by a good fairy and the anthropomorphic or personified spirits of various household objects and creatures—all of whom, the children learn, must die at the end of the voyage.

As a post-WWI allegory, The Blue Bird cradles a world shattered by hate and destruction and offers its paradisiacal beauty as a balm for bruised souls.

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Made the year before The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Tourneur’s childlike fantasy bears a number of similarities to the milestone horror film. Most obviously, Weine and Tourneur deftly harnessed the power of art direction—especially flat backgrounds of painted chiaroscuro lighting—to influence the mood and ambiance of a particular scene and to translate subjective mental states.

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However, to the eyes of this viewer, The Blue Bird makes Weine’s high-profile thriller look primitive by comparison. Whereas Caligari too often contents itself with letting drama play out in front of its impressive scenery—as it would on a stage—Tourneur’s masterpiece demonstrates a finely calibrated comprehension of the pas de deux that needs to take place between mise-en-scene and editing in order to tell a story.

We watch the painted illusions of Méliès come of age and acquire new meaning and wisdom, once wedded to narrative. For instance, when Tyltyl and Mytyl watch as a cemetery turns suddenly into a meadow, a cut switches the toning color from a lugubrious bluish-gray to a warm, inviting mauve. The triumph of love over death articulates itself in a simple switch from one shot to another.

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Several visual patterns, especially a frame-within-a-frame motif, help to structure the wildly diverse imagery in The Blue Bird and lend a measure of continuity to the somewhat episodic plot.

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Today’s filmmakers could learn a lot from The Blue Bird’s delicate balance between the awe we feel before the film’s visual flourishes and our emotional investment in the characters.

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As Kenneth MacGowan noted, “A number of scenes showed the players against fantastic flat designs—with perhaps a mountain or a castle in silhouette. There was no attempt to light these drops so as to imitate reality or to create an abstraction of vague dreaminess. It was a ‘stunt,’ an attempt at abstraction. The effect of individual scenes was pretty enough, but the contrast between these and succeeding scenes of three-dimensional realism was disconcerting.”

Consequently, the film flopped at the box office. I guess 1918 wasn’t ready for this level of brilliance.

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Personally, I savor how the movie pirouettes on the apparently volatile boundary between fantasy and reality. Even the most quotidian of objects, after all, can transmogrify into something alien and chimerical if you just look at them a little differently. This fluidity in The Blue Bird is more indicative of what goes on in our minds—especially the elastic, synapse-storm brains of children, as they shuttle back and forth between interior worlds and exterior demands—than accepted norms of “realism.”

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If this “children’s film” occasionally succumbs to sentiment and eye candy, it also probes the darkest questions that haunt us all. Why do good people suffer? What happens to the people I love after they die? Will I ever find my soul mate? What’s the point of being alive?

Herein lies the genius of The Blue Bird. Kids do think about these grave matters. I was, like, 7-years-old when I asked my mom, “What’s the meaning of life?” Needless to say, I was gravely pissed when she told me that nobody really knows. (My mother is blessedly honest.)

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Though its subject matter is heavy, The Blue Bird confronts such grisly vagaries and questions with a touch as light as a baby’s pinkie toe. Consider, for instance, how Tyltyl’s loyal dog comically saves him from the shrieking ghouls of madness in the Castle of Night. Isn’t it true, though, that the love and affection of one living creature can save you from going bananas?

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Tyltyl and Mytyl’s also pay a bittersweet visit to their dead grandparents—who take care of the souls of their dead brothers and sisters. You might expect morbidity or mawkishness, but no. The humor and casual domesticity of the odd scene quickly ingratiated its wish fulfillment with me.

The spiritual splendor of this film amazes me. You might say that it glows with the iridescent beauty of a lost treasure; its cinematographer John van den Broek drowned at at the age of 23 while shooting a picture just a few months after The Blue Bird was released. This film bears witness to his incredible talent, cut down in its prime.

Fanciful set designs by the inspired Ben Carré transform every frame into a living storybook illustration. And fans of silent movie intertitles (who isn’t?) will be floored by the most stunning intertitle art I’ve ever seen—bar none.

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Significantly, however, Tourneur reserves the most magical moment of the film for the return to so-called reality. Once the children have bidden farewell to their spirit playmates and found the Blue Bird (I won’t say how!), the creature flutters away, having cured their neighbor.

And then, Tyltyl turns to the camera. He looks right at us and addresses us, urging the audience to carry on the search for the storied Blue Bird.

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Breaking the fourth wall is not really a special effect. It’s a shock to the mind, to the barriers we put up to keep ourselves apart from the story. However, the impact of movie characters suddenly speaking to an audience can stir us more than any display of visual wizardry.

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Just as the lines separating reality and fantasy blur within The Blue Bird, they also blur without. The playful universe of the story permeates our own more mundane realm once its protagonist addresses us.

Whereas many dreamlike films leave you to shrug it off and think, “Well, it’s just a movie,” The Blue Bird flies into our world, anointing those privileged enough to see it as the new seekers of happiness, the torchbearers of the quest. Perhaps the wonders of the world do lie dormant and curled up in the things that we most take for granted.

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Pardon this non sequitur, but when I was a little girl, I read something that Napoleon Bonaparte wrote and which has remained with me ever since. In a letter to Josephine, he asked, “What magic fluid envelops us and and hides from us the things it is most important for us to know? We are born, we live, and we die in the midst of the marvelous.” When I was watching The Blue Bird, I remembered that wistful quote and realized that this movie somehow lifts the veil from our eyes so that we may perceive the marvels all around us.

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Cinema’s magic arsenal easily lends itself to the depiction of sickening violence and ugliness. The first ever film edit, a hidden cut in The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, served the purpose of portraying a decapitation in horrifying, realistic detail. One of the most iconic breaking-the-fourth-wall shots in film history, from The Great Train Robbery, was exactly that—a shot right at the audience, a gesture of idiotic, unreasoning aggression. We associate expressionism with horror movies, and, today, CGI generates grotesque, turgid battle scenes, slip n’ slides of hemoglobin and sweat.

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The Blue Bird proves to us that cinema’s magic apparatus can marshal its powers for good as well as evil.

This masterpiece stands as an elegant example of what a film built on special effects ought to be; that is, Tourneur’s many forays into silly hidden cuts and double exposures all strive to shed light on a character or hint at a universal truth about the human condition.  Reversed footage makes ordinary objects dance, and trick editing delivers fanciful, symbolic creatures into being. The Kuleshov Effect assembles a palace of wonders and curiosities—behind each door, impossible landscapes wait to be discovered.

If I ever go to heaven, I hope it looks like this movie. In any case, The Blue Bird shows how art can make heaven on earth.

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You can watch The Blue Bird on YouTube right now or download it for free at the Internet Archive. I strongly urge you to do do. Really. I shudder in horror at the thought that I might have gone through my whole life and not seen this movie.

Silent September! A Buffet of Free Silent Films

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A diva’s work is never done.

That’s what I thought the other day when I realized that I’ve been blogging (and tweeting and posting!) about classic films for a whole year.

I scoured the reaches of my imagination for some way to mark the occasion. And then, Turner Classic Movies solved the problem for me. Throughout this month, September 2013, the television epicenter of old movie love will be celebrating the milestones of film history. And I’m going with the flow.

Now, if I started blogging for one reason (other than preserving my sanity in the wake of my recent college graduation), it was because I wanted to share my passion for classic cinema with others. Over the past year, I have learned so much through my digital adventures and I very humbly hope that I’ve been able to give back a little, too. For the month of September, I’m trying something new—I’m going to concentrate primarily (perhaps entirely) on silent film.

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To get the ball rolling, I’ve created a YouTube playlist containing most of the silent films that will be airing on TCM this month. Below, you’ll find the same treasure trove of film history, hours of ground-breaking cinema that you can stream or download free of charge. I could name dozens of other great silent films that everyone should watch—and I will over the next 30 days—but these are the ones that you can check out instantly. So, pardon the glaring omissions! However, if you’ve never seen a silent film before, this is a good place to start, although you might not want to start with Intolerance… And if you’ve seen all of these films, well, now you have them all at your fingertips!

Watch, enjoy, and celebrate the Seventh Art in the first spectacular flush of her youth and beauty.

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Trip to the Moon (1902) – Georges Méliès

On YouTube.

Canned Harmony (1912) – Alice Guy

On YouTube.

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Falling Leaves (1912) – Alice Guy

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Birth of a Nation (1916) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Intolerance (1916) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) – Robert Wiene

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Way Down East (1920) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

One Week (1920) – Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Kid (1921) – Charlie Chaplin

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Orphans of the Storm (1921) – D.W. Griffith

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

The Phantom Carriage (1921) – Victor Sjöström

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Häxan (1922) – Benjamin Christensen

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Nanook of the North (1922) – Robert J. Flaherty

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Three Ages (1923) – Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

La Roue (1923) – Abel Gance

Part I and Part II on YouTube.

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The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – Raoul Walsh

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Battleship Potemkin (1925) – Sergei Eisenstein

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

The General (1927) – Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Sunrise (1927) – F.W. Murnau

On YouTube.

Un Chien Andalou (1929) – Salvador Dali and Louis Buñuel

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

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The Goddess (1934) – Yonggang Wu

On YouTube or download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Free Friday Film: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936)

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“Take care you don’t give me cause to make you afraid of me! That’s a good boy. The first duty of a barber’s boy is to keep a still tongue in his head… I knew a nice little barber’s boy once who had his tongue cut out for letting it wag too much.” —Sweeney Todd

Tod Slaughter could’ve sprung fully formed from the pages of a Penny Dreadful. I mean, Slaughter was his real name, for crying out loud! The man, affectionately called “Mister Massacre” by audiences, was destined to menace maidens.

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When he got his start in films at the tender age of 49, his clammy, dimpled, rather deflated face had all the youthful appeal of a bouquet of pig’s bladders. A master of the stock company villain repertoire, Slaughter seemed to emit a wicked glow from his person, “like a bad lobster in a dark cellar,” if I may borrow a phrase from Dickens.

No gesture was too stereotypical for Slaughter—he rubbed his hands together, grinned, twitched, leered, winked, and preened his way through a parade of cheap melodramas produced to showcase his evil gusto.

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His flamboyant performances offer a strange blend of comfort and chill. Movie- and theater-goers of the time no doubt savored Slaughter’s over-the-top wickedness as a tonic. His unrealistic boogieman could, for the space of an hour, replace the real-world nightmares threatening England’s hallowed realm in the 1930s and 1940s. Both cozy and slightly grotesque, Slaughter’s films are chicken soup—served with a glass eye in it.

And yet, Slaughter’s slobbering malefactors still exude a strange and undeniable power. He so perfectly incarnated the exaggerated villains of Victorian literature that the viewer cannot help but be taken aback; it’s like watching a fiction come to palpitating, horrifying life. Unlike Karloff’s elusiveness or Lugosi’s soulfulness, Slaughter’s crudeness reminds me of the downright ridiculous scenery-chewing that many genuinely insane criminals and serial killers actually exhibit. His incoherent, occasionally awkward hamminess smacks of true derangement. Madness baulks at no excess.

18If, like me, you are easily fatigued by painfully earnest performances, take a vacation from all that Oscar-baiting naturalism with the barnstorming good times provided by this sadly little remembered horror icon. As an introduction to the formidable Mr. Slaughter, I suggest The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by George King. Although the movie doesn’t offer his best performance, I recommend it because most viewers are so familiar with the premise that they’re free to linger on the diabolical antics of the antihero. Also, there’s no singing, which immediately makes this my favorite adaptation of the Sweeney Todd legend.

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“Hmm. I’m one handsome devil. Johnny Depp had better look out!”

Those of you weaned on the idea of Sweeney Todd as a sympathetic victim-turned-victimizer will need to brace yourselves for a much simpler characterization. Slaughter’s “Demon Barber” is exactly that—an irredeemably nasty blighter, amassing a fortune by robbing and murdering his clients, especially seamen returning from profitable voyages. When Todd sets his sights on Johanna, the daughter of a rich merchant, he won’t be satisfied until he’s dispatched her lover and blackmailed her father into surrendering the girl to his depraved clutches.

8Admittedly, even at a little over an hour long, this film limps to its conclusion. The movie suffers whenever Slaughter isn’t onscreen. A showy action sequence in the tropics (where Johanna’s lover is saving a merchant vessel from natives) feels irrelevant and phony. The sound effects and canned stock music will make you cringe perhaps more than the violent scenes.

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That said, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street executes some fine moments of suspense, especially since Todd’s nefarious intentions are beyond doubt from the beginning, so we get the benefit of mega-doses of dramatic irony. Funnily enough, nobody else seems to realize that the barber gets a little too excited every time he exclaims, “I’ll polish him off!”

Just as the ancient Greeks used to enjoy their tragedy all the more for the spoilers, a great deal of the enjoyment we derive from melodrama is of the “don’t go into the basement!” variety.

9Every time a hapless fellow situates himself in Sweeney Todd’s “special chair,” we squirm, hoping that something will intervene to save to poor guy, despite the likelihood that he’ll end up in one of Mrs. Lovatt’s mystery meat pies. In one particularly nervous sequence, Mrs. Lovatt decides to get revenge on Todd by saving one of his customers and hiding him, as the barber scours the shop for the one that got away.

I also applaud the wry subtlety of the screenplay, since it’s never explicitly stated that Sweeney Todd’s victims end up in the meat pastries. Towards the end, one character muses, while eating one of those pies, “I wonder where he stashed his victims, not enough room to bury them.” What a delicious bit of cliché-avoidance!

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Even though we don’t see most of the gruesome action in this film, the off-screen bloodletting still proves chilling—and the body count strikes me as quite impressive for a film of this era. In my opinion, the most queasy scenes in the film concern the fate of Todd’s orphan barber’s boy, Tobias, who’s in constant peril of putting two and two together—and getting bumped off by his employer. Sweeney Todd vacillates between threatening the little tyke, slapping him around, and sending him around the corner for one of those delicious pies. (And you thought your internship supervisor was a psycho!)

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I invite you to dim the lights and play this darkly funny and, at times, quite unsettling slice of British B cinema. Get a nice close shave from Tod Slaughter in his most famous role.

You can watch The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on YouTube or on Hulu. You can also download the film for free at the Internet Archive.

Did you like it? If so, you can tune in to almost all of Slaughter’s filmography free of charge. Don’t miss Murder in the Red Barn, The Face at the Window, and Crimes at the Dark House.

Free Friday Film: Guest in the House (1944)

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“Why is it I like to control people? And when I do, I hate them. Sometimes I wish I was dead. Last night I got so mad at myself that I cut myself. I wonder what it’s like to die. Or to kill someone.” —an entry in Evelyn Heath’s diary

Film noir never ceases to enthrall me with its many shades and flavors. In its most recognizable form the genre conjures visions of crime in an urban environment rife with trench coats, slick sidewalks, and tough-guy wisecracks. Which is why I find a film like Guest in the House pervasively disturbing. We watch as a seaside domestic drama quickly spirals into a noirish psychological thriller. The antiheroine of the film is also not what she seems. Full of clingy hand gestures and breathy fragility, Evelyn Heath, a shrinking violet invalid, turns out to be an emotional vampire, wrecking a happy family as she grows stronger and healthier. There’s a reason why the original title for this movie was “Satan in Skirts”!

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This rather unusual film stars a young Anne Baxter who proved that, several years before she played the girl-next-door who happened to be a sociopath in All About Eve, she already had perfected the role. Her mesmerizingly passive aggressive performance eschews the mannish assertiveness of an archetypal femme fatale in favor of a subtle, sickly vulnerability that’s much more dangerous.

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Under treatment for a long (probably psychosomatic) illness, Evelyn manipulated Dr. Dan Proctor into wanting to marry her. There’s no denying it: the girl’s got issues. She listens to the same record of “Liebesträme” over and over, screams bloody murder whenever she sees a bird, and obliquely alludes to a hellish upbringing by an alcoholic father. Who wouldn’t feel sorry for her?

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Hoping to speed up Evelyn’s recovery, besotted Dr. Dan decides to let her stay at the Proctors’ beautiful coastal mansion. There, his brother Douglas, a pulp illustrator, lives with his Aunt Martha, his wife, his daughter, and the model who poses for his drawings. Well, before you can say “fatal attraction,” the sly Evelyn has fallen in love with Douglas and resolved to have him at any price. The quaint oceanfront house quickly transforms into an inferno of suspicion and madness.

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This well-paced B-movie directed by John Brahm does a beguiling job of translating the noir esthetic into an unconventionally cozy setting. From the first, when Evelyn makes her dramatic entrance into the house, the wide brim of her hat casts large spots of shadow over each of the characters she meets.

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This clever use of low-key lighting visually hints how Evelyn will contaminate these normal, lovely people. She herself is a sort of “carrier” for dysfunction. At one point in the film, Douglas’s young daughter asks if you can catch a phobia from someone else; the adults confidently reply that you can’t, but Guest in the House suggests that a certain kind of neuroticism can indeed prove catching.

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The homey décor of the majestic coastline mansion slowly acquires creepy and forbidding ambiance as Evelyn comes to exert her will over the household. After the “harmless” invalid sows the seeds of mistrust, the once-inviting rooms of the house change into theatrical spaces where someone is always watching someone, peering through windows or doors. Even the cute ruffled curtains contribute to one of the most striking images in the film—framing Evelyn’s raptor eyes avidly watching Douglas’s wife depart in despair, as a lightening storm blazes all around the house.

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Director of photography Lee Garmes’s dynamic, neo-Gothic cinematography, full of Dutch angles and multiple planes of action, emphasizes the morbid mental influence that Evelyn inflicts on all those around her.

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I recommend Guest in the House not only because it’s quite entertaining and tense, but also because it features strong performances from Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Warrick, who didn’t get as many chances to show off their acting chops as one might hope.

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So, cuddle up with this oft-overlooked flick for a brooding, noirish B-movie melodrama that hits surprisingly close to home. Beware the vamp that doesn’t look like one…

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You can watch Guest in the House on YouTube or download it at the Internet Archive.