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!

Thirteen Women (1932): Tempting the Fates

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“They were schoolgirls together and their lives form one chain of destiny, women who believe!”

—Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy)

Peg Entwistle came to Hollywood because she wanted to be a star.

She didn’t make it.

It’s an old story and a sad one—a tale that really belongs to all of Tinseltown’s lost souls, although none can equal the cinematic coup-de-théâtre with which Entwistle ended her life.

The Welsh-born beauty acted in just one movie before she hurled herself off the H of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, two days after the film premiered. They say that her ghost still haunts the spot. And Thirteen Women happens to be her first and last movie.

Even without its connection to one of Hollywood’s most famous tragedies, Thirteen Women would stand out as one of the most eldritch concoctions of the trippy pre-Code era. In this horror-melodrama, the power of suggestion drives a group of wealthy young women to madness, suicide, and murder.

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Entwistle gave a nuanced, if brief, performance as Hazel Cousins who watches an acquaintance plummet to her death during a trapeze act. Deranged by the experience and maddened by a horoscope predicting violence and disaster, Hazel stabs her husband to death. We see her clutching a bloody dagger and screaming, under superimposed headlines announcing her crime.

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One has to wonder if the film exerted an insidious real-life influence on Peg Entwistle, perhaps even planting the seed of a dramatic death by falling in her mind. Just as her character seems imprisoned by headlines, Entwistle herself has gone down in history as a shocking episode in movie-land folklore. The fame that eluded her in life was ironically bestowed upon her in death. Did the dark plot of Thirteen Women, in addition to all of her other worries and woes, work some kind of malign spell on her? Did she relate too closely to the film’s theme of self-fulfilling prophecies? In any case, it’s a hell of a coincidence—and only one reason to tune in to this magnificently warped movie.

I consider Thirteen Women one of the most concise, effective nail-biters I have ever encountered. If you’re looking for the antidote to summer blockbuster bloat, look no further than this frightening pre-Code gem.

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Produced by David O. Selznick at RKO and directed by the rather obscure George Archainbault, Thirteen Women admirably truncated a popular novel by Tiffany Thayer. Clocking in at an incredible 59 minutes, the movie manages to sketch a blueprint for every revenge thriller that would follow. The one-by-one elimination of enemies, the grotesquely devised set-piece deaths, the gaggle of mean girls being menaced by their former target, and the ambiguous villain-protagonist will all feel remarkably familiar to modern audiences.

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As you may know, before transitioning to the tame post-Code era with her “perfect wife” image, Myrna Loy played an awful lot of vamps, tramps, and temptresses, often with an exotic flair. The parts usually fell beneath her talents as an actress (and fell within the egregious old Hollywood tradition of blackface and yellowface portrayals, which Loy later regretted). However, Thirteen Women gave Loy the most psychologically rich variation on her Oriental Villainess typecasting. Mixed-race anti-heroine Ursula Georgi has survived things that most of us get the chills just thinking about—and ostracism at the hands of her peers put her over the edge. Jaded, manipulative, and captivating, she’s out to exact retribution on the coven of white society snobs who shut her out of their privileged world at boarding school.

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Once a victim of fate, Ursula takes fate into her own hands. Using her seductive charms and wits to destroy her enemies, Ursula is sort of like a shadowy echo of Lily from Baby Face. Whereas Lily, that other pre-Code female mastermind, destroyed others to elevate herself, Ursula sees that destruction as an end in itself. Maybe she was reading Schopenhauer instead of Nietzsche.

Most interestingly, Ursula doesn’t merely set out to destroy these women—she sends phony prophecies about their imminent doom and effectively pushes them to destroy themselves. By using the name of a famous swami in her warning messages, Loy’s character reveals the strength of Eastern mysticism upon the snotty Caucasian women who had once dismissed Ursula and her culture.

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Ursula’s victims play right into her hands. As one of them wonders aloud, “But the moon does control the tides! And nothing can live without the sun. Why shouldn’t we be controlled?”

Rather than intervening directly, for most of the film, our femme fatale lets the power of suggestion gnaw away at her victims. The hoity-toity finishing school graduates succumb to their own demons—butchering their husbands, causing calamitous deaths, and shooting themselves.

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Thus, Thirteen Women intimates that your average 1930s society belle was concealing some kind of major anguish, rage, or mental imbalance. Perhaps the most disturbing subtext of the film lies in the thought that it doesn’t really take the powers of the occult to make us do awful things to ourselves and to the ones we love; we might do them all by ourselves.

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(Question of the day: would it be worth it to live in the shadow of an ugly death if you got to wear such beautiful 1930s outfits?)

Myrna Loy’s experience as a dancer serves her well in the part of Ursula. The slinky, serpentine physicality that she injected into her role adds to the ominous ambiance of the film. Her sinuous gait and her ability to stand perfectly dead still (to the point where I thought I’d accidentally paused the movie) reminded me of such uncanny villains as Jaffar in The Thief of Baghdad and Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood. We understand that Ursula’s intense hate has transformed her into a being so implacable, so focused that she is almost supernatural.

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Like the return of the repressed, Ursula shows up to expose the cruelty, hypocrisy, and vulnerability of her enemies. Her wickedness, after all, is really just the maliciousness of others reflected back to them. As much as the audience would like to completely sympathize with Ursula’s primary rival, the strongest of the former mean girls—astutely underplayed by a steely but nurturing Irene Dunne—we have to recognize that she brought it on herself. Who’s to blame: the monster or the bullies who created her? I’m particularly enamored with this mirror confrontation shot that seems to visually translate all of this conflict and ambiguity.

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Probing the open wounds of female aggression and racial tension, the plot also sustains a briskly paced series of death scenes and suspenseful set pieces. The film opens with a white-knuckler of a sequence during a death-defying circus act, quickly proceeds to a domestic murder, and witnesses someone being pushed in front of a subway train.

You can also expect a car chase, a woman leaping from a moving train, and an off-screen suicide—I’ve scrambled the order, so don’t worry about spoilers. I would also argue that this film contains one of the greatest, and simplest, suspense scenes of the 1930s, as an adorable little boy tries to reach for a toy ball that’s been filled with explosives. Not for the faint of heart, this movie!

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If we can sense that the adaptation lacks probably the depth of the original, the movie compensates with a major sense of style and a bizarre, magical expressionism. Leo Tover’s cinematography shapes a nightmarish pre-noir world, awash with mystery and imminence.

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Glowing astronomical orbs, glistening fabrics, and inky, low-key shadows all contribute to a feeling that the veil of illusion has been pulled back from reality. We can perceive the cosmic dread that hangs over the comings and goings of the characters, as they meet their destinies… or the end results of their own desires, perhaps.

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When each character dies, a gleaming star suddenly bursts onto the screen and transitions to the next scene. So, are we to assume that humans are indeed the puppets, prone to the indifferent vagaries of celestial bodies? Well, not really, since Ursula can knead destiny to serve her own purposes, pushing people down different trajectories than the stars actually foresaw for them.  Besides, Ursula’s victims actually sealed their fates through their nasty actions many years ago, which we can only assume that they committed of their own volition.

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However, if you pay close attention to the opening shot of the film, a seemingly unrelated image of a train speeding along in the night, you’ll notice it may actually represent the ending of the film from a different angle. In other words, Thirteen Women is carefully constructed for repeat viewing. From the first, the movie foreshadows Ursula’s own apparently predestined death and comes full-circle to this beginning at the very end of the film.

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Thirteen Women thus suggests that what we tend to consider a quirk of fate actually points to a more complex design, a tapestry of free will, unconscious longings, and, yes, some uncontrollable accidents of time and chance.

The fault is neither in our stars, nor in ourselves alone—but it doesn’t help that, all too often, we want to blame the stars.

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Betrayed (1944): A Nice Day for a Noir Wedding

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The places are all alike, Milly. You can’t run away from yourself.

—Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum)

 

In its own quiet way, Betrayed may count as the scariest (and best) film that schlock auteur William Castle ever directed. Mainly because the realistic bogie men of its shadow world bear a striking resemblance to the people we know and trust.

The murderers of classical film noir were, for the most part, an exotic breed. Not to be confused with the stoic soldiers of organized crime or milquetoast fall guys controlled by femmes fatales, noir’s truly chilling bad boys tended to kill out of sadistic enjoyment, rankling jealousy, repressed desire, or full-on flamboyant psychosis.

Even the more mercenary killers of the canon could point to some sort of morbid root cause or etiology. We are meant to view them as mutants, as creatures with some faulty circuitry in their brains or souls that makes them irredeemably evil.

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Which is why I find Betrayed (alternate title When Strangers Marry) so refreshing. It teaches us that killers usually don’t twitch or drool or grimace. They don’t kill for anything other than personal gain. They’re not necessarily crazy or damaged. They’re perfectly normal. Until they see something they want and can’t have.

Stinking of Poverty Row studio Monogram’s tawdry cardboard sets and laced with heady expressionism, Betrayed is one hell of a spooky movie—and a fine, haunting piece of cinema.

As noir master Orson Welles wrote about the film, “Making allowances for its bargain-price budget, I think you’ll agree with me that it’s one of the most gripping and effective pictures of the year. It isn’t as slick as Double Indemnity or as glossy as Laura, but it’s better acted and better directed by William Castle than either.”

Now, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I agree that Betrayed works miracles with its raw material, weaving an oppressive atmosphere of urban dread and paranoia.

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Our story centers on Mildred Baxter (Kim Hunter), a vulnerable young woman who married a traveling salesman she’d only met three times over the course of four months. Going to meet this mystery bridegroom in New York, she bumps into her disappointed suitor Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum in the role that really got him noticed). However, she finds no sign of her mysterious hubby, Paul, at the hotel where he promised to rendezvous.

As Mildred tries to get in touch with Paul and then find out more about his peculiar habits, she and the ever-loyal Fred turn up lots of little clues that Paul may be wanted as the “silk stocking murderer” in Philadelphia. Will Mildred continue to protect the man she loves no matter what he did? Because “’til death do us part” isn’t so long when you’re married to a murderer…

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The film dramatizes the frightening idea that some people can just mute their consciences when unhinged by the temptation of money. And that this happens more often than anyone might suppose. In one scene, a detective invites Fred, a potential informant, into his office and provides a little summary of a similar murder case, complete with a slideshow.

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The decidedly unglamourous, quotidian faces of the perpetrator and his victims that we see flash up on the screen remind us that bad things happen not only to the beautiful lost souls of noirland, but also to us, to the people on the other side of the screen. I also savor the parallel between the horror show that the detective puts on for Fred and the film Betrayed itself as a kind of cautionary frightfest.

This dark tale of love and suspicion stares a little too long at society and spies the goblins and ghouls lurking in places that seem familiar to us: middling hotels, street corners, bus stops.

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Anticipating his gift for fear-inducing gimmicks, Castle frequently plays on our nerves with phantasmagoric superimposed images, as though a troubled mind can turn the most prosaic of environments into a house of horrors. In the film’s most visually memorable scene, flashing nightclub lights from outside Mildred’s hotel window, combined with bursts of frantic dance music, result in a kind of hypnotic effect.

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The vertiginous overstimulation of urban life fills in for the usual Castle shock tactics. And, many times in the film, we get a false alarm.  All of our anxiety, all of the tension built up, suddenly evaporates in a “Lewton bus”-style anticlimax that leaves the viewer frustrated and rattled. Surprise, surprise: Castle’s got us right where he wants us.

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In one of his earliest films, Castle delivers a resoundingly unsettling peek at the dirt under the rug of WWII-era America and cleverly peppers slow-burning suspense with the occasional frightening sequence. He shrewdly adopts the old Hitchcock trick of embedding a signal of oncoming danger into scenes in the form of an apparently inconsequential object; the audience often recognizes its significance before the characters do. For instance, in the opening of Betrayed, we see a man wearing a houndstooth hat follow the murder victim to his room. Later, when Mildred finds Paul’s apartment, that same hat is sitting on the table. Uh-oh.

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Everyday sights like a book of matches, a name on a mailbox, the label on a suitcase, a letter about to be sent, all conspire to create an ambiance of horror and watchfulness.

I also enjoy how Betrayed shoves you right into its off-kilter parallel universe. In the first shot, we see the flashing light of a hotel sign. Cut to a menacing papier-mâché lion’s head peeking from behind a curtain. As the camera tracks out from this surly, almost diabolical mask, we hear a real lion’s roar on the soundtrack and a man cackles, “I’m king of the jungle!” Under the costume, a plump, abrasive businessman is gallivanting around the hotel, having fun on a conference night.

vlcsnap-2013-07-25-08h14m05s130 The non-diegetic lion growl really freaks me out, even though it lasts for only a few seconds. Not only might this sound be a jab at prestige studio MGM’s puffed-up lions, but it also opens our minds to a more allegorical aspect of the film. The predatory, animalistic nature of humans shows up again and again in noir; the battle to rule the asphalt jungle is no laughing matter. Especially since the man who so proudly declares himself the “king of the jungle” in the opening of this movie quickly falls prey to another creature on the food chain.

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You just have to admire the economy with which Castle sets up our classic suspense thriller plot and conjures a dreamlike atmosphere with this surreal zoological touch.

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I also found it hard not to view Betrayed as a commentary on the inherent Social Darwinism of the average workingman’s lot. I imagine that when this oppressively irritating rich guy gets strangled in his hotel room by a shabby stranger, nobody in the audience shed a tear. The nasty, oblivious goon brought it on himself, didn’t he? Waving his money around, getting hammered, boasting, and inviting a man he didn’t know to spend the night, he asked for it.

vlcsnap-2013-07-25-09h31m21s155Baxter even observes later in the film, “It didn’t seem right that a man like that should have all that money.” Certainly, although we all know that murder is wrong, Castle doesn’t lead us to nurture any empathy for that victim. But, you see, the film tempts us to cave into sociopathic reasoning.  Film critic Victor Perkins noted that Hitchcock often pulled a similar trick: he traps his audience in the same moral rationalizations that the killer uses. Well, Castle effectively incorporates this technique.

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The fact that silk stockings—a rare, rationed commodity in 1944, when the film was released—serve as the weapon in the film’s key murder also adds strength to the undercurrent of socioeconomic commentary. As Paul Baxter chuckles to himself, watching a cluster of fighting children, “Kids squabbling over marbles. Twenty years from now they’ll still be squabbling, but over money instead of marbles. People don’t change much, do they?”

vlcsnap-2013-07-25-09h30m43s37I went into this film not knowing the ending and cherished every minute, so I don’t want to spoil it, but let me just say that it was a total nail-biter and a pleasure through and through. Given my penchant for Monogram noir, is it any surprised that Betrayed gets Nitrate Diva’s seal of approval? For everyone who thinks that they know William Castle from films like The House on Haunted Hill or Homicidal, I invite you to go down the mean streets of noir with this cigar-chomping showman. It’s 67 minutes very well spent.

vlcsnap-2013-07-25-09h27m24s93 Oh, and keep an eye out for his cameo…

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This post is part of the William Castle Blogathon, hosted by The Last Drive-In and Goregirl’s Dungeon. Be sure to check out the other entries to this spine-tingling event!

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Body Politic: The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

posterIf Douglas Sirk, Akira Kurosawa, and Caravaggio teamed up to remake Quo Vadis, the result might turn out similar to The Colossus of Rhodes.

This splashy, yet affecting peplum epic gave audiences their first true glimpse of Sergio Leone’s vibrant talent, even if it wasn’t his directorial debut. And who doesn’t love the chance to watch a great artist’s vision emerge from otherwise standard programming?

Leone fills the widescreen TotalScope format with saturated, dynamic tableaux that look painted rather than filmed. Expect moments of cheesiness, for sure, and I’d personally be disappointed if I couldn’t taste the asiago. Yet, I couldn’t fight the feeling that I was watching the history of the epic—from Greek vases, to Roman mosaics, to Renaissance and Baroque painting, to grand scale silent films—being relived and rediscovered.

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Colossus lovingly integrates all of these layers of grandeur. It compiles the all harmony of composition, the pageantry, the sumptuousness that we associate with the best of Western Civilization. And to this heritage, Leone adds a key ingredient: a terse après-guerre dose of disillusionment.

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Our tale focuses on a Greek war hero, Darios, who visits the island of Rhodes for a pleasure trip. However, you don’t have to be Socrates to smell something rotten on the island. Nobody likes the isle’s ginger-bearded tyrant—who’s nearly assassinated twice over the course of Darios’s first day there—and a bunch of rebels work on stirring up discontent wherever they can.

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A toga party gone horribly awry.

These freedom fighters initially try to kidnap Darios, hoping to convert him to their cause. Freaked out, the hero attempts to flee Rhodes and thus unintentionally ends up becoming an enemy of the state and an ally to the underground cause. Needless to say, Darios encounters torture, sexual politics, treason, nasty proto-gladiatorial death spectacles, and many, many opportunities to provide the camera with peplum buffalo shots.

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If that plot sounds like “a rip-roaring corn harvest,” as the New York Times called it, well, believe me, the material yields surprising insights in Leone’s capable hands. His grim eye for the prospect of mortality and ruin even in the midst of celebration recalls that special “something to do with death” that he would later harness to illuminate the tropes of the Western.

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For instance, when Darios prepares to relax on his first night in Rhodes, he enters the ruler’s opulent party digs to find a bevy of beautiful maidens and a few exotic acrobats flipping around in the middle of the space. A graceful, slightly blurred and dizzy almost 360-degree pan swivels around the room, taking in the sheen of the women’s clothes and the succulence of the food… as the acrobats dart in and out of the frame.

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These bodies interposing between the camera and the already decadent panoply create a kind of visual hyperbole. Jean-Luc Godard used the word “delirium” to describe the impact of Douglas Sirk’s striking colors. Here, Leone attains a similar phantasmagoria, a practically 3D splendor larded with the trappings of wealth and power. Your eyes glut themselves; they feel like they need a trip to the vomitorium.

Okay, remember that pan shot. I’ll return to it in a minute.

Darios reclines and starts chatting up the luscious, if inscrutable Diala. I’m guessing Darios had a whole phalanx run over his head once, because he dopily follows this femme fatale down into the catacombs under the palace gardens.

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Stumbling into a tomb of mummies, Darios calls for Diala. And we get another long, patient pan shot, this time a full 360-degrees, morbidly surveying the desiccated, wrapped bodies lining the stone funerary chamber, still wearing gold ornaments that are now useless to them. These two parallel pan shots, in successive scenes, deliver a potent, spooky moral: all is vanity, all is decay. The colorful ecstasy of that celebration will inevitably end in a tomb.

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Entropy haunts Leone’s films. Whole towns rot into nothing or burn to the ground. Characters we love die. Cherished schemes fall through. I admit that neither my analysis nor the idea of decay and decline are likely to win any awards for originality, but what does mesmerize me is the eloquence and concision of Leone’s observation, enabled by the cinematic form.

With that pair of pans, one displaying hedonist delights, the other expressing a detached stoic view of mortality, Leone brings millennia of philosophy to the screen. Death looms over us all. Should we bury ourselves in sensuality and try to forget? Or should we look hard at the world and at ourselves? Those are the big questions. Leone etches a little metaphysical dilemma on the surface of his story with two camera movements.

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Speaking of surprisingly deep aspects of this movie, the central conceit of the film, an enormous watchtower statue of Apollo that holds vigil over the harbor of Rhodes, also resonates outside of the framework of a lusty sword-and-sandals fest. The producer of the film flipped out when he realized that the title wasn’t referring to a hero, but to a statue, thinking that the plot would lack dramatic value and a prerequisite hunky protagonist. The statue serves as a point of reference for the entire film, and the extent to which this major set piece received billing and attention as a thematic element obviously went beyond what those financing the film were expecting.

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According to a very interesting article on this film at TCM, Leone initially wanted the Colossus, the titular main attraction, to resemble Mussolini—even to stand akimbo like the swaggering Il Duce. So it’s safe to assume that the master did intend to deliver a message about tyranny and modern politics, even if he set it thousands of years earlier. Fortunately this heavy-handed anti-fascist statement didn’t come to fruition, but that didn’t stop Leone from using the statue, actually two 30-meter halves of the body, as a powerful metaphor for government.

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I mean, when you think about it, our conceptions of the body and politics intertwine quite a bit. Even in English, words that we associate with hierarchy or order often include “corp” which comes from the Latin word for body. We talk about organs of state. People in charge still receive the title of “head.” Our language has hardwired us to consider the state as a human organism, a single body with various functioning parts.

The colossus, really a defense base for a corrupt regime, provides us with an image of the state as a body and of a body as the state—both of which prove dysfunctional. This huge, cast-medal figure inspires awe initially, as the camera slowly tilts up to reveal its size.

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Yet, in crowd shots, the statue occasionally appears to be standing on the masses, as if they’re all carrying this burden without recognizing it. Parts of the body often disrupt or break up with widescreen frame—a foot occupies half of the screen, great big legs divide the sky in half, a huge face gives us a close-up even as the men next to it are tiny as bugs.

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All humorous allusions to North by Northwest and Sabotage aside, the colossus visually suggests to us the theme of individuals dwarfed by a totalitarian regime. This supreme, inanimate body exists as a rampart and a weapon; though it takes the form of a man, it contains no humanity.

Nevertheless, the various parts of the Colossus sometimes comment on the action. For example, when Diala’s conscience starts needling her, the eye-windows of the statue seem to stare inwards at her. This creepy décor gives the impression of looking, even if it clearly can’t see her.

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During the film’s most memorable fight sequence, Darios climbs out of the statue’s ear to spar with guards on the colossus’s arms. The contrast between the flailing struggles of the little men and the unchanging, unmoving, unwieldy behemoth strikes me as slightly comical. Like a totalitarian government, the colossus might be strong, but it’s pretty dumb!

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When the “invincible” colossus finally does clatter into the sea, Leone dwells on its total defeat and destruction. We witness it teetering back and forth, suddenly looking human for the first time, like a drunken soldier.  Then it hurtles towards a face-plant into the waves in a long shot. Cut to a disdainful high angle shot as it ignominiously belly-flops onto the surf and the breakers dash it to pieces. There’s nothing dignified about it; the only tragedy is one of waste and broken illusions.

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Thus Leone undermines the very concepts of hero worship and iconography which often bend to serve the whims of oppressive governments. We’re dealing with a director who, let’s face it, has a love-hate relationship with myths, because myths both deceive us and give our life meaning.

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In the end, this kind of fetishized representation, investing a single person or object with absolute power, risks destroying the very civilization it supports and nourishes. Behind the paintings, the frescos, the mosaics of the ancient world lurk the many bad, brutal men, presented as ideal leaders with ripped bodies. The Colossus of Rhodes exalts the glory of Western civilization while exposing its obsession with dominance, hierarchy, and authority.

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When Leone chooses to shatter all pageantry and pomp of this peplum epic, he doesn’t do so for mere spectacle value. He smashes the idols as an admonition to the viewers never to trust bread and circuses—including the ostensibly safe bread and circuses of the peplum epic.

Although The Colossus of Rhodes does end with a glimmer of hope, the storm sequence surprised me with its whirling despair and indiscriminate violence. We watch acts of selflessness and crime being punished the same way: with pointless death. Looters get struck down by falling debris. A man runs into a burning building to save a child, but no sooner has he brought the little one back to its mother than a collapsing beam kills them all. A strong man attempts to pull a heroic stunt by holding up a building himself. He is crushed.

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The innocent and the guilty alike perish in droves during this tempest of indigo skies and heaven-sent fires. In this senseless carnage, we recognize the Italian World War II experience of endless bombings and humiliations that the population suffered for the sins of their abominable, neo-Roman government.

It’s easy to groan at the storm in Colossus as a deus ex machina that gets the protagonist off the hook without him having to do anything. However, Leone fully exploits the horror of the near-apocalyptic tempest. This manifestation of the gods’ wrath not only tears apart the wicked city, but also rips away at the idea of traditional heroism. The good as well as the bad (and, oh, what the hell, the ugly) meet sticky ends. Any Herculean theatrics will probably get you mown down more quickly.

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Darios helps a few people, but mostly concentrates on grabbing his girl and taking shelter. We understand that staying alive itself may represent the highest form of wisdom and heroism when the world goes crazy. The irate poetry of this sequence, with whole impressive sets crumbling, orange flame spurts licking the sides of the screen, baggy ancient garments whipped about in the wind, recalls the end of Seven Samurai and prefigures the disastrous beauty of Apocalypse Now’s napalm shots.

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Be sure to dig up The Colossus of Rhodes. The pacing lags and, admittedly, the acting doesn’t exactly thrill. Rory Calhoun runs around in his man-skirt, looking affable, performing adequately, and making the part of Darios into a 20th century dude. He’s a self-indulgent man at the top of the food chain who’s mostly interested in himself; only when he gets embroiled in the conflict against his will does he develop any sympathy for the underdog.

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The tyrant acts tyrannical, the traitor acts treacherous, and the sad rebel girl acts sad.

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Only the elusive Diala, played by Lea Massari (Anna from L’Avventura), generates any major photogenic energy with her majestic gait, and I-don’t-give-a-damn default facial expression, and tough winged eyeliner.

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You get plenty of eye candy in the form of street magicians, brightly-dressed mobs, and fleets of hunky soldiers, choreographed with a skilled eye for space and balance. Plus, you can drool over the obligatory pre-sacrifice liturgical belly dance performed by priestesses in ancient Greek cheerleading outfits. Honestly, I think that’s the only reason those Greeks made sacrifices at all.

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But, best of all, savor Leone’s gift for dismantling myths and heroes and unmasking bullies and madmen, as he takes one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world and stunningly smashes it to smithereens.

I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Please consider writing a post yourself and be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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The Fallen Idol (1948): Learning to Lie

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A child of eight can’t act. I wasn’t looking for an exhibitionist. Adults have habitual features and defenses. A good actor must take something away, lose a part of himself before he can create a role. 

But with the right sort of child such as Bobby, there is nothing in the way. There is absolutely no resistance. He will do everything you tell him. 

—Sir Carol Reed

 

To call Bobby Henrey a “child actor” would disgrace the uncanny skill and patience of such professional children as Freddie Bartholomew and company.

Bobby starred in only two films: one of them a masterpiece, the other a flop. According to Guy Hamilton, the assistant director of The Fallen Idol, “Bobby had the concentration of a demented flea.” He succumbed easily to boredom and never ceased fidgeting. Co-star Ralph Richardson refused to act with Bobby at a certain point. A padded-up Hamilton often stood in to preserve Richardson’s sanity.

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However, seen by the camera and reassembled by editing, Bobby emerged as something much more extraordinary. He wasn’t acting the part of a child, full of calculated dimples and Victorian postcard sweetness. He was simply, sincerely, and sometimes maddeningly a child.

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Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, scripted by the great Graham Greene, refreshes the tropes of noir by making this child an unwilling participant in a lurid quadrangle of passion and betrayal. Bains, an English butler working at the French embassy in London, falls in love with Julie, a typist working there, and the pair conceal their relationship from Bains’s shrill, vindictive housekeeper wife.

Left in the care of Bains and Mrs. Bains, little Philippe, or ‘Phile’ (pronounced ‘Phil’), the lonely son of the ambassador, gets embroiled in this tangle of lies and conflicting loyalties. When Mrs. Bains accidentally plummets to her death in the midst of a jealous rage, the child witnesses only part of the scene and concludes that Bains, his hero, murdered her.

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Unlike the typical voyeur-witness in film noir, with an obvious duty to tell the truth and shame the devil as in Rear Window or The Window, Phile toddles into a complex empirical and ethical situation. Should he tell the truth and risk incriminating his idol? Or keep on lying—which might put Bains’s head in the noose even more quickly?

The fact that a twitchy, rather selfish child has to navigate this labyrinth of moral quandaries not only heightens the suspense, but also suggests how these kinds of human heart dilemmas bewilder us all—reducing us to little more than children.

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When Phile cries out, “We’ve got to think of lies and tell them all the time!” at a key tense moment of the film, he’s actually articulating the code of the adult world, a protocol of deception, running the gamut from genteel fibs to half-truths to full-on backstabbing.

Like his character Phile, Bobby Henrey also encountered an adult world far too soon. The French-born only child of two writers, he grew up in the bomb-shattered London of World War II. No wonder he had the attention span of a “demented flea,” with bombs going off around him during his formative years!

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 2.12.51 PMBobby’s silky blond hair and bow lips gave him a fragile, angelic appearance. When the boy’s parents featured him on the cover of one of their books, A Village in Piccadilly, the brilliant English director Carol Reed spotted the child and resolved to cast him in The Fallen Idol. Serendipitously, Bobby spoke French as well as English, and the script called for just such a bilingual child.

Even when speaking English, the lispy remnants of a French accent—R’s catching in his throat, S’s and T’s bleeding into each other—made Bobby’s treble voice both more adorable and more annoying. We sense his displacement every time he opens his mouth.

His strange inflections remind us of the difficulty of making oneself clear as a child. Just as all children wrestle with understanding the world around them, even the most verbal child struggles to make himself understood to the world. These little people grasp for words, putting together sentences like small-holed beads not easily strung together. Bobby spoke his lines like that: haltingly, off-key.

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And yet, I marvel at his casual fluency in adult idioms of the “old chap” variety.

When asked whether or not he’d like an ice cream cone, he stodgily replies, “I wouldn’t say no, Bains. “As he pours himself a drink, he mutters, “Hit me,” like a businessman after a long day at work.

We can imagine him echoing his diplomat father when he moans, “Now, will someone listen to me?” as though he were corralling a contentious summit of attachés.

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More important, Bobby’s Phile shines with a need to give love that rescues him from the label of the incorrigible embassy brat. You can feel a lingering and intimate engrossment in close shots of Phile’s hand caressing MacGregor, a glistening garden snake—the boy’s only friend other than Bains. Those images come across as some of the most poignant (and unlikely, given how little boys love to torment creepy-crawlies) representations of childhood affection ever to grace the screen.

Not realizing that snakes can’t recognize themselves, he puts a pocket mirror up to the tiny serpent, whispering, “Hello, MacGregor. Look—you’re very pretty, you know.” I’m sorry, I know of very few eight-year-old boys who profess their love to reptiles. He wants so badly to share his tenderness with something, even the most cold-blooded of critters.

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Bobby’s rendition of Phile thus plays out as one-third little girl, one-third little gentleman, and one-third utter terror. In his unformed innocence, he contains fragments of all of the other characters in the film: Bains’s sedate bravado, Julie’s melancholic kindness, and Mrs. Bain’s self-absorption.

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The Fallen Idol opens with an iteration of its most striking motif. Phile peers through the bannister bars of the ornate townhouse that he calls home, looking down at the people who bustle around on the parquet floor below. In the language of the camera, high angle shots usually suggest superiority, literally looking down on others.

Yet, In a peculiar way, we recognize Phile as both a mini-tyrant—forever showing up at exasperating times, puncturing a tragic romance with impunity—and a victim.

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Throughout the film, Phile’s point-of-view shots often observe the comings-and-goings of the characters from this vantage point, from a high perch.

Staring down at the drama from his roost, he sees things he really shouldn’t, traumatic, twisted adult things that he’s not ready to see. The high angle shots reveal both Phile’s precarious isolation and the odd degree of power that he ends up holding over the fates of the main characters.

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Only towards the end of the film do we see Phile from the vantage point that once was his, after his lies have spun completely out of control and his credibility has totally collapsed.

By lying poorly and slipping himself up, he casts suspicion on his hero whom he now views as a killer. And in so doing, he sheds his status, in his own eyes, as a special sort of child, a privileged charge and a secret-keeper.

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The genius of The Fallen Idol resides in its ability simultaneously to suggest the child’s perspective, to wink at the audience, and, most tantalizingly, to indicate that the Phile can digest much more than you might assume.

For instance, when Bains plots a clandestine excursion with Julie under the pretense of a visit to the zoo, Phile walks right past the door of the room where Bains is talking to her. Then, getting his wind up, he drolly tiptoes backwards. Cut to a point-of-view shot as the camera carefully tracks to eavesdrop as the butler insists, “The boy knows nothing.”

Later, when Bains pretends to be surprised at Julie showing up, Phile corrects him, saying that he was talking to her earlier. This son of a diplomat has not only been taught to lie precociously, he can also catch others in their lies, at times.

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However, we’re not encouraged to view Phile condescendingly. He only has a piece of the puzzle, true, but he’s no more muddled than any of the so-called adults.

His confused perspective parallels the equally anxious positions of the grown-ups. Indeed, the only one who gets the full story is the viewer. For instance, Mrs. Bains dies alone and only we know exactly how it happens.

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Phile watches Bains and Mrs. Bains struggle. Boy, is this kid gonna need therapy!

And so we arrive at the villain of the piece, the monstrous and pitiful Mrs. Bains. We’ve all had to deal with a Mrs. Bains. You know, that sadistic adult in your life who, out of her own bitterness, yelled at you not for doing anything really wrong but merely for being a child, for possessing the innocence and freedom that destiny had deprived her.

Now, Phile may not be the easiest child star to love, but I want to hug him when he turns to that malicious harridan over the dinner table and matter-of-factly tells her, “I hate you.”

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Her nostrils flair: “Master Philip, you’ll say you’re sorry for that.” His head barely poking up over the tablecloth, the tiny boy objects, “I’m not sorry.” As this dangerous exchange takes place, we get a reaction shot of Bains and can discern how impressed he is at Phile telling his wife what he’d probably most like to tell her!

Phile brings about this confrontation of cataclysmically pure honesty. So, of course, he’s sent to his room with no supper. It’s the last fully honest moment in the film.

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For an only or lonely child raised in an ambiance of high-stakes adult games like education or politics, childhood is a state of endlessly being patronized and dismissed.

Believe me. I know.

I grew up as a faculty brat, proud of my encyclopedic knowledge of secrets, of the petty rivalries and schemes that cropped up at the private school where my mother worked.

Take my word on it: long before most children can pronounce the word, they’ve come to hate hypocrisy. And by the time they can pronounce it, they’ve usually been coerced to embrace it.

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Children are the world’s dupes. Not because they lack intelligence, but rather because they possess far more of it than most grown-ups tend to realize. Children live in worlds governed by rules and they know all too well when they—or the adults around them—have broken a rule.

Whereas a child’s faults are often painstakingly reflected back to him and punished, the child who points out the transgressions of his elders faces a terrible and implacable resentment.  People take criticism quite easily from those who can be discounted by their own vices. But reproach from a child stings. The guilty do not like to be rebuked by the guiltless.

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We observe the double-bind that every child faces when Mrs. Bains wakes Phile up to ask him where Bains and Julie can be found in the house. The boy’s cherubic head rests on the pillow. A bobby pin drops next to him on the pillow.

Phile opens one eye. A cut comes quickly—almost too quickly—to jolt us with the frenzied face of Mrs. Bains. “Oh, you know all about them.” She hisses. “You’re not such a child as you pretend to be! You’ve got a nasty wicked mind and it ought to be beaten out of you!”

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The jilted wife treats the child as if he’s an extension of her cheating husband. Phile’s trilling, high voice chokes with horror. He can’t totally process what fuels the adults’ envy and passion, but he knows that he has no place being talked to like this.

He’s been swapped out for a grown man in a lover’s quarrel, feeling the heat of blame for his idol’s infidelity. It scares the hell out of him. Sex is like some algebraic variable that he hasn’t discovered but can discern from the facts, leaving the entire equation lob-sided and all the more alarming.

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The Fallen Idol stands out as one of the most haunting, stomach-churningly tense films I’ve ever seen. In terms of suspense, it schools Hitchcock, whose films rarely (if ever) showcased a performance as vulnerable and exquisite as little Bobby Henrey’s.

Carol Reed, gifted at handling kids as his Oliver! proved, charmed every ounce of that child’s cuteness, his mischief, his ability to bug the living daylights out of his elders.

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Crack cameraman George Perinal, who belongs in the cinematography greats pantheon with Jack Cardiff, captures Bobby’s face so as to wring every emotional nuance out of it. In one scene, when an inspector bends over to talk to the boy, a ray of light drifts over his face, giving him the look of a living painting.

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Most stunningly, as a terrified Phile runs through the noirish streets at night, his miniscule, pajama-clad body flickers through the chiaroscuro, a single point of focus in composition after composition of slick darkness and urban decay.

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I think that I am scarcely exaggerating when I conclude that The Fallen Idol represents the best film ever made about childhood and one of life’s most important rites of passage: learning to lie. And it all would’ve been unthinkable without Bobby Henrey.

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N.B. I am very much indebted to and fully acknowledge an article in the UK Guardian, “What Bobby Saw,” about Bobby’s involvement in the film for certain quotes that I’ve cited in this post and a lot of useful background information.

Although the analysis here is all my own, I would also like to recommend Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay “Through a Child’s Eyes, Darkly” which comes in the Criterion Collection booklet accompanying the DVD of The Fallen Idol, which gave me some great inspiration as I wrote this post.

This post is part of the Children in Film Blogathon hosted by Comet over Hollywood. Join us in celebrating child stars and heck out the other posts! They’re really wonderful.

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Free Friday Film: Dark Journey (1937)

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In order to explain the plot of Dark Journey fully, I would need to make a diagram. Which is why I’ll spare us all and just tell you to watch it.

If the plot of this 1937 British espionage thriller leaves us in the dark, its resplendent romance rises to the occasion and lights the way through. Best of all, Victor Saville’s stylish movie manages to convey the individual stakes of spying in wartime far more effectively than most pre-WWII secret agent yarns I’ve seen.

Under the gloss of their anachronistic settings and costumes, Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt communicate the exhaustion and anxiety of two people constantly on guard, constantly assessing the risks and rewards of their actions and affections.

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Despite the fact that the story takes place during World War I, the producers made absolutely no attempt to recreate the fashions and ambiance of that period. Right there, the eye is confused: it’s hard to keep telling yourself that the events of Dark Journey are unfolding in 1918 when the cast appears to have sought refuge from one of Wallis Simpson’s house parties. I would usually object, but I find this cavalier attitude towards verisimilitude rather charming. I guess, you can never predict what I’ll find charming, but usually it involves Art Deco in some way.

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“My monocle is very displeased!”

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“And now my monocle is intrigued…”

And speaking of charming, Veidt looks better than ever in a monocle and a tuxedo that shows of his impeccable waist—only slightly larger in circumference than that of his exquisite co-star. Vivien Leigh, in her sixth movie and one of her first true leading roles, musters an extraordinary performance so subtle that, in comparison to her Scarlett O’Hara, it could be mistaken for somnambulism. She carries her much-remarked-on porcelain beauty like a mask that only occasionally allows a crease of genuine reaction to be perceived.

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Be forewarned: from here on in, this post does contain major spoilers. However, I would also note that about 25 minutes into this film, I was searching for spoilers on the Internet, the film had confused me so. IMDb gives the following tagline: During World War I, a German spy and a British spy meet and fall in love. Okay, fair enough, except that I kept wondering which character was spying for whom. On the surface, it seemed obvious, after all, Viv is English and Connie is German.

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But wait! Our Viv plays Madeleine Goddard, a Swiss dress shop proprietor living in Sweden who practically commutes back and forth from Paris, importing the newest French fashions with her. With each trip, she brings more with her than the latest modes: military information sewn into the fabric. We discover this when she attends a clandestine meeting of vaguely sinister middle-aged blokes and proceeds to decipher a dress by holding it up to a lampshade with a map pattern.

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From there, one of her confederates signals the defense information to a boat which then conveys it to… BERLIN?

What!?! Vivien? The so-British-she-was-born-in-India Viv of That Hamilton Woman as a German spy? The mind reels at the thought, even if she is playing a Swiss girl. Or is she?

Meanwhile, the first time we see Conrad Veidt, probably best known as the wicked Major Strasser, he’s not engaged in espionage for the Fatherland. His Baron Von Marwitz is running away from the Fatherland! As he wryly informs a customs agent, “I came to Sweden because I want to refrain from any political activity.”

So, I ask myself, is this deserter going to start spying for the British while she’s spying for the Germans? Well, no. Just wait and see.

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The graceful aristocrat indulges himself in Stockholm, establishing his reputation as a bon vivant with a special trick: he can tell what any girl will say after he’s kissed her. Madeleine sees him playing this parlor game at a nightclub and blows his secret: there are only a few likely things a girl would say, and he keeps all them in some part of his clothing, only to reach for the correct one when the time comes and act like he thought of it beforehand. Don’t ask.

Enchanted by Madeleine’s brains (and the fact that she has Vivien Leigh’s face), Von Marwitz pursues the girl, seemingly unaware of her extracurricular activities. Their love affair unfolds with a mixture of passion and fear, fascination and hostility, as we detect in their earliest exchanges:

Marwitz: Why did you give away my little trick last night?

Madeleine: Because you claim to know so much about women.

Marwitz: I know nothing about them.

Madeleine: That means that you’ve had a lot of experience.

Marwitz: Oh, a lot. But what does it amount to?

Madeleine (giving him the bill for the dresses he just bought for some tarty girl): One thousand two hundred and seventy-five krona.

But back to the intrigue: When Madeleine’s superior agents order her to Paris, then and only then, more than halfway into the film, did I learn that she’s actually a double agent. She passes on select information to the Germans for the strategic benefit of the French and the British.

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However, no sooner do we find this out than does Marwitz… who’s actually the hidden mastermind behind the German Secret Service cell in Stockholm. Head spinning yet?

The final third of Dark Journey shines most brightly, once the characters have put their cards on the table and the situation is handled for suspense rather than surprise. In the astonishing scene when Madeleine figures out Marwitz’s identity, they lock in one of the slowest, most poetic movie kisses I’ve ever seen. Madeleine clings to him as he lifts her slightly—like a ballet in smooch-form.

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Veidt and Leigh possess a strange chemistry that churns mightily, like the waves of the North Atlantic, an image that dominates Dark Journey. The two enigmas collide. Under his hedonistic façade, there’s a core of austere courage and beneath her schoolgirl manners, she harbors the fierce strength of a career woman and a spy. Their relationship buzzes with the electrical charge that comes from two equals, two foes joined in a dangerous embrace. Shades of Garbo and Gilbert!

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Throughout the frenetic following scenes, I found myself wringing my hands in dread over what’s to become of Madeleine, as she now rushes to flee the country and escape from her beloved who must do his duty and try to have her killed.

In one particularly lovely scene at the end, once she’s been smuggled onto a ship leaving Sweden, Leigh’s performance suggests the natural emotions that one would feel: the simultaneous relief (I’m safe now…) and apprehension (…safe for the moment). However, she also adds a layer of more perverse sentiments—we understand that she wants Marwitz to abduct her because that would mean that he is indeed a daring patriot and also a passionate lover. In her mind, he’s part Siegfried, part enemy agent. Ironically, only by trying to drag her to her execution can Marwitz prove an ideal romantic partner. We perceive the barest glint of excitement in her eyes when she hears the ship being boarded.

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In the “Dolce” section of Irene Nemirovsky’s haunting WWII novel, Suite Française, a German officer, engaged in a forbidden romance with a French woman, compares the anticipation inherent in war and in love, observing that “Waiting is erotic.” Dark Journey captivated me with this atmosphere of waiting, of imminence. Fans of a good star-crossed love story won’t be steered wrong with this one.

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The script provides many piquant morsels of dialogue from Arthur Wimperis, whose dry wit enlivened Mrs. Miniver and A Knight Without Armor, and Lajos Biró, the brilliant scenarist behind Alexander Korda’s historical “private lives” films. I enjoyed the banter between Madeleine’s squabbling saleswomen, one German, one French, whose daily backbiting reveals the ultimate pettiness of war and nationalism. As Madeleine finally tells them, “I do not want French women here… nor German women. I want saleswomen!”

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“Stop playing League of Nations and take care of the customers, you hussies!”

Madeleine’s crotchety, lazy storekeeper, Anatole also gets some amusing, but very un-Continental lines. While trying to make his excuses for not sweeping the floor, he kvetches, “What can one do with a broom that’s as bare as the behind of the burgermaster’s baby?”

My absolute favorite line, however, comes from the mouth of a bit player—why do bit players get the best lines in British films? One of Von Marwitz’s servants is bemoaning the Baron’s infatuation with Madeleine which prompts him to buy up all of her dresses as an excuse to see her: “It used to be all girls with no clothes. Now it’s all clothes with no girls.” What’s the 1930s equivalent of LMAO?

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Shot by world-class cinematographers George Périnal (of Colonel Blimp and The Fallen Idol) and Harry Stradling Sr. (of Suspicion and My Fair Lady), Dark Journey paints a glamorous world with undercurrents of surreal dread. From the claustrophobic halls of steamer ships—threatened by torpedoes—to the chic expanses of posh nightclubs, this film offers us an entertaining portal into Europe on the brink of World War II.

Watch Dark Journey. You may be utterly befuddled by the plot. But, if you’re like me, you’ll be too entranced to care.

To watch the movie on YouTube, click here.

And because they’re both so beautiful, here are some gratuitous screencaps of Vivien and Connie. 14 40 46 57

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Whistling in the Dark: His Girl Friday (1940)

posterThe Mayor: Whistling in the dark. Well that isn’t going to help you this time. You’re through. 

Walter Burns: Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.

Fresh. Exhilarating. Spontaneous. Timeless. These are often the words that come up when people talk about Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, a movie closer to perfection than pretty much any other.

Well, today, I’m going to add a few more adjectives to the pot: morbid, noirish, and iconoclastic. And I mean that as the highest of compliments.

Upon a recent rewatching of this sublime screwball comedy, the inherent darkness of the film practically slapped me across the face. I mean, you try going into a producer’s office these days and pitching a comedy about capital punishment. The Angel of Death looms over this fast-paced comedy which teaches us that humor often works best when we’re all in the jittery throes of nervous laughter.

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Even beyond the grim crime and punishment of Earl Williams, His Girl Friday is structured by a more metaphorical contrast between freedom and imprisonment. Or, more precisely, the uneasy balance and tension between those two states at any given time in a person’s life. In the end, Hildy escapes the prison of a stuffy marriage, but she doesn’t get Freedom-with-a-capital-F. Rather, she exchanges the confines of normalcy for a more wonderful kind of captivity, an enslavement to her passions and to her talent.

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Earl Williams escapes death and Hildy escapes from dull matrimony. The parallel can’t be avoided. In fact, the movie serves that similarity up—Hildy literally wears it on her sleeve. Hildy’s wardrobe is characterized by an assortment of lines and stripes, which suggest the blend of playful and professional in her demeanor.

However, when she visits the prison, those stripes on the trim suit she wears to get her interview don’t resemble anything so much as prison bars. In fact, the straight lines (unlike the zig-zags she wears in the earlier scenes) are almost exactly parallel to the iron bars and their the low-key lit shadows.

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Throughout His Girl Friday, Hawks scatters a few shots that let us, the viewers, bask in the kind of importance that Hildy feels in her natural habitat, the newspaper world. As she breezes through the newsroom, a point-of-view tracking shot scans the smiling faces of her impressed colleagues, looking up at her.

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Later, when she visits the pressroom, her voice announces her presence from off-screen and all those sacrilegious monkeys of the press, suddenly turn her way, their face filled with admiration and a plausible substitute for respect. In other words, His Girl Friday sneaks in the occasional subjective shot, designed to make us understand what Hildy feels as the sob sister in the band of brothers.

But in the jail, we get a very different shift to Hildy’s perspective, a more metaphorical one. She’s sitting outside William’s little pen and asking him questions. We’re on her side of the grate, looking in at Williams. And then this exchange happens:

Earl Williams: I’m not guilty. It’s just… the world.

Hildy Johnson: I see what you mean.

In between those two lines of dialogue, as Hildy passes Williams her cigarette, there’s a cut that puts the camera on the inside of the cage. Suddenly, as Hildy agrees with Williams, it visually seems as though she’s the one behind bars.

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Now, it’s not a point-of-view shot. However, I felt a major change in the stakes of the scene at that point. This isn’t just another story for Hildy: it’s her last. This isn’t just another day for Williams: it’s his last. We sense a true bond between the pair of them as Hildy slips him her cigarette: at that moment, they are both the condemned, in a way.

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As much as Hildy only needs to wring a story out of the prisoner, I can’t help but perceive that the stylish lady journalist really does identify with his confusion. I mean, we get the feeling that her engagement to Bruce sort of happened to her. Does she want a man who will really take care of her? Well, yes, but I’d also assume that Hildy’s sudden bolt to the altar reflects the influence of society, the pressure to live a normal woman’s life. Staring into the skull-eyes of another man’s fate, Hildy actually catches a glimpse of her own.

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His Girl Friday presents us with three different couples: Hildy and Bruce, Hildy and Walter, and Molly Malloy and Earl Williams. We first see the first pair exchanging syrupy love dialogue: they demonstrate the somnambulism of domesticated love. Molly and Earl Williams obsess over each other with doomed passion—it’s like we’re watching a mini film noir embedded in a screwball comedy. Both extremes strike us as imprisoning relationships that incapacitate the characters. Only Walter and Hildy seem able to skip around each other and have fun in a dance of freedom and constraint.

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Quick quiz: which of these relationships do you want?

I love His Girl Friday for many reasons—the Syd-Field-defying length of many of its scenes and the overlapping dialogue, for instance—but mostly because I want to be Hildy Johnson. Because her love-on-the-go for Walter (and vice-versa) is one of the most unconventional romantic relationships portrayed on the classic Hollywood screen.

Even in the wackiest screwball comedies (as in Shakespeare plays), the story usually ends with the hint that the adventure is over. You can go home now, folks!  Harlequin and Columbine have overcome their obstacles and they’re going to settle down and have babies now.

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“I don’t care about your biological clock! This is a HOWARD HAWKS movie!”

His Girl Friday skirts this frozen conclusion. It overturns the belief that love brings about an end to adventure. A topsy-turvy attitude towards marriage crackles in the humorous inversions of its dialogue, as in Walter’s mock-lamentation about how divorce has lost its meaning:

“You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part. Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”

It laughs at all the parlor-piano-with-a-doily-on-top values that most movies were selling hard in 1940s. Thank God.

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Okay, so now that I’ve worked all that analytical rubbish out of my system, let’s get right to the Cary Grant appreciation. That man made acting look so easy that it hardly surprises me that he never won an Academy Award.

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If you watch The Front Page (His Girl Friday is a remake), you’ll notice that it’s actually a much more visually flamboyant film. There are mirrored-corridors, flashy crane shots, and more conspicuous arrangements of light and shadow to hold your attention.

But His Girl Friday more than made up for all of that lost razzle-dazzle with Cary Grant’s roguish pyrotechnics. Whether he’s imitating Hildy’s pre-marital flirting (“Oh, Walter,” he coos, with a fey flutter of eyelashes), grabbing his ex-wife’s match bearing hand to light his own cigarette, or leading Bruce in a guided visualization of Hildy’s old age, Grant’s energy floweth over.

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He’s a marvel to watch, like a supernova in a double-breasted suit. And his dimple deserved supporting player billing. It even gets mentioned in the dialogue.

Hildy: A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.” Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.

Walter: Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve still got the dimple, and in the same place.

Tying into the black humor of His Girl Friday, Cary Grant gave us one of cinema’s most celebrated in-jokes by turning his own identity into a gag. I wonder, did Archie Leach have to “cut his throat” for Cary Grant to be born?

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And Rosalind Russell, who famously got the role only after Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne weren’t available, shows them all up with her brilliant performance. I have a hard time picturing Claudette Colbert (or any of the other fabulous Hildy candidates) camped out in a coal mine or stealing a stomach preserved in formaldehyde from a city morgue. At least, she’d still be perfectly gorgeous and innately graceful while doing so.

As a recovering comedienne, I admire how Russell embraces Hildy’s anything-for-the-story mentality. Her clumsy rush to cross a street as a police motorcade whooshes past her, hollering at the top of her lungs, stands out as one of my favorite moments in the film.

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Russell, however, dives into the character of Hildy like Hildy would into a dumpster. Chucking her purse at her ex-hubby and answering several phones at once, she displays a valiant klutziness that every woman can recognize in herself. We can believe this woman as the kind of tough but goofy broad that can and does win the grudging respect of a pack of self-absorbed dudes.

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The shyster and the sob sister belong together—whether they’re physically handcuffed together or just bound to each other by sarcasm and desire and the great puffs of smoke that they exhale at the same time. The glee of their rivalry teaches us that while love doesn’t necessarily give you a get-out-of-jail-free card, it should never make you feel like you’re behind bars.

Marriage is growing old together. Love never grows old. Like this movie. Now, that’s as corny as Iowa, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

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I’d like to smooch the idiot who let this movie slip into the Public Domain. Watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. So, my Free Film Friday is His Girl Friday. How appropriate is that?

Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end this post without a gratuitous screenshot of the scene where we gratuitously see Cary Grant buttoning his shirt during a medical exam, now did you?

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