Destination Tokyo (1944): Guys… and Dolls?

Wolf and NitaIf I mistook Destination Tokyo for reality, I might be inclined to think that, when women aren’t around, men mostly turn into a noble band of brothers who spend their time in ardent discussions of patriotism, responsibility, God, and philosophy. No offense, boys, but yeah right! Indeed, despite its fine, suspenseful construction, this movie would be about as colorless and invertebrate as a sea cucumber if not for one character.

In spite of my unreasonable love for Cary Grant, I admit that John Garfield walks away with the show as Wolf. This gregarious tomcat of a man brings a whiff of truth and humor to the screen, recounting his many conquests and elaborately comparing women to submarines—and subs to women! It’s as if all the sex drive, all the locker room talk, all the virility that we associate with the American male of the 1940s took refuge in the aptly named Wolf. Garfield’s lusty working class charisma buoys the film up and serves as the perfect counterpoise to Cary’s saintly, gracious paterfamilias.

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Two concepts of manhood.

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If Cary’s Captain Cassidy embodies what every American man of the time was supposed to be (or would’ve liked to be), Garfield’s Wolf is much closer to what the man of the time actually was, I’d say. In contrast to Cassidy’s manly perfection, Wolf is exuberantly imperfect. And thus, instantly lovable.

Now, we’ve all come to recognize the tropes that populate any war movie or all-male ensemble cast, including but not limited to: the voice of reason, the intellectual, the Hotspur, the white-haired father figure, the dreamer, the wet-behind-the-ears new guy, and, of course, the ladies’ man. Garfield’s character easily falls into the last category. Nevertheless, he refuses to be defined by that narrow frame.

Whereas another actor might ride this part, going with the flow of the snappy dialogue and waggish idiosyncrasies, Garfield tickles every emotional nuance out of his character. For instance, when he finds a phonograph record under the pillow of a dead companion, Wolf leads the men to play it and hear what it says—expecting something steamy, “Maybe it’s one of those censored records!” When, instead, he’s greeted by the voice of the fallen comrade’s wife, talking about how happy she is to be married to him, Wolf reacts with surprise, amusement, then with a creeping melancholy.

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This mega-bachelor, this charming skirt-chaser suddenly begins to understand what he might be missing, the joy of a relationship, not just a hook-up. Epiphanies are hard to act—they’re so easily overbaked. But Garfield gives us a small glimmer of mental movement behind that mug of his. He’s not converted, but he has gained something.

Unfortunately, much of the so-called “character development” that occurs during Destination Tokyo serves a blatant ideological purpose—the boy grows into a man, the atheist intellectual comes to embrace God, the high priority military operative learns the real nature of courage, not as an absence of fear, but as the mastery of fear. However, in the case of Garfield’s Wolf, the interiority that he communicates doesn’t bring about any major change in his persona.

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At the end of the film, he’s still planning to go and live it up with the dames when he goes back on shore. But he’s a different person. A slightly different person. In life, every experience changes us somehow until the changes add up to make the people we were distinct from the people we are. That transition isn’t complete yet, but watching Wolf in a state of becoming is magical—all the more because we don’t expect those delicate shadings of growth from a basic, carnal dude like him!

The movie’s use of cinematic language also positions us closer to Wolf than to the other men. Interestingly, Cassidy and Wolf are the only two characters in Destination Tokyo who can bring us back to land—that is, their memories trigger flashbacks to the home front that we the viewers can also see. Cassidy visits his wife and daughter in his dreams and, as he faces death, his son’s face flashes before his eyes.

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These idealized visions contrast with Wolf’s flashback to a dame (what else?) earlier in the film.

Whistling “Night and Day,” Wolf launches into a bawdy story about spotting a gal outside a lingerie store in San Francisco. “Ah, she was built for speed, like a destroyer… but kinda compact too, like a submarine. There she was a-comin’ down South Street, right on my starboard beam. The minute I sees her, I says, ‘Up periscope!’”

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Unsurprisingly, he’d been leering at some mannequins when this swell dame pops up—as does a beefy navy type, who horns in, proceeds to escort the babe into the store, and buy her something lacey and sheer as Wolf peers through the window in dismay, nose pressed to the glass. “There I am: anchored. Dead in the water… bulkheads busted in!”

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No sooner does the tomato get her frilly “thingamajig” than she leaves the interloper in the lurch—and turns to Wolf, asking, “Going my way, submariner?”

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Dissolving energetically back and forth between Wolf telling the tale and the actual scene, this sequence interjects a delightful bit of comedy and camaraderie. Wolf comes across as a storyteller with a gift for wringing his escapades for suspense value. He works his audience and the movie’s audience.

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Of Destination Tokyo’s flashback sequences, Cassidy’s images of his wife and children (in real life, the children of director Delmar Daves!) are solitary, linked only to his point-of-view. On the other hand, Wolf’s naughty story is a shared theatrical experience, staged in the imagination of any of the men within the movie who make up his audience—listening to the tale and trying to picture it. The strength of Wolf’s personality allows all involved to escape from the confines of the claustrophobic sub.

I also love the use of sound in this scene. As “Night and Day” continues to play over the soundtrack, almost like a music video, Wolf’s voice-over speaks all the dialogue that accompanies his memory. We hear both the growling tones of his rival and the suggestive voice of his would-be dalliance in Wolf’s voice. He performs his memory (or perhaps his fantasy), like a one-man repertory company! If I were a guy trapped in a metal capsule underwater, I’d want Wolf around…

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The script contributes another nuance to Wolf’s character by hinting that all the stories he tells might be fabrications—because, unlike the other men, he lacks a regular sweetheart. Indeed, there’s at least one clue in the flashback sequence that Wolf was embellishing his tale, if not making it up entirely: he refers to the woman as being “up to my chin” when she actually appears several inches taller than him. Although we do see the sexy scene that Wolf describes to us and seeing is usually believing, we begin to wonder just how much we can trust our narrator.

Is he merely compensating? Like many skirt-chasers, Wolf emerges as a particularly lonely man. In one poignant scene, all the men repose in their bunks, with pictures of their wives and fiancées, whereas womanizing Wolf lies there alone, like a forlorn little boy.

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Garfield imbues Wolf with a tender childishness that saves the character from cliché-dom—and from lecherous creepiness. We’re talking about a man brings A DOLL onto a submarine for heaven’s sake! Certainly, his act of bringing a woman-in-effigy, a hot miniature blonde, onboard strikes us as a slightly kinkier version of bringing, say, a French postcard or a Playboy centerfold. Wolf also explains that he uses the plastic dame as lure to get girls—a pick-up gag. He takes Nita the Doll into a restaurant and talks to it, to provoke the attention and curiosity of real women.

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However, the presence of a toy woman also reminds me of a security blanket or a teddy bear. During the intense depth charge scenes, Wolf braces himself against the shocks in his bunk with Nita beside him as a comfort.

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Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about “transitional objects” like teddy bears, that enable us to transition from experiencing the world as a part of oneself and ones imagination to interacting with a real world, a network of relationships. Wolf seems unable to make that shift completely. Sex is a kind of transitional object for him, as indicated by his flashback, which may be real and may be imagined… or a mixture of the two. Wolf even refers to his physical strength standing in contrast to his “weak mind,” but the weakness stems not from a lack of intelligence but rather from a strange inability to dissociate imagination and reality.

He’s the one, after all, who puts up the silly sign “Los Angeles City Limits” in a Tokyo cave, as if he were mentally transporting himself somewhere else. He’s the one who kisses both the submarine and the torpedo, as if they were women, or perhaps extensions of himself. And who describes sexual encounters like naval battles!

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Nita the Doll, as a transitional object for an adult male, both a fetish and a comforting toy, helps us recognize the underdeveloped boy mentality that explains a lot of why people are willing to fight wars, I’d say. As much as Wolf epitomizes a certain type of hardboiled American manhood, his askew sexuality, his inability to lead a committed relationship, and his confused attachments to objects and fantasies reveal something damaged in him. Garfield’s natural vulnerability as an actor subtly discloses this weakness, underneath the shiny surface of the good-time guy.

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I know this analysis sounds like a bit of a stretch. I mean, isn’t Wolf just comic relief? Well, yes, I’m sure that’s how he was intended, but I feel like the weirdness of this character deserves to be decrypted a little more. In his own small way, he foreshadows the link between sexual dysfunction and annihilation that makes Dr. Strangelove such a brilliant parody. We witness Wolf’s loose link to reality in every loony military leader who takes his aggression or ego out on the world.

He Volunteered for Submarine ServiceAlthough Wolf isn’t unnecessarily violent, “weak mind[s]” like his are often the fuel for the violence of total wars—an unhinged fantasy life makes people do all sorts of strange things. Why else do military posters frequently involve sexy ladies? Because the two things sort of go together. Wolf wasn’t so odd to bring Nita onboard. As this WWII poster shows, girls and the submarine service went together in recruits’ minds.

Whether you buy my thesis or not, watch Destination Tokyo because it’s a startlingly accurate depiction of a WWII American sub, because Cary Grant practically glows with idealized male role model glory, because it portrays several amazing real life incidents—such as an impromptu underwater appendectomy! But, when you do watch it, keep an eye out for the woman who gets the most onscreen time—Nita, Wolf’s doll. And think about what she might say if she could talk.

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~          ~          ~

(As a postscript, I would like to address the fact that Destination Tokyo is very much a product of its time. Slurs on the Japanese like “Nips” and “Japs” abound in the dialogue and I’d be lying if I said that the rushes of victory that the film delivers don’t depend on the dehumanization of the enemy. What’s worse is that the script flat-out demonizes Japanese culture, stating that there’s no word in the Japanese language for romantic love. Okay, wise guys, then how did Shikibu Murasaki write The Tale of Genji?! All that bigotry is Destination Tokyoegregious. No argument there. You definitely wince hearing Cary Grant say, “I hear Japs are happy to die for their Emperor. A lot of them are going to be made very happy,” as bombs drop on the unsuspecting civilians of Tokyo. It ain’t pretty.

However, I would point out that the submariners’ attitudes toward the enemy are realistic, although indefensible. I mean, I don’t expect soldiers to say, “Hmm. Well, your average Japanese fellow is OK, but I’ve got to kill them for many ethical, social, and economical reasons.” War is Hell because it demands that men embrace this kind of nasty us-versus-them talk in order to be able to do what they must.

I think that’s a damn sight more honest than the plentitude of movies nowadays that swap out real people foes for grotesque CGI enemies that aren’t even human to begin with. Those fake panoramas of gore stultify us by letting us enjoy death where there never was any life. Which is why I’d question the ethics of movies like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings right along with Destination Tokyo.

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This 1944 movie does give us at least one moment of almost-enlightenment. When the beloved Mike is killed, Captain Cassidy launches into an informal eulogy about how Mike loved children and was proudest when he bought his kid a deluxe pair of 5-dollar roller skates. Cassidy insists that Mike died for a world filled with more roller-skates—even for Japanese kids, who deserve lives free from inculcated militarism and a doctrine of blind self-sacrifice. We’re still in the realm of propaganda and apologism. Those roller-skates are a rationalization, sure enough, but one that sounds more plausible, human, and admirable than mindless killing.)

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I am proud to present this post as part of the John Garfield 100th Birthday Blogathon, a terrific idea organized by Patti of They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. Please check out the other entries and learn more about this amazing actor, lost from us, alas, all too soon.

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Modern Myth: Frankenstein (1931)

I need to rein myself in when writing about Frankenstein. God knows, I could easily concoct a series of blog posts about Colin Clive’s hair alone. So, I’ll isolate one moment that has always fascinated me and try to bring it ALIVE!

Recognize the scene? This is a pristine publicity still, I believe, but you can still get the gist (and some extra angst!) from my slightly murky screenshots.

The monster has dragged his maker to the windmill. Henry Frankenstein wakes up and tries to run away, but the creature stops him and they take up positions on either side of a turning wheel in the mechanism of the mill. In shot-reverse-shot, we get Frankenstein looking at his creation and the thing looking back, as the gear continues to turn between them. There’s just so much in these two shots. They conjure up a multiplicity of meanings.

Following a pretty intense chase sequence, this pause in the action, almost like a fermata, really sticks in your memory—or at least mine. Karloff, for his part, communicates a rising rage against the only person whom he can hold responsible for putting him into this situation of pain and chaos.

For once, Clive’s character isn’t a ball of nerves. He really looks at what he’s made, as though he’s seeing it for the first time. I also think that I detect a certain amount of perverse pride in Henry Frankenstein’s eyes. Remember that scene where Waldeman and Frankenstein double-team the monster, trapping him while trying to administer a sedative? Well, now the tables are turned… Henry’s trying to get away from his monster and his creature clearly has the brain capacity to trap him. One can sense just a little undercurrent of ironic accomplishment. Not only has Clive’s Frankenstein made a man, but a man who can hold his own with his maker.

Frankenstein’s monster shows the capacity to learn and get the upper hand. He thus becomes his master’s greatest achievement and his greatest nightmare.

There’s also an odd “tag you’re it!” aspect of this scene. How many comedies give us this kind of scenario, with two characters faking each other out as they run around a desk or something? It’s a child’s game, really, and both Frankenstein and his creation are like children, causing harm and acting willfully without fully comprehending the ramifications of their actions.

To put a revolving series of bars between the camera and the character also adds a visual flamboyance to the stare-down and draws the viewer in with hypnotic movement. The cyclical motion is like a model or a concretization of the reciprocal gaze. With sound and image working in conjunction, the creaky, yet steady rhythm of the turning mill wheel both grounds the scene in a set pace and makes it uneasy, unsteady, in motion. Now, this turning wheel separating the creator and the creation suggests a perpetual tension and, at least to me, suggests the idea of the monster and maker inscribed in a dialectic relationship.

What an angle! Stunning visual means of conveying the collision-of-universes aspect of this death struggle.

The philosopher Hegel wrote about this concept of dialectic, of a pair of opposites (not just binaries, two things that are just at different ends of a spectrum) but opposites that are forever clashing—as epitomized by the master-servant relationship. The servant wants to rise and become the master and make the master his servant. The master wants things to stay just as they are. Even if you flip the positions, somebody’s going to be unhappy, because each wants “to supersede the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being.”

It’s a perpetual cycle of conflict, upheaval… and conflict again. It goes ’round and ’round. After all, why else do we, in English, say revolution for both upheaval and turning?

The mill wheel, interposing between the camera and the faces of the Frankenstein and his monster, drive home this tension of seeing oneself in the other and of trying to extricate oneself from that other. Creator and creation can’t really be separated though—they are mutually defined. The wheel connects them to each other on this visual level and allows us to feel this ineffable link, this potent, mythic moment of the pair tragically recognizing themselves in each other and recognizing that they recognize it.

On another, perhaps more obvious, level, the decision to set the conclusion of the film in a windmill also recalls Don Quixote. After all, the mad Don tilts at the most famous windmill in Western Civilization, because he believes it to be a monster. Robert Florey, who wrote the script for Frankenstein, added the windmill. It doesn’t appear in Mary Shelley’s novel, and, although the initially scripted scenes were heavily reedited, Whale clearly made the decision to make the gears of the building quite prominent. Now, I would certainly apply the adjective “quixotic” to Dr. Frankenstein and to his quest. In his character, the romantic and scientific traditions intersect to form an impractical genius who makes things he can’t cope with.

Highs and lows: extreme angles emphasize the fragility and volatility of Frankenstein’s genius. 

This turning windmill also makes us as viewers aware of a churning, orderly edifice in which Frankenstein and his beast suddenly find themselves. Now, I’m dancing on the jagged edge of symbolism here, but the mill creates the feeling that the movie is now inside a working, mechanical system.

Indeed, as the bars of the mill wheel pass between the camera and their faces, this interposing object recalls the zoetrope—one of the first pre-cinema moving image devices which gave the appearance of life by parading a series of images through a tiny peep-hole slot.

(Evidently, I’m not the first person to make this observation. After I pressed publish on this one, a rabid horror fan friend of mine directed me to a similar point in the work of Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr, The Flying Maciste Brothers. Well, Newton and Liebniz developed calculus independently…)

Now, what does Dr. Frankenstein want most of all? He craves to know how things work, what mechanisms of nature rule the world. The windmill reminds me of the suite of laws that hold together the universe—and continue to do so, in spite of whatever strange dreams man might dream.

“If I could discover any one of these things… I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”

Frankenstein and his monster, however, both become heroic because they have the guts to stare into that mechanism: Frankenstein by choice, his creation by way of the calamitous existence that was thrust upon him. Their exceptional destinies are intertwined and the movement of the wheel seems to knit them together—as doubles, as a dialectical pair, as two individuals who madness and bad luck has rendered aware, whether rationally or intuitively, of the forces that govern the world and which, when tampered with, grind a human being to despair.

For me, the beauty of Frankenstein resides in the morbid, yet poetic way the film doesn’t just portray modernity, but also practices it. For instance, in true Gothic novels, one prototype being Ann Radcliffe’s celebrated Mysteries of Udolpho, any time a skull or skeleton pops up, we’re dealing with a key plot point or shock-value moment… and you have to wait for about 200 or so more pages for another one.

James Whale, on the other hand, constantly throws this kind of memento mori imagery at us. Even Dr. Waldeman, who presents himself as the healthy scientist, in contrast to Clive’s obsessive one, keeps a line of skulls on the back shelf of his study.

Or, consider the classroom scene preceding the brain theft, which opens with this droll, direct shot of a dead man’s feet.

There’s a very similar shot in Murnau’s Faust, with the feet of plague victim appearing disproportionally large in the foreground, but the effect achieves a grimmer tone there. The cadaver in Frankenstein possesses a good deal less dignity. He’s just served as a visual aid to a bunch of med students, and his feet poke humorously right into the camera, into the spectator’s face as it were. These med students even start to chuckle when, nudged by the gurney, an anatomical skeleton, suspended from the ceiling, bobs up and down. Whale depicts a world at least partially desensitized to the horror of death.

In place of the dreadful, foreboding atmosphere of Browning’s Dracula, Whale gives us a bizarre mixture of irreverence and fear. Frankenstein shows us a world in which death is not the master, but the servant. Death is the thing that we’ve learned to chuckle at and demean—even as we cower before it.

I think that a lot of this cynical attitude towards death comes from the director’s time in the trenches of WWI. A lot of gears were in constant motion on the front…

Like all great works of art, Whale’s Frankenstein doesn’t allow a viewer to pin it down with a single meaning. The monster and his maker both win over our sympathy—and even the torch-wielding villagers do, too! But, for me, the crux of the drama occurs at that moment when the creature and his maker face off with a searing reciprocal gaze, separated by that marvelously evocative wheel that seems to both separate them and unite them. This visually stunning, revolving flourish elevates what could be a stagey, old-fashioned finale into a truly modern metaphor for the gears of the universe, for the mechanical man… and perhaps for that ultimate in life-creating edifices—the cinema?

Rotten Blood: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

In all my years of watching old movies, only one film frightened me so much that I had to turn off the TV set.

And I was one little tough ginger snap when I faced off with Murders in the Rue Morgue. I was 8-years-old, but going on about 100 after a medical crisis that left me way more likely to identify with scarred-up bad guys than with menaced little girls.

I could crack up at some seriously raunchy R-rated comedies and was used to watching Psycho with my parents—frequently over a breakfast of pancakes with chocolate sauce.

But even I, jaded little eight-year-old I was, couldn’t make it through Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. I couldn’t even make it through the first third. I think I was, like, 18 before I actually stoked up enough courage to watch the film to its end.

And I’m glad I did because it practically seethes with innovation. Karl Freund’s camerawork paints a dense world of fog, crazy angles, shadows, and carnivalesque attractions. The heritage of Caligari rears its head, to be sure, but there’s an added realness to it all. I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve walked through the perpetual party that the city is in the daytime… and through deserted streets at night. Frenchman Florey and expressionist genius Freund instilled a grainy, ever-moving texture to the film that aptly translates the darkly festive vibe of Paris.

Which brings me back to that scene that scared the Hell out me.

A woman being tortured on a big wooden frame, like a meat rack, as a man punctures her again and again with a syringe. Her shrieks. Her utter subjugation to a raving lunatic. These are not quaint relics of what the Pre-Code era thought spooky. They survive as every normal person’s worst nightmare and certain abnormal people’s most lurid fantasy.  The torture scene in Murders in the Rue Morgue, for better or for worse, sketched the blueprint for every filmic depiction of a sadistic killer to follow.

I am referring, of course, to the scene in which Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle abducts a prostitute, injects her with gorilla blood to see if she’s compatible for mating with Erik the Ape—and thus kills her.

This scene toys with you in that, beginning with the abduction scene, Florey orchestrates a perpetual crescendo of violence. We, the viewer, constantly think, “Well, it can’t get worse than this, right?” And then it does.

Let’s take a close look at this scene—so horrifying that it was cut by many regional censors.

Dr. Mirakle looks out of his carriage window.

A street lamp smashes. The camera tilts down to show a woman screaming then pans over to two men fighting. Not fist-fighting in the burly, entertaining fashion of the movies. Their choreography feels naturalistic, gritty, ugly.

A knife flashes into, then out of,  the frame. We know that its blade buries deep into another man’s flesh because he moans.

The woman is still screaming. The wounded man, in one lightening motion, sends something flying. We hear a throwing dagger slice through the air and bury itself into his opponent. They both fall.

 

This fight scene adds nothing to the plot. It’s pure gratuitous violence, although I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, inserted into the structure of the film to wring our spirits of every last drop of comfort. This is not a horror movie that graces only four people or so with its interest. Oh no, this is a horror show that goes out of its way to suggest the gruesome things that cling to the skin of the city like leeches.

Even though the fuzzy, mist-filled look of this scene belongs to the silent era, sound facilitates an even higher degree of fear.

The streetwalker’s mixture of horror and hysterical laughter fills the soundtrack with perversity. Her cries and cackles are jarring because they don’t let us totally sympathize with her. Her shrill yelps and giggles provoke displeasure—they’re not only hard on the ears, they make us feel, well, kind of dirty for even watching this. Unlike the lyrical, gracefully stylized monster attacks in Frankenstein and Dracula, this sequence of human violence slaps us in the face with the luridness of horror, of the thrills and chills that sell the tickets.

Perceiving his window of opportunity, Mirakle steps from his carriage and walks right into the camera, as though it’s the viewer he were creeping up on. His silhouette floods the screen with darkness.

Suddenly, we’re on the other side of him, looking at the prostitute as he advances towards her through the whirling mists.

Like a phantom, Mirakle (right) advances…

The disorienting feeling of “passing through” Mirakle (or of him passing through us) not only amps up the surrealist quality of the scene, but also infuses the sequence with the unstoppable dread of a nightmare. We know that something awful is going to happen, but we’re powerless to stop it.

The iconography of the black cloak, prostitute, and streetlamp all spark associations with the popular image of the serial killer, best represented by Jack the Ripper. Florey and Freund press all the right buttons to taunt us with the imminent destruction of the helpless woman.

 “A lady… in distress?” The tight, extreme close-ups that follow increase our unease with their intensity. Lugosi’s ghoulish facial contortions contrast with the wide eyes of the young streetwalker (Arlene Francis, if you can believe it!).

She gets in the carriage. Fade to black.

Okay, so this is where a NORMAL Hollywood film would cut to the woman lying in the morgue and we could infer that Mirakle performed some failed experiment. Years of watching movies prepares you for a nice, refreshing ellipsis here.

No such luck.

Immediately the high-pitched screams of the prostitute startle us as we see the shadow of a woman squirm on a rack. Dr. Mirakle performs his tests on her and adds his yells to hers in a cacophony of cruelty as he tells her to calm down so that she can be “the Bride of Science!”

I’d also note Florey’s subversive use of synchronous sound in this scene. The streetwalker’s sobs and moans, however, infuse the scene with a weird… sexual vibe. After all, this victim didn’t need to be a prostitute. The screenwriter could’ve chosen to invent some innocent girl on her way home, but no, the credits tell us from the first to expect a “Woman of the Streets,” as she’s billed.

This suggestion of a sex crime disguised as an experiment returns when Mirakle capers over to his desk to check the blood sample. As he peers into the microscope, his cry of anticipation—and ultimately of disappointment—mingles with her sighs. There’s definitely a weird crossover here between this woman’s, ahem, profession and the warped excitement that Mirakle derives from her.

Mirakle rises and starts to scold his victim for her “rotten blood!” because she failed to give him what he wanted, until he realizes she’s dead. Then he flips into utter religious despair—something that reveals the deeply mixed-up, addled nature of Mirakle, the fanatical man of science. (Note that his stage, or perhaps real, name, Dr. Mirakle: Doctor plus “miracle” with a “k” already hints at this perverse irrationalism-medicine  link.)

The exaggerated shadows and Lugosi’s own melodramatic posture of prayer remind me of mannerist paintings and their bizarre mixture of fervor and distortion.

Now, I don’t like it when directors fall into the ugly trap of naïvely equating a character’s suffering with Christ’s martyrdom. It feels cheap—unless the director can bring an added nuance to the allusion. Which Florey does admirably, with the crucified prostitute here.

A moment ago Dr. Mirakle viewed this woman as human garbage. As soon as she dies, however, she becomes a fragile, holy thing for one fleeting instant. Then he chucks her into the Seine.

Mirakle kicks open a trap door and jettisons the prostitute into the Seine.

I’m not a forensic psychologist, but this behavior, these quicksilver changes from contempt to reverence (or vice-versa) characterize the warped minds of serial killers. Humans turn into throwaway objects without the slightest warning. Lugosi’s performance runs the gamut from passion to anger to remorse to self-pity to anticipation of the next attack … an emotional arc that, from what I’ve read, fuels the violence of many serial offenders.

(And, let’s face it, a prostitute, a fallen woman, would also have been a morally acceptable victim for censors of the 1930s. Because, according to the hidden logic there, they deserve to die more than ordinary good girls like the heroine of the film. So, in a way, the sociopathic reasoning that we witness is also shared by a larger social system of morality which deems some people worthless.)

In other words, I was right to recognize this as a very, very sick scene, one that force-feeds us a glimpse into an aesthetic simulation of real madness and torment, not a glamorized supernatural ballet.

Of all talkie genres, horror stands out, perhaps second only to the musical, as the most likely to call attention to its own construction. Consider the assortment of carnival barkers and mountebanks who populate the Universal Horror cycle. Consider how often some character recites or alludes to some legend or dismisses these legends as fictions. Or, indeed, consider how often the movies used prologues to refer to their own shock value as potentially lethal spectacles. I don’t like calling something so meta! because I think that cutsie, overused term has come to describe any questionable art form that winks at its patrons over how bad it is. I love certain bad movies, but I will still call them bad.

However, horror films of the 1930s cultivated a much darker strain of “meta,” forever hinting to the viewer that their status as attractions reflects back on the sordid tastes of the viewers.

How far do you want to go? For me, that’s the meta-question at the heart of the genre. How horrified do you really want to be? And… how much do you enjoy what you see?

The moment when we’re truly scared, we have to look at ourselves and realize that, gulp, we’ve been enjoying all the awful things up until that point. We’re accomplices in the grisly murders, silently abetting the progress of the monsters in a double bind of pleasure and revulsion.

Well, at 8-years-old, I’d reached my limit with Murders in the Rue Morgue. At 21, I can finally realize why I was so scared. I’m glad I was.

Here’s to the things that make us look away, to the things that make us turn off the television! May we never fully enjoy them. And may we turn to thought and self-reflection to process the trauma that is cinema.

Morality Play: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

jekyllandhyde

It’s one of my absolute missions in life to get more people to watch silent films. Really, if, on my deathbed, I can say, “Well, I got more people to realize that The Phantom of the Opera is better without duets and Sarah Brightman,” I will consider it a small victory against the forces of darkness.

Which is why it’s kind of a disappointment to me to have to say that I do not consider Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a great silent film.

“I’m deeply hurt by your critique, Nitrate Diva. You wound me to my core.”

First off, Jekyll’s a bore. He doesn’t have to be, as Fredric March proved, but here, the part, as written, comes across as such a saint that we, as audience members, almost want him to slip into degradation.

We get it. He’s a nice guy. Could we please move onto the bordello now?

This is a problem since he takes frustratingly long to go over to the dark side. Then, once the transformation to Hyde finally occurs… the degenerate immediately takes the potion *again* and flips back to Jekyll. Um, yeah right. Once you’ve unleashed Hyde, he’s going to go paint the town red. I don’t buy for one moment that he’d say, “Gee, this is nice and all, but I better make sure that the process is reversible.”

However, like many, if not most, of the movies I write about, this 1920 Barrymore vehicle, directed by John S. Robinson, harbors shining moments that redeem it from the dustbin of history and make it worth watching. Stay with me, folks.

So, Barrymore does oblige and scares the Hell out of us with that famous no-cut transformation scene. His facial contortions evoke fear, not in spite of, but rather because of the fact that there’s no intervening makeup in that first shot. He’s still recognizable, but evil has some how entered him. We get the feeling that his body is nothing more than a suit of clothes—it all depends on how it’s worn, and by whom.

I would be very surprised if Kubrick’s vision of Jack Torrence hadn’t been shaped by this famous personality switch, in that it’s the person behind the face, not so much the face itself, that we see warp before our eyes.

Even so, one does get the feeling that it would all work more effectively on a stage. Barrymore spooks us onscreen, but he could hold us totally captive if we were right there, watching it imminently happening. The cinematic medium numbs the visceral reaction, for this viewer at least.

For me, Nita Naldi’s performance, not Barrymore’s, stands out as the enduring, outstanding one. Something about this Irish-American gal from Harlem (born Nonna Dooley) combusts onscreen, in contrast to the static beauty of The Great Profile.

Okay, so Naldi slightly overplays Gina, the exotic Italian dancer, but every time I watch Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I think about how much she could have run wild with the part. She really offers a subdued portrait of a woman on her way down—a dancer on the verge of prostitution who finally falls and doesn’t get back up.

She’s temptation incarnate, yes, but doesn’t take it too far. She comes across as a full person who wants to make a living and have a bit of fun, but still has a sense of decency that can be violated. In the scene when she’s first asked to vamp Jekyll, you can see several subtle emotional shades.

 Left with Barrymore’s older libertine friend, Gina broods. 

 At first, she’s skeptical about the “assignment,” then amused, then genuinely attracted (It’s Barrymore, for Heaven’s sake!), then hurt and ashamed when he spurns her. She also appears in perhaps the best scene in the movie: we find Gina after Hyde’s discarded her and is already buying his next victim…

We’ve only seen the back of Gina’s head at the other end of the dive, then she goes up to the bar, turns and glares at Hyde. In the close-up reveal, she looks like death.

I don’t know what we expect at this point. Probably not any kind of repentance from Hyde, but we don’t think it’s possible for him to get worse. And then he does.

He grabs the young whore and Gina and drags them both over to a mirror, as if to say, “Well, duh, Gina, she’s hotter. You can see for yourself!” This action chills us because we weren’t anticipating it. Normal guys dump girls when their, ahem, needs are met, but Hyde’s viciousness goes beyond selfishness. He shows that true evil isn’t indifference, but outright sadism.

 

If March’s Hyde (in the adaptation that came along just 11 years afterwards) gained anything from Barrymore’s (although ol’ Freddy was quite careful about taking it in a different direction), I would argue that the 1931 performance displays the same mocking politeness and deliberate desire to wound his victims in every way. For instance, after kicking Gina out, Hyde makes a little bow as gentleman would to a passing lady. March’s Hyde also parodies the airs and fine manners of his kind counterpart as a way of showing how hollow these gestures of politeness are—when wickedness lurks beneath.

The really sad part of the scene I’ve described above, however, arises from the fact that the new girl goes with Hyde in spite of enough red flags to read as an S.O.S. to any sensible woman.

I applaud that realism. I mean, what’s she going to say to the Madame? “But he seemed like a jerk!” I doubt that would fly. She’s made her bed and now she’s got to lie in it.

The film circles back multiple times to the idea of prostitution and of the woman in decline: consumed and then thrown away.

Right before Jekyll goes into the dance hall where he meets Gina, this shot of a random, grizzled streetwalker suddenly fills the screen. Robinson, the director, clearly wants us to cherish no illusions. No matter how prostitution starts, it ends up really ugly.

Now, this focus on vice was nothing new for cinema in 1920. In fact, the plot trope of young girls ruined by white slavery featured in several popular “problem pictures,” such as The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) and the much more ambitious feature, Traffic in Souls. Yet, these dramatizations morally hedged their bets.

On the one hand, they warned young girls not to put themselves in bad situations and exposed a social ill. On the other, they procured the kind of titillation that vicariously invading forbidden spaces like brothels or shady dancehalls automatically provides—without implying unnecessary sin on the part of the viewer.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plays on the same double code. For instance, consider this shot, of elegant men crowding into a doorway to watch Gina shimmy in her scant shawl.

Not only do we get the sense of the male gaze, but also of a cold, dehumanized, upper class male gaze. We can’t see their faces. They stand as vaguely sinister icons of pleasure-seeking gentleman slummers. They visit the underworld, yet remain untouched by its cheapness.

They don’t pay the real price of what goes on here, although they fuel the wickedness with their appetites and their money. And yet, aren’t they just slightly more hands-on versions of the movie audience that’s come to savor the spectacle of degradation—once removed?

A preachy, muckraking quality dates Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and infuses it with somewhat distasteful hypocrisy. Nevertheless, what I appreciate about the film resides in how it engages a tactile revulsion in its viewers. The emphasis on Hyde’s hands stands out thanks to a close-up during the transformation…

Just looking at these hands, we can easily imagine what it feels like to be touched by them. They’re scabby, scratchy, leathery, and all-round gross. Second only to Barrymore’s obscene conical head, these hands translate the sexually predatory nature of Hyde. When he finally has his freshest filly alone, he pulls off her shawl and immediately palms her chest.

It’s disgusting—because that tactile sensation has been cleverly foregrounded. We can practically feel Hyde’s hands. The twitchy, avid motions of his fingers draw the eye to wherever his hand goes in a haptic manner—that is, his hand makes the eyes “touch” the screen and feel as though they’re being touched. Skeeved out yet?

There’s also another scene, which I would usually file under silly, if not for how much it resonates with me. Jekyll’s sworn off the potion, but the potion hasn’t sworn off him. It comes back to him in the form of a huge spider that crawls into his bed and re-injects him with its wicked venom. He spontaneously merges back into Hyde.

Hm. Addiction metaphor, anyone? Detox hallucinations? Perhaps because it’s Barrymore and we all know how alcohol destroyed him, but this superimposed spider conveys the creeping violation of compulsive behavior that always comes back, whether you want it to or not, whether you can resist another moment or whether it vanquishes you. I also suspect that this scene inspired Ray Milland’s bat hallucination DT’s sequence in Billy Wilder’s addiction picture, The Lost Weekend.

Again, the spider calls up a cinema-triggered indirect tactile sensation. I shudder, almost as though I can feel a spider scuttling along my skin.

In the end, I do recommend this silent—not because it’s a brilliant horror film, but rather because it does interject some gritty realism and consciousness of self-abuse into horror. Many scholars have remarked that the genre works out hidden social and moral issues. Well, this one never gets too far away from them in the first place.

Sacre Bleu! 10 Reasons to Watch The Catman of Paris

First thing’s first: I’m going to get my digression out of the way.

As a young girl training at conservatory, the future famous opera singer Maria Callas used to sit and listen to all of the other singing students, many of them mediocre, during their lessons. She said that you could learn something even from the mistakes and foibles of other voices.

I offer this anecdote in order to rationalize my love of endearingly crude or creaky movies.

Yeah, like I need an excuse. Because, c’mon, people, it’s not like human beings got a whole lot more discerning and sophisticated in the past 60 years. We, the smug spectators of the 2010s, may prefer to think that we can savor a silliness and “camp” factor that those naïve ancestors of the 1940s couldn’t, but I don’t believe it for a moment. Those cynical, hard-working citizens of another era probably reacted with the same amusement as we do to absurd plot holes and exaggerated acting. They might not have understood what “snark” and “camp” meant, but they would’ve experienced them, I am sure. And it’s condescending to them to pretend otherwise.

Yeah, even your Red Cross Girl grandma would’ve found this silly.

Which begs the question, why did people go to watch a movie like The Catman of Paris? What pleasure can we derive from watching it?

10. Because it’s so very French, non?

I have never, in all of my years of obsessing over Hollywood films, seen a movie in which the name Charles is consistently pronounced in the French manner, “Shaaaaah-le,” like this one.

Charles: “Mon Dieu! I seem to be souffring from some étrange maladie!”

Which is really funny, since the accents in The Catman of Paris range from the genuinely French to the vaguely European to dodgy Pépé-Le-Pewe approximations to not-even-trying. The Inspector, primarily, speaks most of his lines in a flat American drawl, but has to say the names all Frenchy-like. Just listen to him try to do the R-in-the-back-of-the-throat that frustrates every beginning French student.

“I am sorry, Monsieur. You’ll have to take that up with another fonctionnaire.”

At one point a character tries to convince another to hide out, saying, “If you fall into the hands of the bloodhound Sévéren…!” Every phrase is so flowery and blustery that there’s really a hidden “Sacre Bleu!” in each line. Oh, did I mention that there’s also a Can-Can dance and cafés? Vive la France!

9. Quite good special effects makeup.

Not, say, Jack Piece good, but Bob Mark, the makeup supervisor, did a fine job on this and many other films (one thinks of the soulful, heavy, fuzzed-out eyeliner look he brought to Maureen O’Hara in Rio Grande). Mark serves up an appropriately grotesque creature in the titular catman.

8. If you don’t have the time to read Penny Dreadfuls…

The picturesque quality of the mise-en-scene ensures that the whole movie resembles a Belle Époque engraving full of pointy-nosed maidens, idyllic gardens, and trim carriages. Only, every now and then, there’s a catman and a brutal murder.

           

This decorative frilliness combined with a monster on the loose recalls the “penny dreadfuls” of the 19th century. Like penny dreadfuls, Poverty Row horrors aren’t particularly well done, but they do sell thrills and a fussy, poor man’s Gothic ambiance that comforts as much as it scares.

7. Hey, didn’t I see him in…?

If you regularly watch Republic programmer pictures (I am Nitrate Diva and I am a Nexflix-aholic…) you start to feel like you’re going to an old repertory theater. The guy who was the murderer last week is the victim in the new production. The trampy girlfriend of the last picture plays the wife in the next one. In other words, there’s a whole extra-diegetic thrill of identifying the actor.

I admit that this sounds pretty film geeky, but even so, I would be surprised if people from the 1940s didn’t whisper to their companions, “Hey, didn’t I see him in…?”

The watching process includes a memory game—not unlike the license plate game, but with actors. Despite everything we learn in film class about absorption and identification, the classic Hollywood spectator would have discovered their own ways of playing with a movie. They would have, I hypothesize, enjoyed recognizing the same little-known actors just as much as we do today—if #TCMParty is any indicator.

Keep an eye out for Dourglass Dumbrille (what a name!) as Borchard. You’ll definitely recognize him from a much more prestigious (though not much better) film—The Ten Commandments. And you might also recognize faux-French Lenore Aubert, the lady in distress in Catman of Paris, as the would-be vampiress seducer of Bud Abbott in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein!

6. Because the plot is just too weird to pass up on.

 A reincarnated catman who’s existed since before the birth of Christ? Check.

A monster movie about—seriously—publishing? Uh-huh.

A secret trial overheard by a guy… in cat form? Yup, the plot hinges on it.

 This is whacky stuff. Don’t miss out on the sheer oddball joy of it all.

5. Nutty dialogue…

A sample: “Governments are like women. They weep and they pout and they threaten, but the more you scorn them, the more they respect you!”

“Charles, stop treating me like a government!” 

Hey, U.S. Gov—your crocodile tears don’t fool me one bit. I’m giving you the silent treatment for a while. How you like me now, Uncle Sam?

4. Because it was made by mega Western director Lesley Selander.

“Yeehaaah!” Wait, I mean, “Allez! Allez!”

Selander directed over 100 in his career, the majority of them programmer Westerns. He’d worked with John Ford and W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke. In other words, he was kind of a dyed-in-the-wool buckaroo guy.

Knowing this fact, The Catman of Paris comes across totally differently, because you can tell that the director is doing what works for him. That is to say, he includes a lot of Western-style action stuff. In 1896 Paris. Quite a combo there.

Really, there’s this great five-minute-long brawl between a whole bunch of unemployed artists and our main character—a novelist. They just drop their conversations about art and life and start knocking each other around! Leaping off of bars. Falling on top of tables. Throwing chairs. Um, French artists will scream at the top of their lungs in defense of their famous authors, but they’d be damned if they spilled a drop of café au lait while doing it, which is why this brawl is so very funny.

“How DARE you say that about Baudelaire?” 

It’s like if John Ford did a production of La Bohème.

Then there’s a carriage chase, which somebody copied and pasted from Selander’s last 40s Western. Hey, switch the stagecoaches for French fiacres—you’ve got a horror chase! I was still expecting the cavalry to show up, though.

Basically, what we’ve got here, is a horror with the tropes of a Western. How often do you get to say that?

3. Because this was the 1940s standard for violence?

As I’ve said, I don’t think our mid-century, War-Bond-buying forebears were immune to the kind of snide humor that continues to tickle us today. Nevertheless, I would argue that their tolerance for violence in film does not match our own. Even if you fought at the Battle of the Bulge, movie violence might shock you if you possess little experience with it. Movie violence often doesn’t look like real-life violence, it’s much bigger if it happens on a big screen, and we also have the hidden question in our minds: “Am I supposed to enjoy this?”

And, for 1946, Catman would’ve been considered quite bloody. In fact, I’ve read a review from the L.A. Times in which the critic has little to say about it except that it gives a few good chills and has “very violent effects.”

So, take a little vacation from blood spatter, and try to put yourself into a frame of mind to accept blood trailing down a woman’s décolleté as truly horrific. The gore you love will seem extra-gory when you return to it.

2. Because you’ll delight in a few clever stylistic touches…

Although they mostly involve cats or shadows.

1. Umm… am I the only one picking up on the serious homoerotic subtext here?

Do note that some spoilers lurk in this reason.

How often do you get to see a man slap another man in movies? Our main character, Charles, a best-selling writer, spends most of his time hanging out with his “patron,” Borchard.

We first see them both together as men about town, having dinner, just the two of them. Later, when Charles stops off at what appears to be his home, we hear Borchard call his name from off-screen and then see the patron cozily installed at a desk. So, they live together?

Things really get awkward when Charles falls in love. We get scenes of the amnesiac Charles, who thinks he might be the catman, depending on the advice and help of Borchard while Charles’ girlfriend remains on the fringes, an interloper in the relationship. When Charles grows hysterical Borchard bitchslaps him! There’s something not quite professional about that relationship.

Turns out, Borchard is the Catman (Yes, goo, goo, g’joob!) and has devised a scheme to kill off everyone who stands in the way of Charles’ path to literary immortality. In other words, Borchard kills for Charles. Psychotic love alert!

Two’s company—and three’s a foule!

In that case, The Catman of Paris is richer than it seems.  The idea of embedding a supernatural animal-man in the context of a homoerotic relationship adds a layer of interest to the story. It’s enjoyable for me, as a modern critic, to think about how the 1940s resorted to such elaborate means to represent psychological and sexual difference. I wonder, would the 40s audience have picked up on that? At the very least, I’m sure that they could intuit some of it—which makes even a silly movie like this one worth watching.

Warning Signals: The Leopard Man and Uncanny Signs

“Il s’agit de faits qui peuvent être de l’ordre de la constatation pure mais qui présentent chaque fois toutes les apparences d’un signal, sans qu’on puisse dire au juste de quel signal, qui font qu’en pleine solitude je jouis encore d’invraisemblables complicités, qui me convainquent de mon illusion…”

—André Breton, Nadja

(“Sometimes things happen, things which could be on level of facts, of mere observations, but which in each occurrence present all the appearances of  signals, though of what, we can’t exactly say, signals which make me rejoice in the unrealistic complicities of my deep solitude, which convince me of my illusion…”)

Do note that this post contains spoilers.

The Leopard Man teems with signals of all kinds. This horror-mystery-thriller tosses so many signs, details, symbols, and recurrent images at us that we, as audience members, cannot escape the impression that we have fallen through the hatch to some kind of dream world—where everything means something, we just don’t know what. The very richness of these signs—from a fortune-telling cards to a ball whirling on top of a fountain—makes them uncanny.

Just as one piece of information in the absence of all others makes us convinced of its importance a surge of information forces us to look at everything—it floods our senses and encourages us to skip to the kinds of tangential but powerful conclusions which Breton describes in the quote above.

Coincidences are uncanny, Freud argued, because they whisper to us of some grander order that may tick away under the sleek surface of life. The coincidences, formal echoes, and signals that The Leopard Man sows through its unconventional plot together produce this uncanny delirium that makes everything scary, from a young boy making shadow puppets to a lady giving a flower away. Every detail weighs heavy with “the appearance of being a signal.”

Even the characters make these kinds of symbolic, transductive inferences. According to Kiki and her friend the cigarette girl, the film’s setting, a New Mexico town, is “a bad town for blondes”—even though the only three women to be killed there are brunettes! We make the same kind of unsound inferences. For instance, watch the movie and tell me who the Leopard Man of the title is. Duh, it’s the killer. But wait! Nope. The only unambiguous Leopard Man is Charlie How-Come, the native keeper of the leopard, as we learn from the sign on his truck. In other words, signs are always misleading us and creating anxiety.

To this end, Tourneur carefully crafted the film in the baroque, lush, (what I call noir extrême) style that we’ve come to associate with him as an auteur. Many curling shadows, many striking plays of light that call attention to themselves. However, he takes this visual business and coup-de-théâtre flair even farther here to rattle us.

In the first five minutes of the movie, three women, two of them performers in adjacent dressing rooms, appear reflected in mirrors. Clo-clo, the castanet dancer…

Kiki, Clo-Clo’s rival performer at the nightclub…

bang

…And Eloise, the starstruck cigarette girl.

Directly afterwards, in a sweeping camera tilt and pan, we see first a fountain, then a woman reflected in it, then the dancer herself.

This balletic camera cascade over the fountain hypnotized me the first time I saw this film, as did the opening tracking shot. Conspicuously poetic shots like these inscribe these reflection images on the mind. One bathes in this sensation which Breton describes. The intention of the camera movement coupled with the intense visual stimuli provoke a presentiment, a premonition that what we are seeing will become vital.

Tourneur and Lewton populate the rest of the film with reflections as well. Two examples:

I mean, you don’t need to be a film major to pick up on this. The reflections persist so much that we begin to wonder what do they mean? 

It’s a good question! And one for which the answers multiply in my mind without any one explanation satisfying me. I would argue that these mirrors and reflective surfaces exist in the diegesis not as symbols but as signals, in Breton’s sense, as things planted to raise our awareness of what we are seeing, of the fact that we are seeing. I’m not calling the motif a red herring, but I do maintain that the ambiguity of the reflections call up that surrealist part of our brain that notices without understanding.

The light on Clo-Clo’s legs.

On the commentary track for the film, which I recommend listening to, William Friedkin (yes, director of The Exorcist—it’s a damn good commentary!) notes that when a little boy shines a light on Clo-Clo the castanet dancer’s legs, he seemingly marks her for death. Tourneur’s vivid attachment to virtuoso contrasts of light and dark and patterns of duplication enhance the ambiance of presentiment that renders The Leopard Man so tense and intense. The enhanced visuality created by flamboyant, recurrent camera movements and low-key lighting etch details upon the mind and confer importance to them.

I must confess, I felt impelled to write this post after hearing Friedkin say, “Coherence is the enemy of the horror film.”

I agree. The cloud of possible meanings that looms over The Leopard Man teems with electricity, just as a sky about to be ripped apart by lightening makes you tingle. The ambiguity of all the signs in The Leopard Man conjure up the uncanniness of Breton’s signal. We feel like they mean something, but what that something is, we know not what.

The symbols that should scare us most, however, are not the mysterious signs around us, but rather those signals are those whose meaning cannot be negotiated. Significance, in its absolute form, entails a kind of death. After all, one achieves one’s truest being in death—you can never be anything more than what you are once you’ve ceased to live. That sounds morbid, but, whatever you believe, it’s hard to deny that death is final.

For each of the three female deaths in The Leopard Man, Lewton and Tourneur use unmistakable signals of death (or the bringer of death) that nevertheless avoid showing the thing in itself.

Blood under the door, on the other side of which Teresa’s being attacked…

The cemetery tree bending and then springing as the killer pounces on Consuelo…

…And Clo-clo’s cigarette butt burning out.

These signs frighten us because they hold no ambiguity. We know what happened. The decision not to show this horror makes us ponder that thing that can never really be shown—death, since, really, none of us knows for sure what death is.

Signals live. They take on a life because because play with them, negotiate with them, recycle them. When you cannot negotiate with a signal, it turns into the emblem of the finality which we all fear. Which is why I personally find The Leopard Man a difficult film to “analyze” since the movie questions the value of interpreting any sign. Isn’t it the signal and not the significance which breathes and dances? Much of the fun of the movies originates in our tender complicity with signals.

After all, it’s only madmen who see direction, purpose, meaning in everything. Well, scholars and madmen. It’s no coincidence, though, that the mentally unstable killer Galbraith is both a scholar and a madman. He brings together those parallel needs for significance, for explanation—yet he can ultimately offer no rationalization for his desire to kill.

It’s also Galbraith who enunciates the fountain-as-Fate metaphor. (Side note: there’s also a significant fountain in Breton’s Nadja. Could the eminently literate Lewton and the French Tourneur have been making an allusion to the father of surrealism, perhaps?) Too many people take Galbraith’s word as gospel on that, though.

Come on, would you give serious credence to a guy who mauled two women to death because he felt like it? Galbraith wants to hammer down significance, fix the meaning of the fountain, strangle it with a noose of interpretation when he’s completely ignored its fluidity, the very qualities which allow the fountain to serve as a metaphor. What I’m trying to say (badly) is that a fountain on film is never Fate. It’s first and foremost a fountain! When you reduce something to a symbol, you’ve killed it.

In the dark: Galbraith and his compulsion remain mysterious.

I adore the conclusion of this film, with Galbraith running through the procession of mourners, remembering the massacre of natives in the village. When his pursuers catch up to him, they fall in and march with the procession as they start to make him confess.

This chase tempts you to brand it with big words like Atonement and Sin and Religion. But the drama pulls you back in and denies you the corpse-like refuge of significance. As the worshippers in the scene know, the only way to keep a memory alive is not with symbols, but with movement and noise. To quote another Breton chestnut, from his L’Amour Fou, “Beauty must be convulsive—or must not be.”

Convulsive beauty, à la Breton: Clo-Clo rushes at the leopard with castanets.

The moment you pledge yourself to abstractions like Fate and Death, you run the risk of losing the quickness and movement of signals and all the uneasiness they inspire in us.

Warning signal: the leopard’s eyes as two points of light.

Avant Glam: Hollywood Portraits and Surrealism

      

Which of these does not belong? From left to right: Joan Crawford by George Hurrell, Katie Holmes (apparently with a migrane) by Solve Sundsbo from the 2008 Holiday Issue of T Magazine, Hedy Lamarr also by Hurrell.

Today, whenever a magazine wants to channel the “classic Hollywood” vibe, the editorial staff thinks best to conjure up the era with an imitation of the Hurrell chiaroscuro paired up with a current celebrity, be it Angelina Jolie or Britney Spears, and act like they’ve captured the essence of the archetypal glam shot.

But something’s always missing. What exactly? Well, it does relate to the fact that they’re just not photographing stars with one iota of the charisma and untouchability they had in the olden days. “They had faces then,” declares Norma Desmond and she was right. Nevertheless, in my mind, it’s not just the they-don’t-make-stars-like-they-used-to attitude that accounts for why the homage so often falls short of the original.

No: there’s a subtle quality that makes many real old Hollywood glam shots so much more engaging, hypnotic and…for lack of a better word, trippythan their modern counterparts.

A subtly surreal texture infuses these images, beyond even the fetishist focus on the face or body that seems to exist in some kind glamorous limbo. Strange details, odd, angles, and inexplicable, looming shadows that call forth an uneasy tension between the star and something grim, dead, dizzily abstract, or just plain weird.

Now, please do note that I am not trying to say that surrealism influenced the photographers who sustained the Dream Machine with pictures like you’ll see below. That would be 1) obvious; 2) beyond the scope of this blog; and 3) pretty boring. Instead, I hope that the series of images I’ve put together will encourage you to reflect on the way of seeing and looking that classic Hollywood produced, which even I can sometimes take for granted but which I consider every bit as provocative, modern, and unsettling as avant-garde art. I used a lot of Hurrell shots because he was one of the most instrumental photographers in “branding” and perfecting the unique feel of the Hollywood glam shot, but I also threw in a few less-than-famous shots just to show how pervasive the aesthetic was.

These pictures seduce us, but don’t always ask us to realize how and why we’ve been seduced. They efface their own charm and wit. I think they deserve credit not just for their beauty but also for these visionary traits.

I went about coming up with this blog post by following a method that I’d describe as somewhat surrealist: I saw a few images of old time movie stars that slapped me across the face with their exoticism and eccentricity so I started searching for more and collecting files of the portraits that exuded that same surreal aura. I warn you: it’s an idiosyncratic collection more than anything else. A collage.

So, rather than write too much (too late!), I’ll let the pictures give you their thousand-words-worth.

Masklike

Clara Bow

(c. 1920s ? I chanced across this photo—such is the surreal nature of the Internet—and cannot find anything about it in any language I speak. The strangest thing, though, is that the star’s face serves as all the provenance I need. I believe that the mask is a commedia dell’arte copy, but am no expert.)

“Noire et Blanche”

(Man Ray, 1926; the woman is Kiki de Montparnasse who “starred” in Ballet Méchanique)

Handled

Carole Lombard

(I’d say very early 1930s, just by the Crawford-ish look that Carole had in that period, but I have no clue what the hands have to do with anything.)

Dora Maar

(By Man Ray. N.B. Dora Maar also did at least one surreal hand photo herself that’s worth looking at.)

Rapunzel meets Ophelia: Floating Hair

Veronica Lake

(George Hurrell, 1941)

“Woman with Long Hair”

(Man Ray, 1929)

Fur-Bearing Curiosities

Joan Crawford

(Also by Hurrell, 1932)

“Le Déjeuner en Fourrure”

(Object by Meret Oppenheim, 1936)

Stop the Clocks

Adele Mara as a human sundial

(c. early 1940s. Again, details are not forthcoming. Mara, though, is quite an interesting dame—sort of a poor man’s Rita Hayworth—about whom you might like to read.)

“The Persistence of Memory”

(Salvador Dalí, 1931)

Space-Age Glampots

Clara Bow

(George P. Hommel, 1929)

Lee Miller

(Man Ray , c. 1930)

Subtle Distortions

For this final comparison, I will need to wade again into the muddy waters of analysis so I will revert to my old wordy ways. No, please, please don’t close the tab! Don’t touch the keypad! Okay, take a long look at these images:

Betty Grable

(Frank Powolny, 1943)

La Fourchette

(André Ketesz, 1928)

Unlike the other pairs, the link between these two images doesn’t slap you across the face. So why did I put them together?

The essence of surrealism, for me, is looking at an ordinary thing and seeing how extraordinarily strange it is, how perverse and ironic its very existence. That fork that you may unthinkingly use to shovel food into your mouth acquires a melancholy poignancy, an alien mutilated grace, that you may have never suspected when you really focus on its ponderous shape, purpose, invention—its personality, its soul. Kertesz can’t be pigeonholed as a surrealist, but this photo certainly is surreal in my mind and in my eye.

Like the fork, Betty Grable is, in many ways, an ordinary object. When asked, in 1958, about the perks and travails of making movies, she replied, “It pays better than slinging hash, but it’s a lot harder.” Perhaps the word most frequently used to describe her was and is “wholesome.” She is not Rita Hayworth, whose beauty was almost supernatural to begin with. Apart from her shapely gams, she’s so unremarkable that putting her before the lens automatically de-contextualizes her small-town charm to a certain degree. She is the unexamined small-town girl suddenly stripped of her veil of blandness to become something wildly sensual and weird. Any attention paid to her strikes me as paradoxical.

Then there’s the fact that we must consider this picture as more than a two-dimensional abstraction, and rather as a common physical object. Its meaning is bound up with its conception as a cherished, but quotidian possession: probably the number one pin-up photo of World War II, it must have peered out from the walls of heaven knows how many bunkers, submarines, and shanties. Pretty trippy, huh? A fork is something that we all experience individually, but consider to be basically nondescript. (A few tines and a handle, c’mon people, you don’t sit around giving much reflection to the anatomy of a fork. I hope not, at least.) Similarly, the same ordinary image of Betty Grable took on thousands of fantasy existences in men’s… minds.

And, the crazy part is, the subtle distortions of these images hint at the many askew, divergent lives of what they portray. Both Betty and the fork cast shadows that differ from the forms that we know and love. The pointy tines on the dish and the long stem underneath, on the table, are split from each other in the Kertesz photo, creating a sense of divided or bent space. Betty’s shadow (the darker one, to the right), though, reminds me of something from the movie Freaks. Her famous gams meld into one grotesque limb. There’s even another lighter shadow to the left so that she, like the fork, has been fragmented.

The oddly distorted shadows, in both cases, stand out against mostly white remainder of the images: white plate, white tablecloth, white bathing suit… The sum effect, on me at least, renders the form of the photographed object distorted. Betty’s legs appear too long and her torso is made to seem disproportionate by the famous over-the-shoulder glance, like the fork stands out as too long and lean. A woman’s body. A fork. Both awaken when scrutinized with a gaze that provokes as much, if not more, as it is provoked. When slanted slightly, tilted, pushed askew, the commodified star, the universal fetish serves as a vehicle not for looking, but for seeing.

That is what Hollywood glam shots managed to do with almost uncanny frequency: open our eyes to a beauty that wriggles out of definition but manages to be instantly recognizable. How do we pin down this specific glamour, this religion of visual textures that mutates, shocks, and frightens with its ability to transform perpetually and refresh our vision and concept of attractiveness?

Not to push the “open eyes” metaphor to far, but that notable surrealist Buñuel cut open an eye onscreen in Un Chien Andalou to prove to us how easily images could take hold of us with brutal, warped fantasies. Often considered prosaic or repetitive, old Hollywood glamour shots, and instances of classic glamour in general, do more or less the same thing. Only, if I may say so, they’re way easier on the eyes.

Simone Mareuil with Buñuel’s hand

(From Un Chien Andalou, 1929)

Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson

(In a still for Rain, 1932)

Letting the Cat out of the Bag: Ulmer’s The Black Cat and World War I

Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) possesses undeniable cult cred in the form of pickled dead wives, sexy Bauhaus sets, and, of course, Lugosi flaying Karloff alive. I cherish it for all these reasons. However, more important, I believe that it’s the first mainstream horror movie to show the link between the “nightmare picture” genre cycle of the 1930s and its aesthetic and emotional origins in World War I.

Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, adaptations of gothic novels, The Black Cat completely abandoned the Poe short story which it misleadingly claims as its source. Instead, the plot of the film revolves around Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) and his quest for revenge against his former comrade-in-arms in the Imperial and Royal Army of Austria-Hungary, Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff, who else?). The film even takes place in an old WWI-rampart-turned-evil-lair, Fort Marmorus, complete with old battle charts and gun turrets!

As Lugosi’s character travels back to the site of such historical carnage, he also undergoes a psychological transformation from civilized doctor to a man ruined by war and hate. At the risk of sounding grandiloquent (too late, but this is Universal Horror!), Werdegast’s pilgrimage is really a voyage to the heart of repressed WWI memories.

Take, for instance, the scene in which Werdegast and the newlyweds (who’ve chosen inexplicably to vacation in rural Austria) are driven from the train station. A shot, taken from the inside of the car, reveals the hood of the old-fashioned vehicle as it proceeds down a long muddy road, sparkling with streams of rain. This image conveys a documentary quality and anticipates the filth and sogginess of the following descriptions of World War I battlefields and trenches.

The driver lugubriously informs his passengers: “This road was built by the Austrian army.” In the low-key lighting and indistinctness of the rainy night, the chauffer, wearing the gaudy, gold-accented livery of the Hotel Hungaria in Gömbös, appears to wear a soldier’s uniform.

Delivering a grim monologue, the driver paints lurid word-portraits of Marmorus during the War, including such disturbing morsels as “the ravine down there was piled twelve-deep with dead and wounded” and, “the little river below was swollen, a red, raging torrent of blood.” 

Rather than cutting to the landscape or a flashback, Ulmer’s camera focuses on the reactions of the passengers. Like a couple at the cinema, slowly finding themselves drawn into the tale, the newlyweds at first hold back laughter then take on increasingly grave expressions. Werdegast, shown in a moodily lit close-up, closes his eyes as if in a trance.

Like a couple in the cinema: a parallel audience, the innocent newlyweds, the Alisons, listen to tales of WWI horrors.

The directorial decision to recount the story of Marmorus in this manner comments powerfully on the significance of such war narratives to modern life. Here, the tales and memories of no-man’s-land acquire the same kind of atmospheric cache as the prerequisite vampire lore or supernatural legends of more conventional horror films. For the Allisons, as for the moviegoers, the brutality of WWI already represents a myth, a treasury of shock-value yarns trotted out by tour guides, but still a collective inheritance of unconscious fears difficult to ignore.

The return to violence: the driver who recounts battle stories goes off the road with our characters in his cab. Note the practically vertical axis: the world of the newlyweds is about to be similarly turned upside-down by their involvement with two traumatized WWI veterans.

Towards the end of the film, the stylized, geometrical designs of the “Dark of the Moon” ceremony scene in The Black Cat echo the landscapes of a WWI no-man’s-land. Poelzig performs his black mass amidst a temple of jagged, irregular shapes, framed by two obelisks and a fan-like backdrop. His pulpit comprises a giant X-shaped complex made up of obliquely angled bars.

This altar closely resembles a “knife rest” or a cruciform barrier used by Great War soldiers in order to deter onslaughts of enemy men from attacking gaps in the trench lines. Many photographs of the WWI show such impromptu ramparts, constructed from a few planks and covered with barbed wire.

Look familiar? WWI barbed wire defenses, X-shaped “knife rests.”

The jutting, irregular trappings of Poelzig’s secret cult room also recall images of the various fences, boards, and charred trees that contributed to the blasted and disorienting appearance of no-man’s-land.

Ulmer carefully supervised the set design, so I think it’s safe to assume the resemblance isn’t gratuitous, especially in light of explicit allusions to the war throughout the film. In the context of the wicked ceremony, Ulmer uses the set to stress the evil of war itself. Blending bizarre intimations of Satanism with WWI iconography, the director underscores the destructive urges of mankind to sacrifice others in the pursuit of illusory and often ridiculous belief systems.

In war as in horror films, the bad guys tend to demand human sacrifices.

However, one scene in particular drives home the relationship between horror and war in a stunningly stylized way, so stunningly that I can hardly believe that more film historians haven’t noticed the formal innovation.

After panicking at the sight of a black cat, Werdegast fails to kill Poelzig. The wife-killing traitor, however, doesn’t retaliate, but rather begins to calmly examine their situation, from off-screen. His tone turns eerily sentimental. Meanwhile, the somber strains of Beethoven’s No. 7 Symphony on the soundtrack reinforce the import of his words.

During this disembodied, voice-over monologue, the camera first tilts upward to take in Werdegast, tense and emotionally broken, before panning and tracking to a door handle which Poelzig opens. The shot roves, continuously save for a few ethereal dissolves, through the military, through the oppressive corridors of the former fort, capturing striking diagonal light-dark contrasts and disquietingly angled beams, and then up a spiral staircase. The series of dissolves really feels like a long take and it probably wanted to be, had the time, budget, and technology made it possible.

…and we return to the two “living dead” men as though we’d been walking with them.

Interestingly, the series of shots follow the path that the audience would expect Werdegast and Poelzig to walk as they return to the less disturbing upstairs of Poelzig’s house. But they’re not in the tracking shots. It’s almost as though they dissolved or disappeared into thin air.

The camera movement in fact substitutes for the movements of the main characters, who, at the end of the sequence, are revealed entering Poelzig’s study. The floating, slow camera movements strike the viewer as following shots, but with the initiators of motion surreally removed, in a strange instance of visual metonymy.

This unorthodox stylistic choice highlights a turning point in the self-awareness of the horror genre, as Poelzig assimilates the survivors and the corpses of World War I. The traitor asks Werdegast,

“Did we not both die here in Marmorus 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?” 

Here, he equates the real physical horrors of war and the trauma of veterans with the symbolism of the nightmare picture. In the context of the film, the speech makes the connection between the real broken and battered men who returned from the conflict and their screen alter-egos, the monsters and mutilated characters of the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, the pointed absence of Poelzig and Werdegast from the simultaneous tracking shots affirms the truth of these words. The characters disappear from the shots because their trauma has hollowed them out, reduced them to ghouls. Poelzig and Werdegast’s participation in the Battle of Marmorus has turned both into spiteful, inhuman phantoms, “the living dead.”

Battlefield wreckage? No, Fort Marmorus. It explodes at the end of The Black Cat, with the two veterans inside, like an exorcism of WWI demons.

Film historian David Skal asserts that a French work, Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, released in 1919 and then remade by the director in 1938, was the first film to “face up” to the horror influence of the First World War. He has a point. However, Gance’s two versions were highly lauded anti-war dramas with noted horrific sequences, what would later be called “art films.”

But The Black Cat was a popular horror film, part of a genre not given enough credit then or maybe even now for its meaning-creating potential, that boldly unmasked World War I as the unconscious aesthetic and mythological focus of movie horror. Ulmer’s film alludes to the lineage of the genre, not just the evils of the war itself. Given the surprise popularity of The Black Cat, and of the horror genre during the Depression, perhaps such films allowed audiences to cope with the Great War in retrospect and to grieve subconsciously for those sacrificed to no-man’s-land, the victims of modernity, as well as for the walking wounded.

(This is adapted from a college paper which I wrote about Universal’s horror cycle. Although the thesis contained herein is my own, I did, of course, research the context and the making of the film and benefit from the analyses of others, including David J. Skal and to the documentary Universal Horror, which began to suggest the link between horror and WWI. I will provide my bibliography on request, so please leave a comment if you would like to know more about my resources. Likewise, please do not use my ideas or images without first asking me!)