Glamour and Grit: Gina Lollobrigida Reflects on Fame, Art, and Hard Work at TCMFF

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Turner.

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Turner.

Gina Lollobrigida is serious about being taken seriously. She refuses to downplay her accomplishments as an actress (in 3 languages), a photojournalist, and a sculptor.

In a world that continues to underrate and undervalue the creativity of women, a world that respects a woman’s competence more if she renounces her femininity, Lollobrigida’s unapologetic self-worth shines.

On the red carpet at the TCM Classic Film Festival, I got to ask many special guests about their most moving experiences in the industry. I heard stories about tearjerking melodramas, poignant comedies, and controversial dramas.

But Lollobrigida gave me the most inspiring reply of the evening.

Resplendent in a gold-trimmed hot pink gown, she leaned in to share an emotional memory—not a sad story, but a personal triumph. Cast in the fin-de-siècle farce Hotel Paradiso (1966), Lollobrigida worried about measuring up to her prestigious costar.

“I was afraid, because Alec Guinness was a great actor,” she recalled. “So I was very much prepared—and when we had a reading just before the shooting, everybody had a script. I knew it by heart! Alec Guinness and the director couldn’t believe it.”

She grinned, glowing with the pride of a true pro. “I impressed them!”

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I’ve been turning that story over and over again in my mind. Terrified of being underestimated, Lollobrigida outpaced her colleagues. It’s a story of insecurity used as rocket fuel, a story of exceeded expectations. A story that I think most women on Planet Earth can relate to.

Classical cinema invites us to contemplate (and consume) movie stars, especially actresses, as fully-formed demigods, removed from the tribulations of mere mortals. Even “candid” shots churned out by the studio publicity departments reinforce impossible ideals of natural elegance, poise, and domesticity. Hollywood’s magic largely depended on the erasure of real blood, sweat, and tears. You have to train yourself to appreciate the ambition and craft that stars brought to their careers and performances, the effort required to appear effortless.

The TCM Classic Film Festival gives living legends a chance to take their bows as resilient human beings who sustained all those glorious illusions. Lollobrigida, more than any other old Hollywood icon I’ve seen in person, made me aware of the sheer hard work involved in movie acting and star maintenance. At 87, she is both a survivor and a siren. She deserves recognition not only for her glamour, but also for her grit.

Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner).

Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner.

At Club TCM, Lollobrigida sat down for an hour-long conversation with Leonard Maltin and expressed some gutsy feminist beliefs. La Lollo explained that a woman must work doubly hard to earn respect and make progress: “You know, the steps for a woman to go ahead, it’s so difficult. As if a man has two brains and us one brain. I mean, it’s ridiculous. We are equal!”

She had to fight the idea that beauty and talent are somehow mutually exclusive. “I started as a beautiful woman and then suddenly I was a photographer. It was so difficult [for others in the industry] to say, ‘She’s not bad, you know?’ The third time, the third success, sculpture, that was too much.”

From childhood Lollobrigida showed artistic promise. And that’s why she didn’t consider a career in movies until much later. When approached to be an extra in a film, she initially rejected the offer: “I thought that cinema was not art at all, so I said, ‘I’m not interested.’” However, when she learned that the job paid 1,000 lire a day, she couldn’t refuse the chance to support her family in post-WWII Italy.

On the set, Lollobrigida attracted attention—too much, in fact. “When I started as an extra, it was not easy because then I made a double for the star,” she said, “but under the lights I looked even better than the star. So she fired me!”

A kind makeup man gave her the chance to work as an assistant to the studio hairdresser. After taking third place in the 1947 Miss Italy pageant, Lollobrigida won leading roles. And in 1950 Hollywood came knocking, in the form of Howard Hughes.

His designs on her quickly became clear. “He made me come to Los Angeles. First there were two tickets—for me, for my husband—then one ticket. He changed his mind,” Lollobrigida wryly notes. “But my husband said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I trust you. Go ahead, because I don’t want you to be telling me tomorrow that I’ve forbidden you from being a star in the movies.’”

Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner.

Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner.

Lollobrigida recalled Hughes’s famous eccentricity. He wore mostly crude work clothes despite his fabulous wealth. His language wasn’t exactly refined either. “My English was not so good, so he helped me, especially with the bad words,” Lollobrigida said.

“I had to prepare myself to make an acting test, but I never did it because he wanted me… anyhow.” She stayed in Hollywood for 2 months before deciding to leave Hughes and return to Italy. What happened exactly? For now, Lollobrigida prefers to keep that a mystery. “He had a good time with me. The rest I will tell you later… in my bio,” she confided. (And, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this, Gina, please do write your memoirs!)

Back in Europe, Lollobrigida scored her first success in a French film, the comic swashbuckler Fan-Fan la Tulipe (1952). Although she always expected that she’d have to adopt a screen name, Fan-Fan made Lollobrigida famous under her birth name.

“When we were doing it, I didn’t have a name as an actress, and Gina Lollobrigida, my God, it’s very complicated,” she laughed. “So I said, ‘Put anything you want.’ But then it was too late, they’d already made the titles with Gina Lollobrigida.”

A catchy nickname cut out a few syllables for actress’s colleagues (and the press): “They called me, to make it quicker, Lollo. So even now when I answer on the phone, instead of saying, ‘Gina’ or ‘Gina Lollobrigida,’ I say ‘Lollo.’”

Her big break in English came in 1953 with the caper parody Beat the Devil, directed by John Huston and written by Truman Capote. But producer David O. Selznick had reservations about Lollobrigida at the last minute.

As she tells it, “I was very excited. The first day he was in Italy the producer called me and said, ‘Oh, Miss Lollobrigida, we don’t really need you. You can have all the money and not do the movie.’ I said, ‘I don’t care, Mr. Selznick. I will do the movie because I have a contract.’ So I stayed.”

Why did Selznick attempt to cut out a rising star? “He was afraid that I was too beautiful near Jennifer Jones.”

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Lollobrigida studied for months to act in her third language. “I called the University of London and said I’d like a teacher for my English, especially the accent, so I had more than I needed answer, they wanted to all come to my home and have a good time,” she chuckled. “So I chose a young girl, and she stayed with me for almost a year. When she went away, she could speak Italian perfectly.”

Though Lollobrigida didn’t feel entirely comfortable with her English dialogue, her sultry, exotic delivery set just the right note for her character—and prompted some sage advice from her costar. “Bogart said to me, ‘Don’t study English any more. If you lose this beautiful accent, it would be a pity.’”

Lollobrigida fondly remembered Bogart and their humorous onset rapport. “He was very friendly, but sometimes he was talking to me like that [loudly, moving her arms], and I thought he was angry. I didn’t understand that it was a joke. So, finally when I understood that it was a joke, I did the same joke to him in Italian.”

(And here the Club TCM audience burst into raucous laughter imagining Lollobrigida scaring the bejeezus out of Bogie with torrents of aggressive Italian.)

The Bogie that Lollobrigida knew, a man very much in love and accompanied by Lauren Bacall, contrasted with his brooding onscreen persona. “He was completely different from the character that you see in the movies. In all of the films he was very serious, very tough. But you could see him in the morning coming down the steps singing happily.”

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The young actress relished John Huston’s laid-back direction. “He respected the actors and he had a system to leave the actors to do and say even something that wasn’t in the script. He wanted the actors to feel free.”

She also sparked a friendship with Truman Capote which would last until his death. “We were very close. When he came to Italy, I thought that he looked like a young boy. And when I saw him just before he died he looked like an old man.”

In the mid-1950s, Lollobrigida proved her fearlessness as a performer in two surprising ways: by singing opera and flying on a trapeze!

Starring in Beautiful But Dangerous (1955), a biopic of opera star Lina Cavalieri, Lollobrigida panicked when the producer suggested that she sing in the film.

Though she had a trained voice, the actress didn’t know if she could do justice to Cavalieri’s legend. The producer encouraged Lollobrigida to try… and assembled a 50-piece orchestra for the occasion. Trembling, she sang “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, accompanied by the skeptical group of musicians. “I did the first take and was very good. The orchestra started to applaud. So it was a miracle.”

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To Lollobrigida’s dismay, American reviewers assumed that she’d been dubbed. “The film came to New York. Bosley Crowther said, ‘What a beautiful voice. It’s a pity it’s not her.’ That was my voice!” She exclaimed. Even those close to La Lollo could hardly believe it. “My friend Maria Callas said, ‘It’s you?’”

So, let’s set the record straight, once and for all. Lollo does her own signing. Watch and be wowed.

Hollywood beckoned, but the ghost of mansplainers past rose to sabotage Lollobrigida. “I couldn’t come because, with that contract with Howard Hughes, he was making war against me. He was saying to all of the studios that they couldn’t use me, because I was property of him, like an object.” The subtle bitterness of her words betrayed how frustrating it must have been for Lollobrigida. That memory, the indignity of being Hughes’s virtual possession, still stings, 60 years later.

Undaunted, La Lollo bided her time and gained momentum on the Continent, in spite of Hughes. “He was not strong in Europe as he was in the United States.”

Lollobrigida signed up for Trapeze (1956) because, “they offered me so much money I had to say yes!” She would more than earn her keep over weeks of extensive training and a challenging shoot.

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“They sent to me a trapeze, to my villa in Rome, and for 6 months I rehearsed. I realized that, my God, if you try to fly, you must have muscles! I mean, it’s dangerous even to fall on the net,” she recalled with a shudder. “If you fall straight, you can break your ankle.”

The actress jumped into the daredevil demands of her role from her first day on the set. “They were trying the triple summersault, so the trapeze wasn’t at the same level as everyday, but higher! So they said, “Come up!” I went up. The professional people, they go up 15 days before they fly…. But the second day, I lost my voice. I couldn’t talk anymore. But I did it!”

Lollobrigida gladly took risks over the course of the production: “I wanted to do everything!” But sometimes it wasn’t a matter of choice. “I had two doubles, but the one that looked like me broke her nose. So I had to be the double for the double of me! And I was glad.”

She praised Trapeze’s director Carol Reed, particularly his flair for widescreen composition. “The Cinemascope was new at the time, to have the screen very, very long. He was telling one story on one side and another story on the other side.”

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Burt Lancaster, the film’s major star, was also the producer, which led to some behind-the-scenes tensions. “He started to direct the actors. I was nervous because I respected Carol Reed as a director. It was not fair to replace Carol Reed. So I was waiting my turn for him to direct me, but I stopped him. I said, ‘Mr. Lancaster, I came here to be directed by Carol Reed.’ He was embarrassed, but then he realized that he was wrong. And so we became friends again.”

The actress’s feistiness and her lack of tolerance for other stars’ entitlement flared up again when she worked with Sinatra on Never So Few (1959). From the first, his stipulations slowed down the shooting schedule.

“He wanted to be free in the evening, probably to have a good time. And he wanted to start at twelve o’clock. I said, ‘I can start at nine o’clock so we can save some money.’ And they said, ‘No. Miss Lollobrigida, you are already a star and you will be treated like a star.’”

She grudgingly accepted the star treatment à la Sinatra. “But one time he was one or two hours late. So I made a joke to him, but he didn’t understand. I said, ‘Next time that you want to come late, call me at six o’clock in the morning, so I can go to sleep again.’” The crack hit home a little too hard for Sinatra, who acted wounded for days.

solomon_and_shebaIn the late 1950s, Lollobrigida had to cope with more emotionally-draining experiences than the occasional sulky costar, however. When Leonard Maltin asked about Solomon and Sheba (1959), Lollobrigida recounted the ordeal of shooting the ill-starred Biblical epic.

She enjoyed a close friendship with Tyrone Power, who may have sensed the end was near for him. “I remember one night, it was two o’clock, he called me, and I said, ‘My God, what’s happening?’ He said, ‘I can’t sleep. I must tell you what a pleasure it is to work with you.’”

On the fatal day, Power had some philosophical words for her. “He had to do a duel with George Sanders. He probably had a heart attack, and he stopped.” The actor came and sat in the trailer with Lollobrigida who was nervously studying her lines. “I was afraid that something would go wrong. And he said, ‘Don’t worry. Life goes on anyhow.’ Then he said, ‘I don’t feel really very well.’”

After almost an hour of boisterous storytelling, Lollobrigida’s voice grew quiet as she relived that horrible day on location.

“I did not know what to do, so I gave him my shawl, so he would be warm. And the car was not there. So I said, ‘Take my car. Go to the hospital.’ And they take him to the car, and he died there.

“The poor makeup man had to take his paint off, and he was young. He died and suddenly he looked much younger.”

Shocked by Power’s death and exhausted by months of filming on location, Vidor had to reshoot most of the film, his last feature. According to Lollobrigida, Vidor was a shadow of his former self. “At any age you can be old. He was, my God, a fantastic director. But by that movie he was dead already.”

So the leading actors stepped in to finish the big-budget movie: “We directed the film. Me if I was alone, me and Yul Brynner if we were together. I mean, these are things that you don’t say, but that’s what happened.”

Perhaps you’re noticing a pattern here? No trapeze is too high, no male ego too big, no obstacle too great, no tragedy too heartbreaking to stop Gina Lollobrigida.

Though the censors tried.

The moralizing blue-pencil brigade of Production Code-era Hollywood took issue with La Lollo’s curvaceous figure. Looking back, the actress can hardly believe the tame material that censors scissored. “The films that I made were very noble,” she insists. “You could see them in church! But the censor was ridiculous.”

gina_lollobrigida_myphoto2Lollobrigida’s décolletage raised such objections that her family tried to intervene. “Even my mother said, ‘Gina, please, be careful! Not so low.’ Now they’re naked on the street!”

Censor meddling clearly made Lollobrigida’s blood boil, no doubt because she took great pains to preserve the integrity of her performances. Lollobrigida did all her own foreign-language dubbing, a fairly rare accomplishment at the time. “If I was doing it in Italian, I dubbed it in French and English. If I was doing it in English, I dubbed in French and Italian,” she says. “I wanted to protect what I did.”

She applied herself to foreign-language dialogue until it became second nature. As she explained, “you have to know the words like, ‘Ave Maria, piena di grazia…’” In other words, like a prayer.

Lollobrigida acknowledged the screenwriters who gave her a hand in shaping her characters’ dialogue. “They tried to use my suggestions even if I had to change something for the character. I didn’t want more words or less words. I wanted the character to be right. Because instead of acting, I was being as close as possible to the character I was playing. That’s why I was lucky to have all important women characters—all different.”

Indeed, from the doomed queen of an ancient empire to a canny single mother and entrepreneur, Lollobrigida’s roles run the gamut from grim to hilarious. “It’s easier to do drama than comedy,” she confessed. Which makes her breezy comedic timing in films like Hotel Paradiso and Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell all the more impressive.

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By the late 1960s, Lollobrigida decided to move on to the next phase of her career: photography. “When there was not so many scripts as good as before, I thought, ‘It’s better that I do photography or sculpture,’ which was my real love. And I thought that by going away and doing something different I wouldn’t be in the eyes of the public any more, but I was surprised, because anytime I was in public, the actress was in front all of the time.”

Lollobrigida wished that she had taken up professional photography sooner and captured portraits of her contemporaries, especially Marilyn Monroe. “We were very friendly when I was living in Los Angeles…. She deserved the success she had. It’s a pity that she became so famous after.”

After touring her beloved home country in disguise, Lollobrigida released her first book of images, Italia Mia, and won the Nadar International Prize. Traveling to Cuba, Lollobrigida secured an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro. In India, she forged a friendship with Indira Gandhi and photographed her. She shot portraits of Salvador Dali, Paul Newman, and Audrey Hepburn, among others. “I really grew up with photography,” she remembers, “going all over the world with my camera.”

gina_lollobrigida_myphotoShe also proudly pointed out that she had anticipated Photoshop and digital image enhancement by manually adding color to her photographs.

Nevertheless, Lollobrigida admits that she doesn’t care much for modern art or movies.

“In the cinema technically, it’s unbelievable the progress that they’ve made. But I prefer that the story is the important thing,” she explains. “I want to be moved. If there is no emotion, it’s not art for me.”

Once the thunderous applause from the Club TCM audience settled down, Leonard Maltin cheerfully told the star that she was preaching to a choir of diehard classics fans.

She smiled. “So I didn’t say something new, but I have the guts to say it.”

But does the multitalented Lollobrigida regret all her hard work in the realm of cinema—something that she didn’t even consider a proper art form back in 1946? It would seem not.

“I gave the best years of my life to the movies,” she remarked, unprompted, in the middle of the interview, “and I met incredible, talented people, so I’m glad.”

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Criterion Dreaming: 5 Movies That Made Me a Cinephile

51y6xRUTHbLLife grants us a limited number of “mothership” moments: raptures of sudden belonging, occasions when our weirdness transforms into an asset, when something beloved and elusive enfolds us.

The Criterion Collection has played a more-than-supporting role in quite a few mothership moments that I’ve had over the course of 25 years.

You might say that Criterion has been the Ward Bond in my love affair with cinema. Or maybe the Edward Everett Horton. Not the object of my affection, but an oft-present catalyst, a cherished pal, a wry observer, an intermediary, a bringer of joy and plot developments.

I see a clear trajectory in my attachment to Criterion films. Through 5 DVD experiences, I evolved from that odd teenage girl who liked to watch old Hollywood movies into a far-gone cinephile—somebody who devours information about film and always hungers for more.

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Even when I set aside personal favorites and epiphanies, Criterion served as my introduction to almost every essential art film that I’ve seen—though I have plenty of shameful blind spots—whether through a DVD I owned, a library loan, a title I streamed, or a college screening I attended. When I go over the highlights of that list, it sounds like an art-house litany: M, La règle du jeu, The Seventh Seal, L’Avventura, Hiroshima mon amour, À bout de souffle… and so on.

I can only write about and understand film by looking through the lens of who I am, but the movies I watched during my formative years as a cinephile refined and focused that lens. And many, nay, most of the movies that taught me how to look at movies came with Criterion spine numbers.

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As a millennial, I belong to arguably the first generation that discovered film through home video and video on demand, not through television like my parents did. I was spared the effort of scouring the most recent issue of the TV Guide and staying awake until 2:00 a.m. to catch that Bela Lugosi movie. I just added it to the Amazon cart, and, mother permitting, in approximately 2 weeks (Remember the sorrows of a pre-Prime world?) the DVD was mine forever, mine to watch on my own terms.

My digital-bred cinephile memories center on curation and control rather than scheduling and scarcity. I chose and acquired movies to suit my tastes (and later to fill out my education), based on a matrix of factors, including my interests, budget constraints, and availability.

As a result, my relationship with film is wedded to brands. I can vividly picture the portrait-style box art of my Universal Monsters VHS cassettes. I recall running my finger along the spines of the DVD stacks in my college library, plucking out the Warner Archive blues.

(If that seems like an excessively commercial relationship with an art form, let’s remember that classic movie audiences would’ve known a given film’s studio but probably not its director. And what are most film texts if not products designed to deliver a certain effect?)

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Explicitly defining itself as a collection, Criterion embraced the sensibility of home video as curation. With their sophisticated flair, sleek logo, and eye-catching art, Criterion boxes and discs weren’t mere carriers of digital transfers but objects of aesthetic contemplation.

In the early days of my DVD collection, Criterions were coveted, luxurious, ceremonial possessions. Many offered hours of additional entertainment through essay booklets, commentary tracks, interviews, and documentaries new and old. And their price enhanced their allure. I could’ve bought 2 or 3 less lofty DVDs for the price of a single Criterion release, so I owned a treasured few.

Let me tell you about how it started.

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July 2004: There Were Warning Signs

If you ever want to relive your past, I refer you to an extraordinary archive called Amazon.com. Filter back to, say, 5 years ago, and the most cursory glance over your purchase history (oh, it’s still there) yields a personal narrative recorded through consumption, an auto-anthropology of needs and desires.

When I rewind to 2004 in “Your Orders” (well, my mother’s), I can confirm that my first Criterion Collection DVD was a 2-disc set of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955). The act of verification was strangely touching but unnecessary. I remember my infatuation with the item.

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The gold cover design featured a haughty man in black armor on horseback—a spiky, warlike image that wouldn’t be out of place on the front of a heavy metal album. With its separate disc of supplements, this DVD set differed from any I’d previously encountered.

I took the set, a talisman of my major-league crush on Sir Larry, wherever I went. My mother still shakes her head over how I opted to stay in our hotel room during a family vacation and rewatch Richard III with commentary instead of sunbathing on the rooftop deck. (In my defense, I totally rock the consumptive pallor look.)

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A 13-year-old girl who repeatedly watches a 158-minute Shakespeare movie from the 1950s is unusual enough. But one who repeatedly listens to the commentary track? It’s a wonder my parents didn’t send me to a counselor.

What bound me to Criterion #215? My rising fascination with Shakespeare prompted the purchase, since Richard III was the first Bard play I’d read on my own time, not for school, but that can’t fully explain the fixation. No, the “high-definition transfer… with restored image and sound” captured my imagination.

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The pristine image quality let Olivier’s characterization charm me through the screen, as he’d intended: “Richard would be flirting with the camera—sometimes only inches from his eyes—and would lay his head on the camera’s bosom if he could.” The wicked, fourth-wall-breaking intimacy of his performance indeed felt like a courtship, entangling me into complicity with the antihero’s crimes.

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The film’s fairytale palette, with its saturated heraldic primary blues, golds, and reds, its pastel walls and Medieval gowns, its nightmarish cobalt and violet shadows, also initiated me to the extravagant glories of Technicolor. Much of of Richard III resembles a live-action Disney fantasy somehow hijacked by a beguiling, misshapen psychopath.

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Then there was the commentary track by Russell Lees and John Wilders. With their close analysis of acting styles, cinematography, set design, and more, they gave me a guided tour of the film and taught me how to read the screen. Behind the pleasures of plot and character, the pleasures of dismantling and interpreting movies beckoned to me with boundless possibilities.

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It was during this phase of my budding obsession that, on a stroll down our country road, my mother and I had a discussion about my future, a conversation that strikes me as particularly ironic in retrospect. (For some context, I was one of those straight-A, type-A kids preoccupied by the complex calculus of prestigious college acceptances from a tender age. Parental pressure didn’t exist in my home, so I have to take responsibility as a self-created monster.)

“You spend so much time watching movies and reading books about movies. Maybe you should study film,” My mom suggested.

I was scandalized. “Are you crazy? I would never do that. I don’t want to be a starving artist. I don’t want to make movies. I want to be a professor or something. And what’s the point of studying movies? I just like to watch them, okay?”

“Okay.” She shrugged.

We kept marching down the dirt road. I proceeded to talk her ear off about the obscure British movie from 1946 that I’d just watched in 12 installments of 5 minutes on her work computer.

(Damn those parsimonious YouTube length constraints of the early aughts. And damn mothers. They’re always right.)

August 2007: Tears for a Villain

I get nervous when stringing together words about Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). I’m not worthy. Someday when I’m a better writer, I’ll have the courage and skill to praise it adequately. For now I’ll content myself with saying it’s the first truly great movie that made me weep.

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Charles Foster Kane doesn’t make me misty, but Harry Lime gets to me. That I should shed tears for an exquisite scoundrel alarms me. Do I cry because I admire his will to survive and thrive? Because his cavalier defense of amorality sets him apart from the petty, rationalizing evils that appear to us in cloaks of humility and piety? Because in the dank Vienna sewers he displays the remnants of his decency with a weary nod, giving his best friend permission to execute him?

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All of the above, I suspect. Plus the glittering, slick streets that wink at you throughout the film. And the piquant zither score that mocks a shattered world.

My out-of-print Criterion set bears obvious marks of affection: white flecks of wear around the box edges and light scratches on the discs. I acquired it during a summer-long Orson Welles binge, around the time when my love of movies hit critical mass. Today, this shot of Harry in the sewers, featured on the Criterion disc fold, remains my desktop wallpaper, the center of my digital existence.

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February 2009: At the Gate

The start of my second semester of college was the nadir of my life so far. A health crisis had caged our family in a gray-walled hospital for a week. My mother was ill and emaciated from something that nobody can cure, and I hated the universe. Dorm life had driven me almost to the point of a clinical breakdown. No rest. No one to confide in. Nothing but work on a diet of anxiety and bagged black tea and cafeteria pizza.

That was the semester when I took my first film class: Japanese Film, to satisfy a requirement. My life turned around from there. Never underestimate the power of Akira Kurosawa.

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I arrived at the first course screening about 15 minutes early on a blustery Vermont night. The professor, a lady of seraphic calm and erudition, was setting up. On the screen, over the flickery image of a crumbling Asian temple or gate, I saw the familiar Criterion logo and menu. A good omen.

“Oh, I love the Criterion Collection,” I gushed, unaware that the series had a loyal following.

“Yes, don’t you just want to collect them all?” My new teacher kindly replied.

The lights dimmed, and Rashomon hit me with the same force that it must’ve unleashed on unsuspecting Western audiences in 1950. I had no background in Japanese cinema, no expectations. I didn’t need any. I could’ve watched it without subtitles and it still would’ve floored me. Kurosawa’s dark, sensual, epistemological dance of sun and shadow took my mind in so many directions that I could hardly think straight when it was over.

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Staggering out of the screening, I called my mom (you’ll notice a motif here) to talk through all the emotions. “Ohmygod, I just saw the most amazing movie. It was about, well, this rape. But not really. It didn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d like, but it was so beautiful. I mean, it has to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen…”

That night I discovered what I’d been missing by concentrating on movies from my own culture. Thank you, Kurosawa, for slashing through my ignorance with your katana-sharp vision.

April 2010: Getting Out of the Boat

Black Narcissus? I blush to admit I had never heard of it when I saw the DVD in a jumbled pile at a church rummage sale. But it was a Criterion DVD, and I knew it was well worth the $2.00 asking price.

I sometimes muse about the person who gave this sublime film up. Could they have been blind to its lurid Jack Cardiff hues? Was it a stray possession left at a significant other’s house after a breakup? Did the owner die and donate all earthly goods and chattels to the church? I grasp for a plausible explanation.

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Now, I could go on about how Black Narcissus messed with my head, but I already did so a few years ago on this blog:

“I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating…. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

“The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. ‘Holy ****!’ I exclaimed to myself. ‘Sister Ruth got out the boat!’”

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December 2011: I Shouldn’t Have Come

My screenwriting professor stood a lanky 6’3”, fluently dropped F-bombs in front of students, and ate the occasional Charleston Chew for breakfast in class. I called him “dude.” He called me “dude.” I wonder if he realized that he was the closest thing I had to a friend at college.

My film professors were the coolest gang of people I’d ever met: an imposing white-haired authority on Antonioni, a transmedia expert who wore hand-knit Etsy shawls and taught me how to tweet, a former ballet dancer who sparked my fascination with the Production Code, my miraculously level-headed and brilliant thesis advisor, and my badass screenwriting teacher.

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I haunted their office hours for no other reason than to pick their brains about my favorite films and theirs. When I got the chance to do some light filing and video editing for the department as a campus job, I got to hang around even more. I think they were all amused, but a respectful kind of amused. They too were cinephiles, after all.

One day I was going about my usual stapling of documents and updating of spreadsheets, when the dude slouched in to make some copies. We got chatting (I forget about what), and he was about to leave when he issued an invitation.

“Hey, I’m showing a movie tonight for the Screenwriting 1 class that you might like, Trouble in Paradise…”

That I might like? “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”

He smiled. “It’s screening in Twilight at 8:30 if you want to come.”

Oh, I wanted to, alright. But a nasty, heavily-weighted assignment, due the following morning, on Mercier’s Le Nouveau Paris reared its ugly head.

“Aw, man. I can’t make that. French paper.”

“That’s cool. If you change your mind we’ll be in Twilight auditorium.”

I returned to my spreadsheet, cursing my smug 18th century lit professor, Mercier, and the whole damn French Revolution.

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Around 8:20, my brain cooking over the syntactical implications of Mercier’s prose, I grabbed my coat and split from the whole f’ing program. Destination: Paris, Paramount.

As I dashed to the screening, airy flakes of snow fluttered down, heavenly in the beams of the streetlights. I tilted my face upward, stunned by the ethereal scene—and a big, wet wad of snow hit me in the eye. So much for ethereal. Shivering, I rushed into the screening hall with a false shiner of dissolving mascara and ice water.

Ernst Lubitsch once said, “At least twice a day the most dignified human being is ridiculous.” You know, I think he had a point.

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Apart from my appropriately droll eye makeup mishap, Trouble in Paradise (in its dreamy Criterion transfer) reminded me that life is worth living. The unironic laughter of students my age restored my faith in timeless wit—and even boosted my faith in my generation.

Early in the film Miriam Hopkins frets, “I shouldn’t have come!” when she shows up at Gaston’s room. But Destiny already set out the champagne for her. She knows full well that she wanted to come desperately, that nothing could keep her away. I could relate.

When I ditched my paper for about 2 hours, I shed the qualities that I mistook for my identity: borderline-masochistic discipline, dependability, competitiveness. In fact, what drew me to Lubitsch—joie de vivre, the love of beauty, and the gift of finding humor in one’s own absurdity—revealed much more about who I was.

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Friends, I make no claims on wisdom, but I will advise this: pay attention to the things you do “out of character,” for they will tell you the truth about your nature. Patterns sustain themselves. Anomalies happen for a reason.

After graduation I’d abandon my type-A, straight-A compulsions. I’d turn my back on the rush of academic pressure and achievement. I’d find a job that gave me freedom and paid my bills. I’d devote all of my remaining time to a vocation that didn’t pay me a thing but made me happy. Cinema gave me the strength to reinvent myself. That’s where the story ends for now.

A Conclusion in the Best Exculpatory Tradition

I feel that I should deliver a warning to the young and impressionable. Never trust cinema. Don’t look directly at the frame when confronted with a masterpiece. Abhor the company of auteurs and their works. You will ruin yourself for all other passions. You might throw away some respectable hobby—or, heaven forfend, some respectable career—for a deviant pursuit, a pernicious philia.

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Cinema is the slyest of gentleman thieves. Just as Gaston Monescu would snatch the garters off your thighs, cinema will steal the heart out of your chest. It will make blocks of 70, 90, 158 minutes disappear. It will evaporate the comforting boundaries of your world. It will empty your bank account whilst cluttering your shelves.

That’s what cinema did to me. And you know something? I don’t regret it. Not one spine number, not one cent, not one second spent dreaming my Criterion dreams.

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This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to read all the delightful entries!

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My Photochemical Romance: The Nitrate Picture Show 2015

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“Love is a time machine up on the silver screen.”
—Noel Gallagher, “The Shock of the Lightning”

All the important things in life come down to questions of chemistry. 

What is love, in the end, but a felicitous cocktail of neurotransmitters? And what is classic cinema if not molecules rearranged by the kiss of light from bygone days—and conveyed on a strip of nitrocellulose, a substance so unstable and volatile that it can burn underwater? 

Our perceptions, no matter how lofty or spiritual, arise from chemical reactions, from formulae. The ethereal depends upon, and cannot be separated from, the material. There can be no mind without matter. Some people might recoil from that idea. Call it vulgar materialism if you’d like. Go right ahead. I call it transcendence. 

Last weekend, the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show stitched together dreams and reality, art and chemistry to produce a transcendent experience. Returned to the land of the living from their climate-controlled vaults, glorious 35mm nitrate prints, all struck between 1937 and 1949, conjured up the sights and sounds of classic films as audiences saw and heard them all those years ago.

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Unlike the dupes and digitizations of dupes that constitute just about everybody’s introduction to old movies, the cinema that blazed forth from the screen of the Dryden Theater returned to us in a startlingly undiluted form.

As my personal hero Kevin Brownlow pointed out, in studio-era Hollywood, “all those big cameramen had somebody in the lab who could do what they wanted… It’s very difficult for labs [today] to produce, even digitally, the effect of those original prints.” 

In other words, a nitrate original transmits the cinematographer’s vision—his actual intent—in a way that even an exquisite 35mm dupe or a pristine 8k restoration usually cannot replicate. Only a few venues in the world can project those visions caught on celluloid, and the Dryden Theater is one of them.

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“You’re going to have a unique experience,” Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman House, told the intimate group of spectators. “You’re going to see very famous, iconic films in a way that most people in the world have never seen. And we hope that you will notice a difference, because there is a difference.”

Let me testify: yes, there is.

Imagine only ever seeing the sky filtered through sunglasses—then suddenly taking them off.

Movies I thought I knew, movies I’d seen dozens of times, appeared to me reborn, with fresh joys and terrors. And movies I’d never seen rushed at me with a force for which I was entirely unprepared. Nitrate is a fierce catalyst. Why, it can even turn back time. It can even raise the dead.

Nitrate Moments

They don’t make words vast enough to evoke nitrate black. There’s something eternal about it.

In Casablanca, Rick’s black bow-tie, gaping against the white of his crisp tropical tux, resembles a butterfly-shaped hole in his chest, a lyrical little void elegizing the man he once was, before his insides got kicked out. Similarly, as Ugarte begs him for help, a lattice of shadows crisscrosses the immaculate back of his dinner jacket—a detail that never caught my attention before—as though a net were holding him in the same trap as the sniveling parasite. 

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The surreal depth of nitrate noir chose some worthy objects of affection (worthy because I fancy them, too, that is). Pierre Fresnay’s sleek obsidian hair in The Man Who Knew Too Much crowns the secret agent with a dark halo as he wilts and gracefully expires on a dance floor, felled by a single bullet. In The Fallen Idol, Ralph Richardson’s onyx eyes glint with catch-light, sparkling like dying stars.

Movies invite viewers to collect moments and take souvenirs: an expression here, a movement there, a precious shot to hold on to like a rose pressed between book pages. The clarity of nitrate strengthened this mechanism of memory, searing certain images, certain touches of photogénie into my brain. The daisy in Rick’s buttonhole on that last day in Paris in Casablanca, the single man-tear of Wally’s that falls on Hazel’s hand in Nothing Sacred, or Ellen Berent’s cold teal eyes behind her tinted shades in Leave Her to Heaven. I’d never seen these things before, although they were there. Nitrate brought them out of hiding.

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Celluloid particularly seems to favor bodies of water, almost endowing them with personalities. The murky, acid-bath waves stretching for miles around a U-boat in Les Maudits churned and bubbled with malice. The dreamlike fishing spot that Sister Clodagh of Black Narcissus revisits in spirit blissfully glints—that’s Cardiff and the Archers reminding us, as they would do elsewhere, that heaven can be here on earth. 

The coppery sunset breakers, among which Norman Maine finds peace at last in A Star is Born, shimmered like the heat haze above a crucible. The crystalline surface of the lake at Back of the Moon in Leave Her to Heaven, a sunny witness to an unspeakable deed, sparkled like a sociopath’s smile.

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The Shock of the Lightning

At its best, cinema can fuse you into its fictions and unleash a torrent of emotions, so that you sit there in the dark and piously weep for strangers as you would for your own lost loves. Cinema can destroy you, as Portrait of Jennie destroyed me.

I cried three times, enough to erase my eyeliner and leave a permanent mark on my soul. Plenty of films have moved me to tears, but no movie has ever provoked the reaction Portrait did as I quietly sobbed in the third row of the Dryden Theater.

The silver nitrate hit me like Chartres blue, like Delacroix’s pigments, like the scent of apple blossoms in springtime. It affected me on a level beyond reason.

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As a matter of fact, in 1935, more than a decade before William Dieterle directed Jennie, he wrote, “What I have to say as a motion picture director, you can best read from the screen. There you find all that the subconscious force (the only real creator, in my opinion) has to tell.”

In the white-gloved hands of Herr Dieterle, fragile compounds formed into poetry. He tapped into that “subconscious force” as few others have. Dieterle inscribed a sense of melancholy and yearning into every shot of Jennie, whether she’s running out of the mist or skating towards the camera between silent sentinel skyscrapers or merely sitting curled up in Eben’s studio, her delicate features defined as a silhouette. 

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Even more impressive, during the film’s climactic tempest, the screen unfurled at both sides, widening into Magnascope. Toned an eerie shade of green, the silver-lined storm clouds suddenly swelled and expanded. The sky became a firmament. Images became incantations.

However, you have to open yourself up to a film before it opens up to you. The two young gentlemen (and I do use the term loosely) who sat a few seats down from me during Portrait of Jennie guffawed repeatedly. Sincerity spooks the insincere, I suppose, hence the nervous laughter. Like nonbelievers at a séance, they couldn’t feel the presence of the divine. They dammed themselves up against sentiment and, in so doing, perhaps damned themselves in another way. I pity them and were I the praying kind I’d pray for their enlightenment.

Many (most?) masterpieces flirt with silliness. Big ideas, artistic ambitions, and romantic gestures are all vaguely ridiculous. That absurdity is the price you pay for living in a world replete with marvels, not just snickering from the sidelines.

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David O. Selznick—no callow idealist by a long shot—prophetically gave himself over to sincerity and built a celluloid shrine to his future wife Jennifer Jones, keeping her forever young and enchanting as Jennie the struggling artist’s ghostly muse, forever vibrant and timeless as the Technicolor portrait that closes the film. The painter’s obsession parallels the producer’s adoration in a heady intermingling of art and life. 

Most of all, however, Portrait of Jennie is a ruminative, metaphysical valentine to cinema. Love and art alike can bestow immortality on mere mortals, but only film of all the arts sculpts time and space in their likeness. Only film preserves its beloved through what Bazin called “the mummification of change,” elevating certain chosen ones to surreal black-and-white demigods, photochemical archangels.

In the silvery shock of Jennie’s lightning, the triumphant power of the medium roars like thunder.

Time Without End

A book blocks the woman’s face.

Its title? Time Without End. Then she drops it, and the most beautiful creature in the world emerges from behind the drab book jacket. Her head droops onto her shoulder as the arid landscape continues to roll by outside the train compartment (which happens to be painted the exact same color as Gene Tierney’s eyes). 

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Like many apparently inconsequential details in Leave Her to Heaven, the book’s title subtly foreshadows the violent neurosis of the film’s protagonist. No boundaries, temporal or otherwise, exist for the morbidly jealous Ellen Berent. “I’ll never let you go, never, never, never,” she whispers from her deathbed. She wants to possess her beloved forever and fully expects to get whatever she wants.

However, as I sat in the Dryden, that title, Time Without End, took on another layer of significance. In a way, the nitrate had restored times past to those of us basking in its glow.

Reflecting on the festival, Dr. Cherchi Usai stressed the historical point of reference that nitrate brought to each screening. “I constantly had to remind myself: this is a nitrate print. This print has been screened many, many times since 1937, since 1945, and still is in such glorious shape.” 

So, when my eyes locked onto that screen, hungrily scrutinizing every frame of Leave Her to Heaven for the essence of nitrate, I saw what movie theater audiences saw in 1945—or as close as anyone will ever get to what they saw. I got to share the light, so to speak, that had washed over them.

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Every film viewing (or movie event, if I’m being pretentious) activates two levels of memory, one mechanical, one personal. First, even on a digital format, the “time machine” of cinema can transport us back to the era when a certain film was made. Second, each time I watch a movie, I watch with the memory of having watched it before; the effect is cumulative and subjective. The rhythm and flow of the film activates remembrance. It cannot be helped.

A vintage nitrate print, struck decades ago, endows the viewing experience with another stratum of time, a kind of phantom memory.

As I watch, I can say to myself, “I see now what they saw then.” That scratch, that hair, that grain. The original audiences must’ve seen it too. Some of them, at least. The print remembers.

Moreover, what they saw then harkened back to another then, both closer in relation to them (more recent) and just as faraway (fictional), a manipulated reality imprisoned on nitrate. Their then, what the film recorded, is years further from me than it was to them, yet it is paradoxically every bit as close: we are the same distance away from Gene Tierney, if you measure that distance by prints. 

All the thens stack up and overlap. Then is now, and now is then. The whole of time twists and coils upon itself, like a tangle of melting film stock.

Time without end indeed. 

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Flowers of Evil

On the final morning of the festival, Jared Case, head of motion picture collection information and access at the George Eastman House, remarked on an unintentional pattern in the programming. “There seems to be a theme throughout the weekend of twisted love,” he noted. “I don’t know what it says about us, hopefully nothing!” 

In particular, unhinged anti-heroines, from the eponymous temptress of Samson and Delilah to Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus to Mrs. Bains in The Fallen Idol, ruled the weekend. 

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The cataclysmic mix of rage and lust emanating from these she-devils hints at a quality inherent in the medium that conjured them. Danger and the thirst for danger. As Orson Welles once said, “Film has a personality, and that personality is self-destructive.”

On nitrate, cinema is a femme fatale. It is reality’s evil twin, beckoning to us with worldly beauty made otherworldly. It seduces us with lies and threatens to pull us into its self-destruction, its threatened immolation. It fools and taunts us with fragments of an exotic, unnatural past, a playlist of invented memories. It slays you. Gorgeously. 

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At the Nitrate Picture Show, Black Narcissus tormented me that way. I didn’t want it to end. Every cut, every dissolve filled me with despair. “Don’t take that shot away,” I wanted to cry out. “I wasn’t done looking at that!”

My mind tries in vain to recall the unholy intensity of the images, to summon the luminosity and saturation of the colors as I’d never seen them before. The giddy, vertiginous blues and greens of the cliff-sides. The countless shadings of Sister Clodagh’s habit. The enfolding darkness of the Christmas flashback. The baleful amber of Ruth’s jealousy. Her lipstick-daubed mouth, red as a raw nerve, confessing a lethal love.

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The Archers and Jack Cardiff managed to put Tantalus’s punishment on celluloid. Black Narcissus hurts even on DVD. On 35mm nitrate, it aches, it blisters, it writhes with light and shadow. It bleeds with hue.

The word “intoxicating” comes to mind, the root of course being “toxic.” Black Narcissus overwhelms me with a poisonous, venomous beauty. It allows the viewer to sympathize with the distraction of its characters, a distraction veering into madness. Who could bear such constant splendor? Who could endure a world so alive with pleasure and sensation and ephemeral joys and not lose her mind?

Dear reader, I came close.

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Coda: Diva Gone Nitrate

When I chose the name for this blog almost 3 years ago, I lighted upon “nitrate” because it held a faraway, almost mythic resonance for me. The very thought of the strange, combustible alchemy that once sustained motion pictures filled me with a sense of wonder.

Somehow it never occurred to me that I’d get to see a film projected from the storied substance. I didn’t think it was even done these days. 

I dreamt of nitrate. I wanted to fetishize and mystify it. In the end, however, the material truth, the photochemical reality turned out to be more mystical than anything I could have dreamed of.

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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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