Paranoiac (1963): Gothic Grisaille

poster63“The strong light which shows the mountains of a landscape in all their greatness, and with all their rugged sharpness, gives them nothing of the interest with which a more gloomy tint would invest their grandeur; dignifying, though it softens, and magnifying, while it obscures.”

—Ann Radcliffe, “On the Supernatural in Poetry”

You’ll rarely find the words “Hammer horror” and “good taste” in the same sentence. On the whole, the studio’s landmark chillers bequeathed such a lurid legacy of eye-popping color and eroticized violence to the film industry that there’s hardly a post-1960s horror film which doesn’t owe a debt to Hammer’s unabashed excess.

However, Paranoiac, directed by master cameraman Freddie Francis, is something of a black sheep in the Hammer family of spooks. The studio did go in for a touch of class every now and then, as with Taste of Fear, and Paranoiac holds up as one of its best psychological horrors. This sleek Hitchcokian thriller eschews Hammer’s signature bombast in favor of disquieting innuendo and the cool splendor of black-and-white widescreen cinematography. Though rather sedate in terms of what it shows, the film mostly leaves the horrors offscreen, preferring to let a number of unpleasant suggestions fester and multiply in our minds, where they can do the most damage.

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Eleven years ago, John and Mary Ashby died in a plane crash leaving three children: Eleanor, Simon, and Tony, the last of whom apparently committed suicide in despair shortly afterward. As siblings go, it’s hard to imagine two more different than Eleanor and Simon. Gentle, romantic Eleanor quietly teeters on the brink of sanity, still pining for her lost brother, whereas rakish reprobate Simon boozes it up, trying to figure out new ways to get at Eleanor’s inheritance. Because this is a Hammer film, there’s also a luscious French nurse living at the Ashby estate, supposedly caring for Eleanor. Sinister battleaxe Auntie Harriet serves as the watchdog of the dysfunctional clan’s reputation.

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Shortly before the Ashby heirs are about to come into their money, a mysterious man claiming to be Tony Ashby shows up and begins to suspect that someone’s driving Eleanor mad. Faced with a powerful rival, Simon has to act fast to obtain what he wants… and keep his skeletons in the closet.

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Loosely adapted from a novel by Josephine Tey and scripted by Jimmy Sangster, Paranoiac revives the tropes of Gothic literature for a new generation. Starting off with a rather conventional family melodrama scenario, the film progressively focuses on the ever-present undertones of incest, morbid mental states, and sadistic acts of cruelty that lurked between the lines in the novels of Walpole and Lewis.

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This film capitalizes on its lugubrious settings—craggy cliffs, a maze-like manor house, ancestral gardens—to place the audience in a receptive state of mind. As I watched, I kept thinking that Ann Radcliffe, the 18th to 19th century queen of the florid British Gothic style, would’ve approved of Paranoiac. In her dialogue essay “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” she praised the type of literature that “seem[s] to perceive a soul in every thing; and thus, in the secret workings of its own characters, and in the combination of its incidents, [keeps] the elements and the local scenery always in unison with them, heightening their effect.”

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Though it abandons the supernatural, Paranoiac does a fantastic job of extracting “the soul in every thing,” of wringing its mise-en-scene for every ounce of dread. Even trappings of the modern era, like Simon’s swank E-type Jag, bend to the Gothic agenda. The Jag becomes a harbinger of disaster after Simon crashes it in a flowerbed upon seeing his ostensibly dead brother for the first time in 11 years.

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Freddie Francis recycles a trick that he used as cinematographer for The Innocents, cultivating anxiety through the inclusion of frames within frames. The constricted or divided screen spaces contrast with the occasional sweeping outdoor landscape shots, reminding us of the unhealthy, benighted ambiance of the Ashby manor. Tony’s apparition loiters in a doorway or is seen by Eleanor as she looks through the bars of her window, a virtual prisoner to her family’s sordid connivances. As Tony and Eleanor peer into the manor’s spooky music room, we see their faces through a tiny clear spot in a window opaque with dust.

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As a literary style, the Gothic is particularly tethered to a sense of place. The architectural features that so often crowd the frame in Paranoiac translate that sensibility, adding tension to important “incidents… heightening their effect” to borrow Radcliffe’s words.

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On the other hand, Francis also exploits the full potential of widescreen to arrange engrossing compositions and dignified tableaux. Even in the most static scenes, he amps up the drama and tension by balancing the frame with several figures. The eye wants to travel, to take in all of the faces. For instance, I love how many possible points of interest there are in this shot from the scene where the Ashby family lawyer interrogates Tony, who’s apparently risen from the grave.

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Tony stands out as the centerpiece of the shot, but we also have the battered profiles of the lawyer and Aunt Harriet, plus angelic, hopeful Eleanor and diabolic, gargoyle-ish Simon in the background. This otherwise bland scene acquires the gravity of a medieval grisaille, as we watch a conflicted man facing an ordeal, allegorically surrounded by forces of good and evil.

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The film’s true standout, Oliver Reed slyly capers through the role of Simon, exuding a heady mixture of charm and menace. Before he destroyed his matinee idol face with years of bad behavior, Reed looked and sounded like a cross between young Orson Welles and young Laurence Olivier.

I can’t top Janine Sakol’s description of this glorious throwback in his prime: “Reed in the living, lusting flesh, actually makes the fiction Gothics seem pale by comparison. He smoulders, a mobile furnace with a low, fierce heat that threatens to explode at any moment.” He carries the movie on his loutish shoulders, transforming what could have been a campy, cardboard loony into a biting portrait of malevolence, a glimpse into the abyss of psychosis.

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During an appearance on Parkinson in 1973—back when Reed still did his interviews in a reasonable state of sobriety—he spoke fondly of his Hammer days, claiming that shortly before the making of Paranoiac, Peter Cushing gave him some key advice: “always the understatement.” During his Hammer tutelage, Reed also learned that he didn’t need to overdo it for the camera, since the lenses could accentuate even the smallest gesture. He would later say, instructing another actor how to do villainous parts, “the dangerous man has a great silence about him… Don’t blink… You never see a cobra blink, do you?”

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We witness some of that subtle, frozen intensity from our very first glimpse of Simon. The film opens with a church service, where Reverend Exposition recounts the tragedies lowered upon the house of Ashby. As he mentions Eleanor and Aunt Harriet, the camera lights on the solemn pair. However, when the name Simon comes up, we get a cut to sheet music in an organ booth in the church; a plume of smoke billows into the frame from somewhere offscreen. A graceful, sinewy hand reaches into the frame to turn the page of music, and the camera pans to reveal an unmoved Simon, taking a drag on his cigarette and smirking slightly.

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Irreverent, secretive, emotionally blunted, and clever: all of these character traits emerge in that single shot, thanks to Francis’s command of camera movement and Reed’s surprisingly inert performance.

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Simon’s presence often coincides with a disturbance or some sort of visual eruption. He callously crosses in front of the camera with a snifter of brandy and sardonic quip. Or lounges in the foreground of the frame, intently pulling apart a rose. Or forces the camera to whirl around, as he jabs pub darts towards the audience, threatening to blind a stranger. A poetic underwater shot best conveys his unbalanced psychological state, as he runs his fingers through the current and ripples warp his beautiful face into a grotesquely warped grin.

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I really don’t want to include any major spoilers in this post, because I found the film’s circuitous plot tremendously entertaining. Believe me, though, this elegant, aristocratic cousin from the house of Hammer has a few good scares up its tailored sleeves.

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This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. Go to www.classicfilmtvcafe.com to view the complete blogathon schedule.

Hammer Halloween Blogathon

Carnival of Souls (1962): Dead in the Water

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

I soon found out that it was no laughing matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blue Bird (1918): Sweet Mystery of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tough Love: The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Telefono Nero: Story of a Love Affair (1950)

123Call me a philistine, but I often prefer a director’s debut picture over their more mature work. I find something supremely beautiful in the faltering first enunciation of a vision, unwieldy in its boundless ambitions, that you can only detect in early efforts of great artists.

So, it should surprise no one that, when pressed to name my favorite among Michelango Antonioni’s cinematic children, I will completely bypass L’Avventura, his color-saturated 1960s canon, and even The Passenger in favor of his first feature film: Cronaca di un amore (English title: Story of a Love Affair). This narratively conventional, yet formally flamboyant thriller bears all of the hallmarks of an Antonioni film. Long takes, surreally out-of-context shots, and absorbing camera movements contribute to a grisly analysis of dying relationships and upper-class—oh, well, I might as well say it, everyone else has—ennui.

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I had the honor to take a seminar class on Antonioni, so I’ve seen almost all of his films on a big screen. I consider him one of the most innovative artists of the 20th century. And even I have to admit that his masterpieces can wear thin on you.

I was recently introduced to the idea of “beginner’s mind,” that magical state of creative openness that one inhabits when starting to wade into a new field of knowledge. This concept, as coined by the Zen master Suzuki, can be summarized by his adage: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Still couched in beginner’s mind, Antonioni unfolded a whole world of dark passions in a breathtakingly dark and distinct film.

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The alienation, the numbness of pleasure, the ugliness of wealth, the general squirmy discontent of post-war Italy writhe in each frame of Cronaca with a freshness that Antonioni never again achieved. By anchoring his penetrating gaze with the framework of a much-loved genre, film noir, the budding auteur delivers a movie that feels less forced and ponderous than his later art house classics. Antonioni delivers the pleasures of genre viewing while gleefully subverting them.

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Philip Marlowe? Sam Spade? No—it’s Signore Carloni, the detective!

The plot initially slaps you across the face with its echoes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice—which Visconti had already adapted/ripped off for Ossessione. A bored wife and her lover conspire to murder her wealthy, boorish husband. It’s the same old story… or is it?

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Cronaca begins with photographs, still images of an exquisite woman, being piled up on a desk as a private investigator comments on them (a movie opening that Chinatown would echo years later). A suspicious rich man has hired this private eye to look into the mysterious past of his wife, Paola. The detective does exactly that—and in so doing, he actually brings about what the rich husband had initially feared! Probing around, asking questions, the private eye unleashes a series of events that reunite Paola with her ex-lover Guido.

This bitter irony—the fact that the husband’s paranoia provokes the very situation that he wished to avoid—adds a touch of classical tragedy to the film. More importantly, the eerie self-fulfilling prophecy aspect of the tale motivates the abundance of inexorable camera movements that guide and control many a scene like the hand of fate and inscribes the motif of surveillance and guilt on the screen.

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The camera claustrophobically monitors Paola and Guido, these two lost souls, with a fixity that marries Neorealism to noirish romantic subjectivity. The ever-cagey Antonioni even confirmed that he was aiming for a deeply introspective gaze, a kind of interiorization of Neorealism:

“I chose to examine the inner side of my characters instead of their life in society, the effects inside them of what was happening outside. Consequently, while filming, I would follow them as much as I could, without ever letting the camera leave them. This is how the long takes… came about. At the time, everyone criticized me for avoiding social themes… But I was just acting as a mediator between these social themes and the screen.” (Quoted in The Architecture of Vision)

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In the film’s most famous long take, Paola and Guido meet up on a steel bridge and discuss their plans to engineer the death of Paola’s husband. The shot opens with the camera following a car down a road… before it suddenly pans to reveal Paola’s face, looking down at the vehicle from the bridge. The sudden shift from a long shot to a medium close-up without a cut is a little startling. The boundaries between exterior and interior life blur.

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In the ensuing masterstroke of simmering tension, the camera never leaves Paola and Guido alone as they swap recriminations for a death they caused years ago.  You see, Paola was in love with Guido, but he was engaged to another; they both chose to look the other way when she was about to back into an empty elevator shaft.

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The camera explores their ambiguous responsibility for her death. In one segment of the long take, Paola walks backwards towards the railing of the bridge and the camera tracks to follow her, in a movement reminiscent of the murder-by-silence that killed Guido’s fiancée. Even as she accuses her lover, “You killed her! You killed her!” and rejects her own guilt, Paola becomes a kind of stand-in for the murdered woman and reveals the extent to which she has internalized that guilt.

There’s no escape from the camera’s prying eye, just as one can find no escape from one’s own accusing conscience.

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Antonioni puts his own spin on the long take as a cinematic tool. Unlike Orson Welles’s deep focus coups de théâtre or Renoir’s emotionally-fraught, story-driven camera movements, the long takes in Cronaca di un amore, although not devoid of passion or drama, seem almost scientific, abstracted, psychological. Exactly what one would expect from a chronicle of a love affair. Not a love story, really, at least not in the traditional sense, but an interrogation of a relationship.

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In many of Antonioni’s films, the important moments seem cut out, missing, as though the key to the whole central love plotline had been omitted from the film. And so it is with Cronaca. The first time we see Guido and Paola together after years of separation, they drive to a set of stairs by the sea, sit, and haltingly talk. We, the viewers, are made to sense the awkwardness of their reunion through our own uncertainty of how to put together the pieces. Do they love each other? Do they desire each other? Why? What kept them apart? Who left whom?

In the black-and-white cinematography, the sea shimmers white, like a great absence, and the past and future lovers appear on the cusp of falling into it.

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Cronaca bristles with a sinister allure, a putrescent beauty barely contained by the impassiveness of the camera’s intent. This tug-of-war between an internal Neorealism and noirish perversity makes Cronaca one Maltov cocktail of a movie.

When making Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer said that he wanted every shot to look like there was a corpse hidden somewhere. Well, every shot of Cronaca looks like a murder has just been committed—or is about to be committed. Not because of violence or grittiness, but because of the cockeyed angles, always a little too high or too low, every shot a little too close for comfort or too long to feel inviting. Characters face opposite directions or turn away from the camera as if ashamed.

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Cronaca also overflows with brilliant, self-assured stylistic touches—especially those that peel away at the surface of the oft-touted coolness of Italy and the glamour of its bourgeoisie.

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Two bottles fill the frame… and it takes a car whizzing by them to make us realize that we’re looking at a landscape and two giant advertisements, not a dinner table.

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The mirrors of a fashion salon turn a chic setting into an inferno of class warfare, jealousy, and self-loathing as Paola comes eye to eye with a woman she suspects of stealing Guido.

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A perfumed, glossy bedroom—which wouldn’t be out of place in one of Italy’s vapid, faux-Hollywood farces, or telefoni bianchi (“white telephone”) films—transforms into a place of discomfort. This idealized boudoir serves as the marketplace where Paola trades sex for her grotesque husband’s ongoing acquiescence in her flagrant, empty spending.

(If you’re in any way hesitating about watching this film, you ought to dig it up for the black pearl splendor of Lucia Bosé, a former Miss Italy and Antonioni’s lover at the time, whose muffled femme fatale sexuality as Paola steals the movie. She unceasingly mesmerizes.)

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Speaking of white telephones, I suspect that Antonioni intended to give his audiences a little sick joke by making sure that every telephone in the film is not white, in the manner of the telefoni bianchi, but a black one! The sheen of the “white telephone” film, the Neorealist lens, and the dark glitter of film noir all merge in Cronaca di un amore. It’s to die for.

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

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Free Friday Film: The Ghost Camera (1933)

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Are you up for a quickie? No, not that kind. Wash your brain out with soap, you n’er-do-well. Today I’m tempting you with a quota quickie, a cheaply produced British B movie produced to satisfy English law.

In 1927, the Cinematographic Films Act required British movie theaters to exhibit a certain percentage (it rose to 20%) of British-made films in an attempt to lessen the influence of American culture, pouring into England through Hollywood films, like the Spanish Armada in celluloid form. Well, tempted by the guaranteed opportunity to have their films shown in cinemas, British studios churned out movies with insanely small budgets—about 1 pound per foot of film, according to the UK Guardian.

Rather like Poverty Row films, many of these quota quickies stank like gone-off Vegimite. However, plenty of them also offered burgeoning directors and actors Michael Powell, Errol Flynn, Vivien Leigh, and Ann Todd a chance to cut their teeth on their first cinematic experiences. And, what with necessity being the Queen Mum of invention, many quickies display creative stylistics and wacky plots—to cover up their budgetary shortages.

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It breaks my heart to inform you that 60% of these movies are considered lost. But Martin Scorsese and the BFI are actively hunting for them. As it is, more and more of these are available on DVD and hopefully we’ll get a full-on quickie festival someday. Wait, that came out wrong…

So, in my usual roundabout way, I come to today’s sacrifice, The Ghost Camera, a 1933 mystery from debut director Bernard Vorhaus, a talented fellow whose Hollywood career was cut short by the blacklist. This entertaining, plot-packed thriller clocks in at about an hour, a refreshing feat in comparison to the bloated two-going-on-three hours spectacles that are showing at a movie theater near you nowadays.

The story follows John Gray (Henry Kendall), a bespectacled, preening intellectual who arrives home from his vacation to discover that someone dropped a camera in his luggage. Deciding to develop a picture in hopes of returning the camera to its owner, our hero discovers—gasp—a picture of a murder!

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Before he can show the image to the police, though, someone nicks it, but leaves the amateur detective with the camera and the remaining undeveloped negatives within. Piqued by the theft and up for an adventure, Gray decides to retrace the photographer’s steps by tracking down the locations where the pictures in the camera were taken. In the process, he meets the camera owner’s troubled sister, Mary Elton, stumbles across a jewel heist, and finally roots out the killer.

As with many quota quickies, The Ghost Camera gives us a glimpse into the before-they-were-famous careers of big names in cinema history. A charmingly baby-faced Ida Lupino graces the screen with her discreet magnetism as Mary, the lady in distress. As she accompanies the sleuth, she both seeks and dreads the truth about her brother and his camera.

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Unfortunately, the print of this film available on YouTube looks like it was strained through cheesecloth (which is why I didn’t pepper this post with screencaps). Nevertheless, the cinematography does shine. The director of photography, Oscar-winner Ernest Palmer, an American, shot the melodically lovely Borzage films Street Angel and Seventh Heaven, so it’s no surprise that he pulls out some bizarre visual poetry even for this cheapie. The scenes in the darkroom, almost total blackness except for a few starkly-lit faces, convey a spooky sense of dread that foreshadows the virtuoso lighting contrasts of mature British noir. Again, when the protagonist investigates an abandoned, ruined fortress, darkness prevails, plunging us viewers into a situation where we must stay riveted to the screen for the slightest flash of light or sound to know what’s going on.

Best of all, the great David Lean earned one of his first screen credits on this film as an editor. He later acknowledged director Bernard Vorhaus as a formative influence on his career. Indeed, combined with the cinematography, the editing here can only be described as audacious. For example, the movie starts with a low angle shot of a looming castle keep. The camera slowly tilts down and pans to a car on the road. Jump cut to the vine-covered walls of the ruin. Jump cut to the backseat of the car into which a camera tumbles. Where did it come from? Who dropped or threw it? Did the car pick it up on purpose or is the driver totally unaware? This pre-credit sequence leaves us intrigued, tantalized. Exactly what you desire from a mystery thriller!

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The first time I watched The Ghost Camera, its visual flamboyance stunned me. Shaky handheld motions, jump cuts, swish pans, and disorienting shifts of focus: you’ll see a lot of things here that we tend to associate with the “groundbreaking” movies of mature European art cinema, especially French New Wave. The jarring, unstable camerawork also awakens the audience to the foibles and strangeness of mechanical recording. That is, we realize that we’re watching a movie, a reality filtered through a camera.

The camera as a recording instrument itself carries an uncanny aura. Think about how many meta-thrillers and horror films revolve around some variation of a ghostly, anxiety-inducing camera or pictures: The Big Sleep, Blow-Up, Chinatown, and The Eyes of Laura Mars, to name a few. The Ghost Camera actually amplifies its slapdash, B-movie discontinuity, its jerky camera movements and warping perspective, to generate fear. The movie camera takes on a life of its own. Meanwhile, the film’s plot, in which developed images serve as clues, shows us how photography’s special bond with reality can bear an alarming witness.

The camera’s truth speaks in tongues, though—as the weird, vertiginous cinematography of The Ghost Camera suggests—that need to be interpreted by human reasoning.

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Mix all this innovative flair and love for the filmic medium with a droll script, really a parody of the whodunit, and you have a beguiling hour’s entertainment. Our mewling hero John Gray continuously treats us to his pessimistic, helpless commentaries. For instance,

“I really don’t know why I continue to go on holidays, Simms. They’re never adventurous. Just the usual people and happenings, unexciting, like myself. Man is an irrational animal, Simms, persisting to hope for what his reason has proven nonexistent.”

At another vexing moment, he humorously exclaims, “Oh but this is absurd! We’re beginning to talk like characters in a mystery melodrama.” If only he knew…

So, watch The Ghost Camera and celebrate this testament to what wonderful popular art a bunch of clever people can cobble together out of basically nothing. It’s certainly one of the most enduring and satisfying quickies you’ll ever enjoy. Click here to watch the film on YouTube.

N.B. I learned about the history of the quota quickie from these thoughtful sources. I didn’t pull those facts out of thin air and I gratefully and fully acknowledge these articles and their authors for their research and insights. I’m citing them informally, because this is a blog post, not a college paper!

“Fancy a Quickie?” by Matthew Sweet from U.K. Guardian Monday, 1 January 2007.

“In Praise of the Quota.” at British Pictures Article Archive.

Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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It’s not hard to understand why Laurence Olivier selected this abbreviated passage of Hamlet as the opening statement, the thesis, if you will, of his adaptation. After all, these few lines contain the most eloquent description of the tragic flaw that anyone ever wrote; well, duh, it’s practically Shakespeare analyzing Shakespeare.

If anything, the quotation slaps us across the face with its significance. We might even feel inclined to groan at its 9th-grade-English-class heavy-handedness, spliced right into the exposition of the film. But we would be wrong to do so, because it contains the central image of Olivier’s brazenly stripped-down vision of the literary masterpiece.

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The last time I watched this movie, a line from the epigraph tickled my brain: “Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” Because, what is “reason” if not a buffer, a barrier? Something that restricts our mind like a corset of scruples and holds it prisoner like a castle keep? Reason consists of a series of bulwarks that we erect between ourselves and madness in all of its forms, whether excessive melancholy, anger, desire… or insight.

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The nature of reason can aptly express itself in architectural terms, particularly medieval ones. We live inside our heads, besieged by armies of competing facts and moral codes. We probably lift the portcullis of our perceptions and prejudices to admit new ideas much less frequently than we think we do.

Okay, so I’ve over-extended my metaphor, but it’s all in the service of Olivier’s direction. His Hamlet seizes on that guiding conceit, the fortress of reason, and spins it into a space where Desmond Dickinson’s camera seems to ruminate like Hamlet’s troubled mind, forever roving and wandering.

The opening of Olivier’s Hamlet freezes time. No one moves, like they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Four men stand on the ramparts of a castle, bearing the Prince’s corpse. We begin at the end of the story. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we all know Hamlet ain’t getting out of this alive, but the funereal shot infuses the film with a distinct and surreal sense of dread from the start.

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But what fascinates me about this opening shot is how time seems to have stopped as the camera glides through air, arcing out of the fog towards the prince’s body. The camera shows us that while time might have stopped for the people of this tale, the dimension of space remains open—and the camera dances in it.

The contrast between still, inert humans and a living, moving perspective divorced from them, well, it spooks me. It’s the visual equivalent of the alarming question that begins Shakespeare’s play, “Who’s there?”

Who—or what—is swooping down to look at the funerary procession while mortals can’t budge?

The next shot flips me out even more. On that forbidding castle fort, those figures in mourning just dissolve into thin air, leaving the battlements empty of people. This transition reminds us of how easily we all eventually dematerialize: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

The dissolve also reveals that the film conceives space as a psychological entity. This simplified, archetypal Elsinore, which initially appeared to have been lifted from a book of Charles Lamb’s tales or a Horace Walpole novel, actually exists in a place between Hamlet’s imagination and reality. The castle, though real, occasionally bleeds into the fortress of Hamlet’s askew reason.

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Nowhere is this link more clear than in Olivier’s staging of the play’s most famous monologue. Immediately after Hamlet rejects Ophelia for betraying him, the camera wooshes out of the room, up a staircase, and goes on one of its fugues, travelling up flight after flight of stairs—or actually, the same flight of stairs, cut together again and again.

Finally, the camera flies up to the sea, seen from the top of the castle, and then a track-back brings Hamlet’s head into sight from the bottom the frame. For my money, those M.C. Escher-ish repeated staircases convey the structure of rumination, of those repetitive thoughts that we can’t quite break away from. Hamlet’s mind is a lively, circular one, forever walking up and down the gloomy staircases of the Big Questions: why do we live? What is the good in staying alive? Is it worth it? Why? Why? Why?

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That sudden emergence of Hamlet’s head in the frame always surprises me a little. After a dissociative fit where we lose almost all sense of proportion on those abstracted staircases, we’ve returned to a man as the point of reference. The staggering switches in scope make the audience more aware of what I see as Hamlet’s flaw.

And Hamlet’s “problem,” in my humble opinion, is that the universe as a whole speaks to him.

He realizes his insignificance in the grand scheme of things; he cannot act because he questions the usefulness of any action at all. Hamlet combines self-absorption with self-effacement. He swims in the frightening space of the cosmos and wriggles in the prison of his own duties and life.

That crane shot, careening through the void, then returning to the melancholy prince suggests this push-pull, this paradoxical feeling that Hamlet is at once too much inside himself and too far away from himself.

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I love how Elsinore’s spaces reflect emotional nuances that a stage never could. For instance, the first crane shot down to focus on Hamlet cements our identification with him, with the thinker, the man left alone in the debris of pompous court ceremonies.

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Or consider how the long corridors of arches create a pathetic reciprocal gaze between Ophelia and Hamlet. The hallway inscribes and entombs their confused desire in stone.

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Likewise, I treasure Olivier’s pirouette in the performance hall of Elsinore, shown in a long shot, as he exults, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”

In On Acting, Olivier described Hamlet as the sort of person who needs to enter into someone else’s skin to get anything done: “it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he always tries to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill-cast in the part.”

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Here, Hamlet’s ecstasy in a performance space exposes how much he yearns to escape his limitations—and in the cavernous great room, the euphoria of that small gesticulating figure rings false. The desperate spurt of joy that Hamlet feels on an empty stage space, play-acting only for himself, paints a sad portrait of this man who considers himself unfit for everything others expect from him.

Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who never seriously doubt their capabilities, Hamlet mercilessly beats up on his character flaws. If anything, his flaw is that he’s too aware of his flaws.

In 1988, two psychologists, Taylor and Brown, found out something that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had been telling us for a long time. Namely, that people suffering from mild depression are far more in touch with the realities of life, death, and risk. By contrast, normal, healthy individuals tend think that they’re better, smarter, and safer than the “average person.”

Hamlet lacks the survival prejudices that would have allowed him to filter out all the reasons not to act, not to stay alive. He sees the world with depressive clarity: “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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So, indeed, reason consists of “pales and forts.” Reason usually provides a structure that protects us from ourselves. We live inside it, like happy guests in a castle, until something goes wrong, something that lets us understand that we are not immune to ugliness and pain.

Like Hamlet pulling back the arras to see that he has killed the wrong man, a person who finally sees the world as it is howls at the brutal disillusionment. And then all that reason turns from a bulwark to a prison. After a trauma, reason and logic start to encircle us with worries and perspectives that unhinge the unity of mind that one needs to do anything.

As Hamlet walks among the arches and pediments of Elsinore, he moves freely, but the walls close in upon him, pillars fragment the screen and crowd him. Unlike Ophelia, who in her craziness finds a state of mind akin to freedom and who drowns outside the castle walls, Hamlet struggles within them. The castle echoes back his angst—as does the Ghost, whose voice is actually a slowed-down recording of Olivier.

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Only imminent death, as Olivier notes, added the final ingredient to Hamlet’s character that enabled him to act. His own self-destruction fueled a newly personal need for retribution; he could kill the king only because he himself was dying.

After Hamlet dies, the camera pans to the region of darkness behind the chair where his head rests, as if in mourning for the blackout of his exquisite consciousness.

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In death, Hamlet still lies inside the ramparts of reason; the film ends where it began, but with a crucial shift. As the same four men seen at the beginning of the film carry the prince to the top of the castle, the camera snakes past the vestiges of the things that once preoccupied Hamlet: his place in court, the incestuous marriage bed, and a Christian altar. The men bear his body up the stairs to the top of the castle, where he meditated on his own mortality, and the camera swings back.

We experience a solemn elevation and a swelling fondness for the “sweet prince,” whose real kingdom was a state of mind. Not only did he accomplish his goal, he possessed that noblest and rarest of qualities: unflinching insight.

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The innovative spaces of Olivier’s Hamlet tap into the unique capacities of cinematic language. They transcend the glibness of symbolism, of “this equals that” imagery. Instead, the way the camera creeps around the architecture of Elsinore enables us to penetrate into what the intellectual Hamlet actually feels. The amorphous, psychological film-spaces blazed the trail for art films like Blow-Up (I’m thinking especially of that final enigmatic dissolve), Last Year at Marienbad, and The Shining, to name just a few.

But, most of all, the film’s benighted rooms and fortifications enable us to witness the birth of modern man, banging his head against the illusions implicit in normalcy and order.

The dread of mortality and failure may paralyze Hamlet. Yet, his greatness, his heroism, the reason why we weep for him resides in the very flaw that forestalls him: his sensitivity, his intensified sentience. The flexibility of the camera’s movements transmits the remarkable agility of his mind and the diversity of opinions that contend in his spirit. He would probably have been a terrible king, but he was a sublime human being.

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The Laughing Academy: It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night

“If the movies are an art, I kinda think it’ll leak out somehow without bein’ told; and if they’re a science—then it’s a miracle.”

—Will Rogers at the Academy Awards banquet, 1934

“Let’s get this over with.”

—Clark Gable, arriving on the set for the first day of shooting on It Happened One Night

“I just finished making the worst picture I’ve ever made.”

—Claudette Colbert, on finishing It Happened One Night

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The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is not exactly known for rewarding a good laugh.

We all know that if you want one of their little gold men on your bedside table, your safest bet lies in unearthing the most degrading, unglamorous, tragic script you can find and wringing it for all its worth. Which is a shame, really, because many of the best movies ever made are comedies and I would argue that it’s much harder to make a good funny picture—one that really makes your sides hurt and a twinkle reappear in in your eye—than a good depressing one.

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Don’t get me wrong—many fine comedies have gotten Oscar nods, and several have attracted one or two of the big awards, but that’s comparatively rare. Perhaps the idea of serious drama adds an air of respectability and legitimacy to movies, and that’s why rather dire, pompous, or grandiose movies tend to hold the Academy trump cards.

Except for once.

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In 1934, a low-budget comedy won every major award. Best Actor. Best Actress. Best Director. Best Screenplay. And, of course, Best Picture. It was the first movie ever to sweep the big awards like that. However, it starred two loaned-out actors who didn’t want anything to do with it. It was made at a fledgling studio in the midst of a town dominated by reigning giants. It bridged the wide gap between an era of Pre-Code naughtiness and a new period of constraints and stringent censorship. It forged a new subgenre: the screwball comedy, which embedded cheeky adventures into a more cautious, traditional courtship framework. It’s a miraculous movie.

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Although it was initially entitled Night Bus, the movie bore a stunningly romantic, already nostalgic name: It Happened One Night.

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But let’s get one thing clear: I don’t by a long shot consider it the greatest comedy ever made. I’d nominate Trouble in Paradise, Some Like It Hot, or The Lady Eve for that honor. Nor is it the best movie Capra ever made. Nor is it even the funniest movie ever made.

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Yet, in it’s own strange way, It Happened One Night stands out as perhaps the most likable film ever made—even more so than Casablanca, with its occasionally mawkish bouts of patriotism (although I do love Casablanca). Capra’s little laugh-fest fills me with cozy joy, as if it were tapioca pudding in movie-form. And, in 1934, the heart of the Depression, apparently even the Academy appreciated some filmic comfort food.

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Claudette Colbert: existentialist.

The film glows with the impression of genuineness, of spontaneity. Notice I say “impression” because anyone who’s ever held a camera can tell you that spontaneity requires some of the greatest illusory juju that any cinema shaman can summon up. We talk a lot about Capra the humanist and Capra the idealist—but I want to praise Capra the magician, who can pull realism out of staged simplicity, who can turn two freakishly charismatic people into ordinary individuals who need baths and get hungry, who can even use snappy dialogue and character involvement to make us forget that we’re looking at a rear-projected shot.

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This contrived tale of a runaway heiress and an out-of-work reporter racing to get her back to her fiancée—and inevitably falling in love in spite of their antagonism—succeeds. And how!

By what strange alchemy does this movie turn to gold? I give a lot of credit to what I’d call orchestrated amateurism—endearingly crude cuts and awkward moments added in to what would otherwise be a flat, dull, artificial enterprise. Capra can do flawless and sophisticated. He did it, in my book, the year before with The Bitter Tea of General Yen—a lush, expressionistic story of a doomed romance, every shot of which is fit for framing and hanging on a gallery wall. It Happened One Night, however, is brilliantly flawed and splendidly arranged to seem like everyday life, to seem like it’s just happening as it goes along.

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For instance, there’s a moment that’s always distracted me. Ellie Andrews, the pampered runaway, has to spend a night in the same autopark room with Pete Warne, a canny, independent newspaper man. Although they didn’t exactly go to sleep on good terms, they wake up on a better foot and sit down to breakfast together. Claudette Colbert exudes a natural shimmering warmth in any role, so as she tells Pete about how her filthy rich life wasn’t so great after all, her speech strikes me as cute—but that’s not what I’m watching.

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Ellie’s eating as she talks. Not “movie eating,” picking at food, pretending to eat. Really eating. Shoveling eggs in and chewing them up. And at one point, a little shred of egg white gets caught on her lip and she flips it back into her mouth. It’s a split-second motion, not in the least played up for comic effect, but that’s all it takes to turn a staged scene into something that feels much more real. Capra was the master of the reifying detail, the one thing that turns a scene from a clunker to a charmer.

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Capra cultivates this not-quite-put-together ambiance, this intentional sloppiness in the famous scene the night before, when Pete undresses in front of the camera. Ellie stands there all the while, bluffing, trying to insist that she’s not afraid of Pete’s rough virility. Meanwhile, taunting her in this game of erotic chicken (oh, God, I hope that “erotic chicken” doesn’t show up on my search terms list), Gable does what we must recognize as one of classic cinema’s few male stripteases. Yes, take THAT, male gaze-obsessed film theorists!

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All digressions aside, make no mistake: this is a constructed scene, as snappy and precise as a Busby Berkeley tap routine. In fact, the reason why Gable takes off his shirt to reveal no undershirt (and thereby bankrupted many an undergarment company) isn’t a question of style but of timing: with the undershirt, the spiel and the routine took too long.

However, the editing makes the scene seem a lot more amateurish than it is. When Gable prepares to unbutton his pants, and every female viewer leaned forward a little, we see Colbert, leaning against the door, rush forward—Heaven forbid she see a naked man! Then we get a quick cut to a longer shot, and she’s back where she was, leaning against the door! Almost immediately, she jerks forward again and scampers to the other side of the Walls of Jericho, the blanket that separates the unwilling roommates. In case I’m not being clear, we see the same action, Colbert starting to run away, twice, if only for a second. I wish I could capture it via screenshot, but it’s too fast—I happens right after this…

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Call the referee! A continuity rule has been violated!

Seriously, though, that messy cut consecrates the scene with a paradoxical sense of documentary authenticity. Obviously, anything that’s been edited has been contrived. However, a jumpy cut encourages us as viewers to see this film as somewhat haphazardly thrown together. It’s natural, uncomplicated, unvarnished, practically a home movie, we’re meant to believe. Our good will towards this quaint, patched-up picture from a minor studio swells into fondness. I’d also point out that the doubled action adds an almost Eisensteinian surge of energy to the moment—a jolt to conclude one striptease and usher in another, as Colbert strips to her slip on the other side of the Walls of Jericho.

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Seriously, though, if you’re watching It Happened One Night for the umpteenth time, keep an eye out for how many weird cuts rip through this masterpiece of calculated nonchalance. Perhaps the most effective and, I would argue, self-conscious of these jumpy cuts arrives at the moment when Pete and Ellie come nose-to-nose for the first time—the first time that they’re not screaming at each other, that is.

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As Ellie reclines in a hay bail, Pete folds his trench coat over her. They come face to face. We expect a kiss. Instead, we get a jump cut closer.

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I love how that gratuitous little inch forward allows us to experience the intimacy of that instant. There’s no kiss. There’s no sex. And yet something changed there and we all perceived it. Then Pete gets up and makes up his bed of straw. There are so many hackneyed ways to insist on attractive tension—360-degree camera spirals, zooms, fetishistically long close-ups. But Capra, not exactly known for avoiding sentimentality, saves us from all that saccharine sweetness with a dose of jagged cutting that brings us back to reality… or the illusion of reality.

I suppose that my point, if I must indeed have a point, consists in showing that It Happened One Night deserves every single one of its awards for seeming so effortless, buoyant, and, yes, even a little shoddy.

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As for our Best Actor, I’ll admit it: I usually don’t love Clark Gable—he doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. However, in this movie, I can’t resist his disobligingly teasing swagger. He could have collected an Oscar just  for how he mockingly sings, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” to sheltered maiden Ellie on the other side of the Walls of Jericho.

Whether gnawing on carrots or tossing his best set of pajamas at Ellie, he amplifies the Average American Man, or what we’d like to think he is: basically decent, crammed with his own cockeyed wisdom, foolish, savvy, glib, cynical, sentimental, sincere, and strong—all in one. These qualities shine beautifully through in Gable, the kind of guy who would and did give his Oscar to a little kid who remarked on it in the street.

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Colbert earned her Oscar by refusing to tone down her part. No mistake—Ellie can be an atrocious brat. In the first five minutes of the movie, she pitches a tray of fresh food on the floor with such single-minded, adolescent fury that I imagine a whole audience of undernourished Americans wanted to slap her, just as Walter Connolly does. She’s the kind of childish gal who returns the stuck-out tongue of a girl half her age!

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Her comedic timing generates laughs, but never hits you as forced or mannered. For instance, in the hitchhiking scene, Gable gets most of the antics, demonstrating the several methods of hitchhiking—all she does in response is go, “That’s amazing.” But, man, the dry, falsely-impressed timbre of her voice is funnier that all the custard pies in the world.

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She was convinced that she’d never win the Oscar and was on her way out of town when she heard the news and was summoned to attend the Academy Awards Banquet. She later recalled: “I was surprised when I got the prize. I really had no idea I would get it. In fact, I was ready to leave for New York the night they called to tell me about it. Dressed in a mousy brown suit, I was escorted into the banquet hall full of diamonds and tail coats. It was especially embarrassing because I imagined they thought I was putting on an act, making an entrance.” Rather appropriate, considering the runway heiress she played in the movie, n’est-ce pas?

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The winning script, by frequent Capra collaborator Frank Riskin, based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams, not only packs in lots of witty diatribes, but an extraordinary amount of hilarious situations. To list only a few, who could forget Colbert pretending to be a plumber’s daughter and screeching like a fishwife when private detectives come looking for her? Or Gable throwing her over his shoulder and toting her across a stream? Or the infamous hitchhiking thigh-flash? Or the definitive runaway bride wedding?

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She’s at the ten, the twenty—no one can catch her!

I also admire how Riskin uses lots of stock characters and tropes of the day, but bends them to the will of the public. Our schadenfreude gets a healthy workout as bad things recurrently happen to bad people—and everyone gets their just desserts. The infamous playboy King Wesley gets ditched at the altar and the self-indulgent, self-important Daddy Andrews freaks out because his daughter finally took a stand against him.

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Between love and madness there lies It Happened One Night

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Even the lead romance works only because there’s an element of playful humbling involved on both sides. If we believe that Ellie and Pete are meant for each other, it’s on the level of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth—their love is founded on romantic one-upmanship, the cancelling out of their proud natures. He shows her up by revealing that there’s more to life than money and she shows him up by knowing things that women just naturally know—that is, how to control men!

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The script cleverly calls for the main characters to slip in and out of several identities. For instance, take Pete’s terrifying imitation of a gangster, scaring the living daylights out of the blackmailing womanizer Shapeley (a very irritating Roscoe Karns) who threatens to reveal Ellie’s identity. In the years previous to this, Gable had played a lot of tough customers (he’s absolutely chilling as a would-be child-murderer in Night Nurse), so he slides easily into the persona of a cold-blooded killer.  Yet, in this case, instead of feeling like we should boo him, because he’s a gangster, we enjoy watching the fierce pre-code villainous Gable put the fear of God into a sniveling creep.

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In the same manner, we can relish Colbert’s impersonations of loose women because we’ve been let in on the secret that Ellie’s never even been alone with a man before she spends the night in the same cabin with Pete. Riskin cunningly takes morally upright people (by the Code’s standard) but leads them through cheeky transformations—dictated by necessity. He deserves a prize for Best Circumscription of Regulations.

And Best Director Capra reinvents realism on two levels. First, his attention to the idiosyncrasies of how people really live comes across as nothing short of staggering.

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A hobo on top of a train waves to an ecstatic Pete—just another “realistic” touch that adds to the movie’s charms.

Second, Capra blows me away with his understanding of a viewer’s desire to believe that a movie is close to reality. We want to think that the circumstances it portrays are true. He knew well enough not to conceal his stars’ cranky attitudes and the less-than-ideal production circumstances. Instead, he emphasizes them in all their unvarnished, slapdash glory. Oftentimes we don’t want our movies to be all wrapped up and consumable. We want them ragged and lovable. He understood this, which is why he really was one of America’s Best Directors, despite what Orson Welles’ called his Saturday Evening Post sensibilities.

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And I think that we must view It Happened One Night as one of Capra’ best films because his mildly preachy American Dream stuff stays under the rug here. Instead of trying to reassure us that God is good and nice guys don’t finish last, he kindly serves us a funny, serendipitous love story. In the end, that’s all I want to see.

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The big messages, the politics, the values of an era tend to fade away, don’t they? Funny, however, usually stays funny. It takes guts and foresight to reward comedy and I wish more comedies had won Academy Awards. But I’m certainly glad this one harvested a whole crop. It does me good to know that, from time to time, even the Academy can laugh.

Or at least appreciate Claudette Colbert’s gams.

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(One last fact: Claudette Colbert initially refused to bare her legs for the hitchhiking—she thought it was cheap and stupid. So Capra got a leg double. And no sooner did Colbert see those replacement legs than she changed her mind and insisted that Capra use her own inimitably lovely pins, the ones you see above.)

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Visit their blogs and learn more about this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

Getting out of the Boat: Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now

2“Never get out of the goddamn boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got out of the boat. He split from the whole f**king program.”

I’ve loved Apocalypse Now from the first time I watched that orange feathering of napalm burn through lush tropical forests to the lilting, funereal strains of “The End.” That opening shot spoke to me, whispering the truth of how ugly things can be beautiful and how the camera can charm that beauty forth.

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It was like looking through the eyes of another, not through a point-of-view shot, not even through the lens of a different philosophy—but through the eyes of madness, of someone for whom destruction was lovely. I had never felt anything like it. It horrified me, shocked me, inspired me, and changed me. It may have been the first time in my life that I encountered Art, that grand, fearsome, traumatic thing that we hear so much about.

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On the other hand, Black Narcissus refused me any such revelation until it was almost over. Having bought a Criterion DVD at a jumble sale (the poor fool who threw it away!), I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating in an academic sense. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

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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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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both won Academy Awards for cinematography thanks to the hypnotic, ethereal camerawork of Jack Cardiff and Vittorio Storaro, in 1947 and 1979 respectively. (Both films should have won Best Picture, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

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Above: Jack Cardiff. Below: Vittorio Storaro on location for Apocalypse Now

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Apart from the two movies’ shared aesthetic interest in exoticism, they are extremely different. In contrast to the classically trained, crafted acting style of the performers in Powell and Pressburger’s film, Coppola chose a stable of hardcore method actors. While Black Narcissus seemingly fits into the mold of a women’s drama, Apocalypse Now has claimed an immortal place in the annals of cinematic machismo.

Black Narcissus departs utterly from realism by shooting not in the Indian mountains, but in England—against huge blow-ups of aerial photographs of the Himalayas, brightly painted to striking effect. We all know that the production of Apocalypse Now, filmed on location in the Philippines, mirrored its plot. As Coppola lapsed into the Kurtz mentality and actors started to succumb to the harshness of the environment and the strain of shooting, reality bled into fiction.

Nevertheless, I cannot separate these films in my mind. To me, they’ll always be spiritual sisters. I don’t doubt that Cardiff’s vision for Black Narcissus influenced Storaro’s photography for Apocalypse Now, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

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Fearsome transformations….

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I have seen a precious few films that seem to be aware that they’re in color. I mean, yes, the costumes, the sets, the lighting in most non-black-and-white films have all been carefully selected for their hues and tones, but the emotional powerhouse of color remains untapped.

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Warpaint of different hues…

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Color speaks to us in ways that defy rational thought. Baudelaire once noted that color is the most important element of a painting, because even before we can make out the figures, at a distance, the harmony or dissonance of colors allows us to intuit the essence of the scene.

In my opinion, color needs to “put the zap” on our heads, to paraphrase a few lines of Milius’ brutally insightful script for Apocalypse Now. Seriously—this is why I tend to prefer black-and-white films. Why show me colors unless they’re going to astonish me? Color needs to tell us something, not in terms of symbolism, but in terms of emotion and reaction. Both Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now define dreamlike, vividly colored places, jungles and mountaintops, which not only magnify our perceptions, but also unleash our inner natures.

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Shades of observation: Sister Clodagh and Captain Willard.

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Apocalypse Now is not an anti-war film any more than Black Narcissus is an anti-religious film. Both of them transcend such unambiguous messages to tell us something much more vast about the soul of civilization. Sister Ruth certainly isn’t the charismatic genius that Kurtz is, since men have a cultural outlet for their madness—war—whereas women just get neuroticism. However, these two figures both revert to something primal and frightening. (Eventually Captain Willard does, too.) Sister Ruth and Kurtz split from the program of lies and moral rationalizations that govern the minds of their peers. Rather than persisting in fighting the call of the jungle, they give in. Their madness prompts some of the most fantastically beautiful images captured by a camera. 

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We watch traditions and codes of conduct plunge into a flamboyant psychosis that wasn’t so far away all along. Seductive, unreal colors, enhanced by sinuous camera strokes, hold us captive and enable us to feel the strength of those impulses towards annihilation, impulses that enthrall those who “got out of the boat.”

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As Nietzsche theorized, great tragic art must balance a tendency towards orgiastic self-destructiveness (the Dionysian) and the tonic splendor of appearances and expression (the Apollonian). If Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both depict the triumph of the Dionysian, of chaos and entropy, they nevertheless uplift us rather than depressing us. They temper our despair in mankind with our faith in art.

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Cardiff and Storaro extensively studied the great masters of painting—the color palette of Narcissus was based in part on Vermeer, and there’s quite a bit of Caravaggio in the way Apocalypse Now uses virtuosic contrasts of color and blackness. The compositional brilliance and luminosity that the cinematographers lend even to scenes of abhorrent violence or confusion strike a balance between these elements to produce cathartic experiences that, for me, have not been equaled by any other films.

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From lips to eyes… and from eyes to lips. Contemplating empty faces (Sister Ruth’s and the face of a Khmer statue) with camera tilts.

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Jack Cardiff had to campaign to get the sort of surreal, opalescent color contrasts he harnessed for a subliminal effect in Narcissus: “I was always fighting with Technicolor [representatives] because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was.” Instead, in certain scenes, he filled shadows with green light and colored the arc-lights slightly blue to suggest the distracting crystal coolness of the skies. Cardiff reflected that few viewers, perhaps one in ten or fifteen, would consciously notice these things, but that the choice would impact the mindset of the audience and contribute to the story.

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In addition to these more subtle manipulations, gathering momentum as the film unfolds, Black Narcissus overwhelms us with exaggerated panoramas of the edge of the world. The screen celebrates the giddy delirium that courses through Sister Ruth as she rings the bell on the edge of the cliff. We experience the rush of that chasm, shown in breathtaking canted angles.

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Later, through the translucent deep blues, febrile oranges, and acid pinks of her freak-out, we feel the terrifying release of Ruth’s transformation into a strange, unnatural creature—part modern woman, part painted devil.

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Kurtz’ poetic insanity penetrates the eerie iconography of Apocalypse Now. The glowing amber quality of light, the oppressive Prussian blue skies, the sulfuric yellow and psychedelic lilac gas flares, the impenetrable greens of the jungle all exteriorize the jewel-like ferocity of his Zen psychosis.

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“We’re all his children, man…”

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Kurtz, this faceless demigod, the diamond who cuts through bullsh*t, realizes that those who win wars must fully embrace “the horror.” But that appalling clarity, that knowledge also rots away at him from the inside out. Captain Willard’s voice-over tells us some of this, but such verbal information would be meaningless if Storaro didn’t paint this decay into every lopsided, eclipsed shot of Kurtz.

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Storaro, referring to his revolutionary use of color shading in Apocalypse Now, spoke of how he used the visuals, especially rich shades of black, to get in touch with the barbaric, “unconscious side” of humanity that Conrad’s novel conjured up: “The heart of darkness that he was looking at does not belong to another culture, another place, but part of our self.”

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Cardiff and Storaro both found intense, wordless ways of representing this slip into a primordial darkness, into a place beyond reason. When Sister Ruth begins literally to “see red” the screen suddenly snaps to pure blue as her rage forces her to lose consciousness.

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The first time I saw it, I though there was something wrong with the DVD, it startled me so!

Similarly, Apocalypse Now gives us an amazing shot in which the camera literally turns upside-down and then right-side-up, and then up-side-down again as Kurtz’ acolytes drag Willard through the mud to meet the elusive Colonel for the first time.

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Cinematography literally means writing with light and motion. Cardiff and Storaro wrote disorientation and temptation into the screen with shadows, with movements, with delicate shadings of color.

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The call of the jungle… Sister Ruth and Captain Willard stalk their prey.

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both dwell in the realm of exoticism, in the amplified Other that’s really just another guise for something flickering within us. These movies let me see Western civilization, the epicenter of my own values and all that I hold dear, transplanted and fragmented into a vibrant nightmare by the prism of madness.

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They also take me full-circle back to the primitive psychic engines of that civilization—Eros and Thanatos, sex and aggression—without asking that I transgress, without asking that I myself get out of the boat.

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~          ~          ~

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by three of the nicest ladies, coolest movie mavens, and best film bloggers out there, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Check out their blogs and this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

(My) Top 10 Shots in Casablanca

posterSo many people have written mind-blowing thematic analyses of Casablanca that I decided to go another route. This movie invites you into it—and invites you to take souvenirs from it: favorite lines, cherished scenes, fragments of tunes and soundtrack music, and, of course, images.

Casablanca encourages you to turn it into your own personal collection of memories and does so more successfully than any other Hollywood film. So here’s my collection of its most meaningful, mythical, and tantalizing shots.

10. Casablanca Noir

If you were to show me this shot and say, “What’s it from?” it would take me more than a minute to realize that it’s from The Greatest Hollywood Movie of All Time (according to some people, though I don’t like those kinds of judgements). Here, Ilsa is watching Victor as he risks his life by going out to the Free France meeting after curfew. The low-key lighting, the venetian blinds, and the obscured face all scream NOIR.  The image clearly plays with our genre-recognition abilities. This noirish quality, largely thanks to expressionist-influenced director Michael Curtiz and director of photography Arthur Edeson (also the DoP for Frankenstein and The Maltese Falcon) consistently add a palpable ominousness to what could’ve been a frothy, unbelievable quip-fest.

9. In the Shadows

Now, this isn’t a shot that slaps you across the face with its importance. It occurs very early in the film when Captain Renault warns Rick not to help Lazlo. The shot doesn’t last particularly long. However, I think this moody shadow silhouette of Rick serves a key function of insisting on his dark side… the dark side that we’re about to see when he coldly watches the Nazis nab Ugarte. This film only works if we believe that Bogie (who, leading up to Casablanca, had played some pretty vicious guys) might actually let Victor Lazlo die because of a grudge against Ilsa. That ugliness needs to lurk in him to counterbalance the sentimentality. And this shot knows it.

8. The Airfield Two-Shot

We all know the famous two-shot of Rick and Ilsa saying goodbye, but there’s a marvelous swooping crane-in movement on the pair which we would also do well to recall with fondness. It adds to the shock, tension, and pathos of Rick’s noble switcheroo as Ilsa copes with the fact that she’s going, not staying.

7. The Nazis are Coming

How brave was it, in 1942, to include a shot like this? Raw, grainy, obviously the real deal, and totally terrifying. Not only does this footage of a genuine Panzer division ripping through the French countryside lend psychological weight and menace to Conrad Veidt’s sinister Major Strasser, but it’s also the scariest shot in the film, for my money, because it reaches beyond the diegesis to frighten us. For the people watching this in 1942, it might have felt like a coming attraction. And not a pleasant one. As Strasser asks Rick, can you imagine the Nazis in New York? I bet Casablanca‘s audiences could, in their nightmares.

6. The Weeping Letter

How many times have we seen letters in movies as a short-hand for plot revelations? And how often does it feel flat and lame? Well, apparently, just add (rain)water and the ink bleeds and weeps into instant devastation. The words cry the tears that tough-guy Bogie can’t and infuse the scene with an ineffable feeling of loss and things falling apart.

5. Trouble in Paradise

Ilsa tries to enjoy her last moments with Rick, but this tight framing tells us that some mysterious inner struggle is killing her. It’s pure agony and irony—since Rick blithely has no idea. The Paris dream is about to come crashing down.

(Note: Nick Ray would later copy this tight framing for the nightclub scene in In A Lonely Place, again, with Bogie, but it’s much more effective here, I’d argue.)

4. The Penetrating Searchlight

The beam scans the night sky as peaceful harps sing on the soundtrack, telling us what really happened between Rick and Ilsa. As Rick later admits to Laslzo, “She pretended she was still in love with me… and I let her pretend…” One of the most alluring, evocative ellipses of all time. Thanks, Joseph Breen and your blue-pencil brigade, for being a real pain and burning this remarkable hole in the narrative!

3. La Belle Aurore

One shot encompasses all of the frames above. We get a tilt up from the shadow. Rick’s at the bar. A dolly movement follows him over to the piano. He pours some champagne as Sam plays the then-untainted “As Time Goes By.” Instant nostalgia.

Do you ever have a memory where you see yourself? Like you’re watching a movie of your past in your mind? Then you think, “Wait, I can’t see myself in real life. I must be embellishing this…” This lyrical long take captures that sensation of a romanticized remembrance, colored and enhanced by longing. Nothing could ever be this perfect and beautiful and romantic. But, then again, it’s broadcast to you from the mind of a drunk, lonely saloon owner. Of course it will look pure, friendly, intimate, and untouchable—the antithesis of his own saloon.

2. The Last Shot

This crane shot contains the paradox of Casablanca. How can I be a good person, one who cares for others and, if necessary, makes sacrifices for them, and still be an individual instead of another senseless follower? Won’t my drama get lost in the drama of a world in crisis? As the shot rises, Rick and Louis look small, but their voices stay more or less the same. No matter how immersed they are in the tide of history, the force of their personalities, their desires, and the uniqueness of their goodwill gestures maintains their integrity as characters.

Integrity has many forms and many representatives, including venal bureaucrats and sad-eyed bar owners—idealized Lazlo isn’t the only option. You don’t have to lead the Resistance to stand out in a sea of change, we realize, as Rick and Louis walk down the runway mist which shimmers around them like a starry firmament.

1. Ilsa x 2

It really is true. No matter how many times you watch Casablanca you discover some clever detail that you hadn’t noticed before. Just before this shot, Victor shows up at Rick’s and Ilsa is hiding in Rick’s room. Now, as much as I admire Ilsa’s spirit and decency, I confess that, as a character, she annoys me personally. It took this image to set her free in my mind. Because here she’s doubled, split, divided.

This image translates the forked path of destiny, so central to Casablanca, a movie about not just one choice, but many choices. It’s a tale of possibilities and “what-ifs,” and therein lies the key to its beauty and resonance.

Casablanca is a story that doesn’t know its own ending. In my opinion, that is why it is such a great story.

Now, I know that the claims that the cast were kept in the dark as to the dénouement practically until they filmed it (because the screenwriters were scrambling to wrap it up) have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, even the characters persistently talk about this up-in-the-air conclusion. “Does it have a wild finish?” asks the nasty, inebriated Rick. “It’s still a story without an ending,” he later observes to Ilsa. In that scene, when she comes for the letters of transit, they finally unburden themselves of their misunderstandings by figuring out the exact chronology of their own story.

Without the slightest bit of “meta” cynicism, Casablanca manages to unravel the complications of storytelling—not in an artistic sense, but in a human one. The fact that Warner Brothers produced it during the war means that, of course, the entire world had to agree with Rick: “It’s still a story without an ending.” The epic of World War II wasn’t over yet. But, then again, when is anything really over? Even Casablanca’s ending is a beginning and the characters’ relationships open all kinds of room for our imaginations to fill in the time before the beginning of film. Still, on an even more universal level, Casablanca touches the viewers by reminding us of all of the loose ends in our own lives.

Casablanca endures because it dwells in these big little questions. What’s going to happen to me? Will we always be together? What will the future bring? How are we to make sense of all the encounters and losses that life sets, like landmines, in our path? Nobody knows the way it’s going to be.

Those twin visions of Ilsa peering at us suggest that every reality is teetering on the brink of not one, but several futures, several possible endings. And we don’t know which until it happens.

Honorable Mentions: 

Because, really, I’m a little screenshot-happy. What movie blogger wouldn’t be?

Waiting in Casablanca

Every time I think about this film, this long sweep over the huddled masses, gazing upward towards the plane, sticks out in my memory. The fatigued faces and the hope in their eyes reminds me of the American immigrant experience and, within the story, suggests the stakes of getting the Hell out of Casablanca. This shot also tells us of a multitude of stories that we won’t have time to hear in this film, but which are just as valid, poignant, and personal. Casablanca is not an egocentric film. It realizes that for every story told, there are millions more worth listening to.

Everybody Goes to Rick’s

In those first shots of the nightclub a whole era of between-the-wars escapism comes alive. The textures, the smoke haze, the silky gowns, the pierced, lacy screens, as though to filter out the harsh light of truth—it’s all there, inviting and numbing.

O.K. Rick

One of the best character introductions of all time. Champagne cocktail = sophisticated, drinker. Cigarette = cool. Chessboard = thinker. Alone = lonely. Shadowy background = noirish badass with a knack for decorating. Any questions?

The Foursome

When Rick sees Ilsa for the first time in Casablanca, we get a few very overwrought close-ups. If we had to linger in their reunion, the scene would descend into bathos. Fortunately, Lazlo and Renault arrive—and the tension is palpable as the four of them crowd this shot with their worries and surprise. It’s gonna be a bumpy night.

Face-Off

Rick and Lazlo bump into each other in the doorway of the Blue Parrot… as the shadow of a belly dancer’s arm undulates over them as a reminder of the love versus lust aspect of the plot.

Shoot Me

Umm… did I miss something? Did my DVD cut to Double Indemnity? In all seriousness, this indelible shot drives home the risk of losing one’s humanity to war—even far from the battlefield. If Ilsa shot Rick, she would be just as bad as Major Strasser.

Okay, maybe not quite, but you see my point. According to the logic of this film, you can’t fight for principles by abandoning all principles. Ilsa can’t bring herself to shoot Rick, which is why she does triumph. She’s still human. She’s still filled with love for Rick, love that reminds him of his own humanity, of that time before his insides got kicked out. However, she comes mighty close to pulling that trigger—which allows Curtiz to show us that war is indeed Hell. Divided loyalties turn almost every relationship into a noirish collision course.

Vol de Nuit

Escape and loss, relief and regret—inscribed on the image. It will haunt my dreams. I’m sure that it’s haunted dreams for 70 years. And will do so for many more as time goes by.