The Chase (1946): The Zigzag Path of Fear

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

—Chuck Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carnival of Souls (1962): Dead in the Water

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

I soon found out that it was no laughing matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blue Bird (1918): Sweet Mystery of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silent September! A Buffet of Free Silent Films

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A diva’s work is never done.

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

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

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

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

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

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Trip to the Moon (1902) – Georges Méliès

On YouTube.

Canned Harmony (1912) – Alice Guy

On YouTube.

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Falling Leaves (1912) – Alice Guy

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

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

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

Intolerance (1916) – D.W. Griffith

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

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

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

Way Down East (1920) – D.W. Griffith

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

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

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

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The Kid (1921) – Charlie Chaplin

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

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

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

The Phantom Carriage (1921) – Victor Sjöström

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

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Häxan (1922) – Benjamin Christensen

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

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

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

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

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

La Roue (1923) – Abel Gance

Part I and Part II on YouTube.

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The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – Raoul Walsh

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

Battleship Potemkin (1925) – Sergei Eisenstein

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

The General (1927) – Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

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

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Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang

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

Sunrise (1927) – F.W. Murnau

On YouTube.

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

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

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The Goddess (1934) – Yonggang Wu

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

Dementia 13 (1963): All in the Past?

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If Roger Corman had produced and directed The Godfather, I can only assume that it would’ve come out with creepy paintings, a brambly plot, and plenty of gratuitous violence—a lot like Dementia 13 (alternate title, The Haunted and the Hunted). However, in point of fact, the credit for this proto-slasher belongs to Corman’s apprentice, Francis Ford Coppola.

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While filming in Ireland, B-movie king Corman gave the young Coppola permission to recycle sets and locations for his directorial debut—as long as it didn’t conflict with the shooting schedule for Corman’s film The Young Racers. And the result, Dementia 13, though uneven and sometimes nonsensical, nevertheless heralded a teething talent.

Rife with allusions to classical noir and horror, the film tries very earnestly to marry drive-in shock value with aspirations to art cinema. If the little movie doesn’t quite succeed at both, it still proves pleasurable viewing, with the added retrospective fun of picking out moments and images that echo what Coppola would go on to do.

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His stab at a Val Lewton-style horror flick centers on an enigmatic family of Irish landed gentry, the Halorans, basically the O’Corleones. Lady Haloran, widow of a famous sculptor, clings to memories of her daughter Kathleen, who mysteriously drowned 7 years before the beginning of the story.

The fearsome Haloran matriarch seems to cope with this pain by toying with her American-educated sons: corpulent businessman John, brooding sculptor Richard, and bashful, boyish Billy. Not only does Lady Haloran blame them for Kathleen’s death, but also reminds them that she intends to leave the entire family fortune to charity. Each year, she stages a special memorial for Kathleen at their ancestral castle and holds court.

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 Lady Halloran projects some extra-strength Irish guilt onto her progeny.

Interestingly, we first see this family through the eyes of an outsider, Louise, who married one of Lady Haloran’s sons. The opening sequence of Dementia 13 plunges us right into the drama. John succumbs to a heart attack during a nocturnal boating excursion in the opening scene of the film, so Louise, convinced she can get Lady Haloran to change her will, dumps John’s body and pretends that he had to suddenly depart for a business trip.

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This opening scene on the pond at Castle Haloran immediately creates an atmosphere of musty, neo-Gothic dread. The inky blackness of the night, the jarring high-angle compositions with the dock or the boat jutting in the frame at high angles, and the bitter stalemate between husband and wife all combine to paint one hell of an ominous canvas. Right from the beginning, we’re ready for some spine-tingling and we’ve got a suspenseful plot: will Louise connive her way into Lady Haloran’s graces before anyone realizes that John’s dead?

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The cinematography of Dementia 13 remains consistently stimulating. The wistful, unsettling clutter of a dead child’s room, the shadowy corners of an old castle, an abandoned sculpture studio, and the swampy nightscape of the deadly pond all take on an appropriately freakish, menacing aspect.

Even beyond the spectacularly grisly main murder set piece with baleful underwater photography, this ambiance injects tension into a decidedly unfocused plot. I particularly admire how the castle always seems on the verge of devouring the people or crushing them. Film brat Coppola no doubt took a few lessons from classic Hollywood claustrophobic, location-focused thrillers such as The Spiral Staircase and Sunset Boulevard.

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[If you don’t like spoilers don’t read the next two paragraphs.]

One can also discern the influence of Psycho, as well as the earlier Lewton thriller The Leopard Man, through the shifting mechanisms of identification in Dementia 13. The film gives us a nasty, semi-guilty protagonist—imagine Kay Corleone minus all the good intentions and plus an unholy amount of greed—only to kill her off in the manner of Marion Crane. Ironically, although we don’t really like Louise, our grief at her gory demise reveals how much we depend on some character, any character, to be an entry point into the film.

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So, Coppola eliminates her and swaps her out for another questionable hero, the cynical, quirky Dr. Caleb who dabbles in psychoanalysis and mind games. (In fact, the last shot of Louise during the big murder sequence is immediately followed by the first shot of Dr. Caleb!) Our director takes great relish in showing us all how helpless we are as viewers of the cinema; we’ll let virtually anyone take our hand and be our guide into the story-world. Rather like the matriarch of the Haloran clan, bending under the influence of anyone who claims to be in touch with her dead daughter, we audience members tend not to be picky about whose company we keep in order to get what we need.

Most of all, I savor Dementia 13 because it gave me a new way of looking at Coppola’s later work. When I started to think about it, The Godfather is closely related to the structure of the Gothic horror film: a dysfunctional family with an unavoidable, contaminating darkness at its heart, slowly sucking everyone in.

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As Welch Everman noted in his entertaining and insightful guide Cult Horror Films, Dementia 13 “sets up an interesting contrast between the Old World and the New. In America, we tend to overlook and even reject the past in favor of the present, but in Europe it’s often the other way round.” You can’t shake your heritage, Coppola powerfully suggests with images and plot.

The challenge of reconciling the past and its influence with one’s present identity weaves constantly through the plot and recurrently haunts the characters. Even during one of the more lighthearted moments of the film, one of the American-raised Halorans winces at a sip of Irish whisky he’s been pressured into drinking.

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In both The Godfather and Dementia 13, traditions, rituals, relics of the past cannot be easily extracted from daily life—and from the psychology of even the most apparently modern of the characters. I would argue that Michael Corleone in particular has an uncanny, return-of-the-repressed quality about him: he assimilated too well into American life… and reveals how closely capitalist business strategy is related to age-old mafia violence. At the risk of giving too much away, the killer in Coppola’s debut film also seems like the most normal of the bunch.

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Like the elusive axe-murderer of Dementia 13, Michael Corleone (to say nothing of Colonel Kurtz and Sergeant Willard who would come along much later) possesses a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature that drives the plot forward and makes him a strange object of repulsion, empathy, and vicarious enjoyment—after all, no kills, no thrills. To sum up my point, just as a reading of Dementia 13 can be enriched by the knowledge of Coppola’s later triumphs, so too does this low-budget movie shed light on different facets of the director’s later work.

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For those innocent of my mania for over-analysis, Dementia 13 also preserves the surface delights and nostalgia flair of the early 1960s, including covetable sunglasses, dome-shaped hairdos, and an airport where you half expect the Beatles to show up. The genuine textures of the Irish pub scene will likewise warm the hearts of all ye sons and daughters of Eire.

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Whether you’re interested in auteurist scrutiny or just looking for a spooky good time, pop the popcorn and check out Dementia 13.

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Since the film is in the Public Domain, you can watch Dementia 13 on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive. I also recommend Hulu, because of the superior image quality, where you can also view it for free, but the advertisements are frustrating, I confess.

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.

Free Friday Film: Dark Journey (1937)

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

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

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

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

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“My monocle is very displeased!”

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“And now my monocle is intrigued…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marwitz: I know nothing about them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To watch the movie on YouTube, click here.

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

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