The Plot Thickens: Angela Allen Remembers Beat the Devil (1953) at TCMFF

Once upon a time in Ravello, Italy, half a world away from Hollywood and tight studio control, John Huston arrived to shoot a thriller with a cast to die for. But Huston had a problem.

He didn’t like the script.

Fortunately, he had Truman Capote to write a new one, Peter Lorre and Robert Morley to embellish it, and script supervisor Angela Allen to keep track of it all.

“We had to shoot in order, because we didn’t know where the story was going!” Allen recalled with a laugh at the TCM Classic Film Festival. In conversation with film historian Cari Beauchamp, Allen discussed Beat the Devil, just one film in a career that included The Third Man, The African Queen, and The Dirty Dozen.

When I spoke briefly to Allen on the red carpet, I felt the humbling intensity of her laser-precise gaze, a real-life superpower sharpened by over 50 years of seizing on the smallest errors. She carries herself with a combination of affability and no-nonsense authority. You might assume that she was a career diplomat or businesswoman. And you wouldn’t be far off the mark. If she told you to do something, you’d better do it. (Even Katharine Hepburn found that out.)

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, women filled the role of script supervisor so predominantly that the terms “script girl” and “continuity girl” were the norm. Female professionals like Allen were vital guardians of continuity, the self-effacing, shot-to-shot illusion of a seamless cinematic universe. The stakes were high. A top-notch script supervisor helped create a film that audiences would accept as reality—and a bad one could torpedo that reality and sink the movie.

Before computers and instant photos, script girls documented each take and relied on their detailed notes, stopwatches, eyes, and memories to detect discrepancies. Was that cigarette lit before? Did he say a different word last time? Is there less food on the plate now? A script supervisor has to attend to a million details, editing the film in her mind and anticipating what will and won’t match up. From the sewers of Vienna to the waves of the Mediterranean to the jungles of Africa, Angela Allen did exactly that.

In addition to the pressure of overseeing continuity, Allen faced a problem that’s still far too common in the film industry: predatory men in power. Producer Sam Spiegel was a memorable example. “I was introduced to him by Guy Hamilton, who was an assistant director, then directed Bond films. And he was my protector at the interview, because Sam was quite a lecherous gentleman and I was very young and innocent. Sam said, ‘Take your coat off.’ And Guy said, ‘Don’t take your coat off!’ One said, ‘Sit.’ One said, ‘Stand.’” Allen chuckled at the memory, but I suspect that it would have been no laughing matter if Hamilton hadn’t been there at the time!

Her working relationship with John Huston, on the other hand, was built on respect and trust. “He never met me before I was sent to Africa on The African Queen,” she recalled. “He met me in the jungle. So it was a fait accompli as far as that job is concerned, but we obviously got on and he asked me on all the others.” Huston and Allen would work together on 14 films in total, many of them unpredictable location shoots and jewels of classic cinema.

Which brings us back to Italy and a caper film in search of a story. Through a production nearly as wild and zigzagging as its plot, Beat the Devil posed additional challenges for Allen.

Before shooting could start, Huston needed a script. He took advice from a big shot who happened to be around: David O. Selznick, accompanying Jennifer Jones on location. As Allen remembers, “Although he was not our producer in any shape or form, he recommended Truman Capote who had just written Stazione Termini [alternate title: Indiscretion of an American Wife] for him. So young Truman Capote arrived in Ravello, not knowing what he was going to enter into either.”

However, the film’s mixture of hardboiled dialogue and daffy comedy emerged not from Capote alone, but rather from what one might call a team effort. “He and John discussed something… [Capote] used to write the scenes,” Allen said, “then he’d give them to me in the morning. I’d take them onto the set, we’d change them all because Robert Morley and others were very good ad-libbers, and John would say, ‘Do what you want.’”

Morley and Lorre applied their theater backgrounds to amp up the film’s satirical comedy, resulting in an uproarious shoot. “We all used to laugh so much,” Allen recalled. “There’s a scene where they’re sitting and packing in the room with a suitcase. I must say, there was about 2 hours or more of rehearsal and it was so funny that everybody was on the ground afterward. They’d dream up something every minute. And eventually we sort of refined it to shoot it.”

Now, let’s pause and consider the difficulties of supervising a script that’s mutating before your very eyes. In addition to recording continuity minutia, Allen had to document unpredictable changes in a script with no definite conclusion. All while Lorre and Morley improvised line after side-splitting line. As Cari Beauchamp quipped, “This job brings a whole new definition to continuity, doesn’t it?”

After each day of shooting, Allen closed the loop between screenwriter and cast: “I’d take [Capote] back all the dialogue in the evening and say, ‘You’d better read what we’ve done today for whatever you’ve written for tomorrow, because, you know, it might not match up to what we’ve actually shot.’”

In other words, Allen went above and beyond the already demanding duties of a script supervisor. “Because I was on the set, and there were no computers in those days, I had my steady little portable typewriter—I think it was an Olympia—and I’d be battering out the lines for them once we’d sort of settled on what they were going to say and then they wanted to revise them,” Allen explained. “I’d be typing them out, which really wasn’t my job, but I did. And this was the way we used to go. If we didn’t, what were we going to do?”

One time, life imitated art a little too closely—and Allen stepped in when the cast and crew were quite literally getting lost at sea. “We did have a funny story one day when were were out at sea shooting. The cameraman was Ossie Morris…. We’d turned the boat around and around for the sun. But when we’d finished shooting he’d forgotten to tell the assistant to tell the captain. So we’re sailing and sailing.

“We’d sailed out of Sorrento. And my Italian was a bit better than some of the crew’s so I went and said, ‘How long before we get back to Sorrento?’ And the captain said, ‘Sorrento? We’re sailing to Morocco.’ And so we had to turn round and they’d put the search thing out for this boat, thinking we’d got lost at sea.”

Unsurprisingly, the movie took its good time to wrap up. “I think we were there probably 10 or 12 weeks,” Allen says. “In those days films took longer to shoot. They weren’t so fast. People like the director had a dinner date, so you normally finished by six or seven.”

The cast of characters careened through the production with plenty of funny business that no doubt contributed to the film’s askew humor. Gina Lollobrigida (who discussed Beat the Devil at last year’s TCMFF) had memorized an audition monologue in English. Huston hired her—not realizing that she hardly spoke the language.

La Lollo’s steep learning curve led to some moments of hilarity on the set, Allen remembers: “The English crew used to have rhyming slang in those days. And she had a line ‘tea and crumpets,’ but she didn’t know that crumpets had a double meaning. And everyone was falling about with laughter because she had no idea what they were laughing at. But also, you know, it wasn’t easy for her because she didn’t speak good English. She was learning.”

Lollobrigida claims that Selznick baulked at the prospect of a voluptuous Italian ingenue sharing the screen with Jennifer Jones. Angela Allen didn’t deny it, but said that she didn’t witness any hostilities between the film’s leading ladies. “Everybody got on with each other. There were no rows or anything else. Jennifer was a very nice person to everybody, actually.” That said, Jones seemed much “more relaxed” when Selznick wasn’t around, Allen reports.

And how did the unflappable Bogart, both acting and producing, put up with this screwball shooting experience? “Well, he was a bit, I think, irritated at times. But he was a great friend of John’s and they got on and he could always talk him ‘round. So Bogie was there as the actor, so he didn’t interfere in the production although it was his money that was helping us make the film.”

Finally, Allen told us about an unexpected guest on that cosmopolitan set: “Not only did I meet Truman Capote on that film, but a young man who came down with a friend of his whose father was a friend of Huston’s…. He didn’t always want to come out. He liked to tinkle away on the out-of-tune piano in the hotel. I said, ‘I think that young man is going to go a long way.’ And everyone told me how stupid I was.”

His name was Stephen Sondheim. Didn’t I tell you that Allen has superpowers?

So, the next time you watch a John Huston film, check the credits for the name Angela Allen. Every now and then, pry yourself away from the sweeping location scenery, the wry dialogue, and the absorbing performances. Take a moment to imagine an Englishwoman with a stopwatch, a marked-up script, and eyes that don’t miss a trick, standing calmly behind the camera. If you find it difficult to tear yourself away from the illusion, that’s a testament to Allen’s painstaking work. Cinema is an art of coordination and logistics and she is a master.

 

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Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep (1946): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 18

In a letter to publisher Hamish Hamilton, Raymond Chandler praised Howard Hawks’s film adaptation of The Big Sleep and Humphrey Bogart’s performance as Philip Marlowe:

“When and if you see The Big Sleep… you will realize what can be done with this sort of story by a director with the gift of atmosphere and the requisite touch of hidden sadism. Bogart, of course, is also so much better than any other tough-guy actor that he makes bums of the Ladds and the Powells. As we say here, Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also he has a sense of humor that contains that grating undertone of contempt. Ladd is hard, bitter and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article.”

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Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 13

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Louise Brooks—she of the obsidian helmet hairdo, spellbinding screen presence, and writer of trenchant film essays—knew Humphrey Bogart before he became a big star. Like her, he was a loner. So, appropriately enough, Brooks cited the tormented screenwriter Dixon Steele of In a Lonely Place as the part that best mirrored his true self:

“[B]efore inertia set in, he played one fascinatingly complex character, craftily directed by Nicholas Ray, in a film whose title perfectly defined Humphrey’s own isolation among people. In a Lonely Place gave him a role that he could play with complexity because the film character’s, the screenwriter’s, pride in his art, his selfishness, his drunkenness, his lack of energy stabbed with lightning strokes of violence, were shared equally by the real Bogart.”

Read her full article “Humphrey and Bogey.”

John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 6

In many (if not most) cases, noir style is like red lipstick. You’re supposed to notice it. That’s the whole point. The Maltese Falcon, however, opts for a stealthier (though no less sizzling) shade of noir.

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Its self-effacing yet slyly cynical camerawork and découpage approximate the hardboiled assurance of Dashiell Hammett’s gripping prose. For instance, consider the scene in which Brigid O’Shaunessy confesses to Spade that she’s been bad, “worse than you could know.” From the moment Spade enters her apartment to the dissolve wipe that closes the scene, the action unfolds in 4 elegant shots.

As Spade sits down, a smooth, mid-sentence match-on-action gives us a cozy two shot of Spade and Brigid. The cut adds a jolt to the Spade’s accusatory remark, “You, uh, you aren’t exactly the sort of a person you pretend to be, are ya?”

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The space of the room has contracted at this moment of truth. We can see the wicked glint in Bogie’s eyes as he leans forward and chips away at the enamel on Brigid’s society-matron-of-the-underworld schtick. Once Brigid admits to her checkered past, Spade leans back in his chair, apparently satisfied, and suddenly we have some breathing room again.

Next Huston cuts to provide a view of Brigid’s reaction—or suspicious lack thereof—when Spade drops the name Joel Cairo. Without batting the proverbial eyelash, she asks, “Do you know him?” She’s good alright. Too good. Sangfroid and honesty seldom keep company. Composure belongs to the crooks of this world. It’s the rest of us who fret.

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But the shot of Brigid doesn’t last long, as though she can’t take the heat of Spade’s up-close scrutiny and knows it. And so begins the long take that’ll carry us to the end of the conversation.

As the two characters bluff each other out, Spade trying to figure out how much Brigid knows, Brigid trying to betray as little as possible, the camera gives us a prime orchestra seat to this duet for murderess and shamus. Our focus can drift back and forth between planes of action, Spade reclining in his chair wearing a wry grin (until he isn’t) and Brigid fidgeting in the foreground, facing more towards the audience than towards the man she’s trying to manipulate.

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The long take keeps the lid on the hystrionics; in the hands of a more flamboyant director (and other actors) this material could turn into pure potboiler brisket. Flurries of edits would undermine the cagey reserve of the characters. Instead they stay tough and defiant even when locked in one of noir’s most erotic clinches—which crowds the frame alarmingly after more than a minute dominated by comfortable open space.

By not cutting, Huston also refuses to release the simmering tension between Brigid and Spade. It’s the kind of effect that works on your nerves regardless of whether you’re conscious of it, as does the flickering light of the fire that Brigid stokes to feign nonchalance. Not unlike a good private eye (or any self-respecting femme fatale), The Maltese Falcon gets to you without you fully realizing it.

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The Maltese Falcon sounds like a film that was as fun to make as it is to watch. No doubt the actors’ breezy onset camaraderie contributed to the movie’s enduring freshness.

As Astor recalled in My Story, Huston “had the picture well organized so that we got things done in a miraculously short time. And we had fun—zany, lighthearted fun. We were an unusually ‘close’ company; players usually like to get away from each other at lunch time, but we would all go together across to the Lakeside Golf Club, where a big table was set on the patio for us. The normally frowned-on pre-luncheon drink was a must. We often took an hour and half, and still we stayed ahead of schedule. I remember one scene near the end of the picture, very complicated technically; it ran about six minutes—and six minutes of script an average good day’s work. We rehearsed the scene before going home one evening, and all the camera moves were carefully plotted. The next morning we shot it in one take and went swimming at Lakeside for the rest of the day.”

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Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage (1947): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 4

Whenever there’s mention of first-person POV camera, the word gimmick is never far away. 1947 was both a very good and a very bad year for this device, what with Robert Montgomery’s epically awkward opus The Lady in the Lady proving that the technique could be used as a murder weapon. It kills the movie and slays our patience.

By contrast, Dark Passage, another 1947 film noir, arguably handles the extended first-person camera gimmick better than any other movie before or since. Director Delmer Daves deploys it for maximum dynamic impact without slavishly restricting perspective.

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The POV effect works most thrillingly during the opening sequence, a masterclass in economical storytelling. As the barrel carrying San Quentin escapee Vincent Parry rolls down a hill, the audience rolls down the hill with it, peering out of the circular opening at the blurry vegetation whizzing by outside.

Of course, we have no background on this as-yet-nameless, faceless jailbird. He might be a vicious serial killer for all we know. In real life, we seldom get the facts we need when we need them. Noir loves to imitate life by cutting out the exposition, by throwing us into scenes for which we are narratively (and thus morally) unprepared.

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We have no choice but to identify with this escaped criminal since, for the moment, we are him. We go where he goes. We see what he sees. We feel the strain of his flight to freedom in every shaky advance of the camera.

Bogie’s voice-over enhances the authenticity of the perspective. Instead of the cool detachment of many noir voice-overs, Parry’s breathless, mumbly comments, as he psychs himself up and wishes he had a cigarette, sound like something a man on the run might plausibly mutter to himself.

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However, even during this opening, (and until we see Bogie’s escaped convict transformed by plastic surgery), Daves wisely and seamlessly inserts shots that could not possibly align with the POV of the main character, like this one of Parry staggering out of the barrel, visually confined by both the barrel’s rim and the bridge.

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The POV camerawork does dominate, though, creating an artificial long take by hiding cuts in rapid pans that also give the sequence a frantic dynamism. Once Parry hitches a ride with a smarmy stranger, the POV binds us to the convict even more by cultivating our dislike for the driver. How dare he look at us that way! Wrong as it is, I savor the visceral impact when the-viewer-as-Bogie punches the inquisitive schmoe right in the kisser.

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Finally, the camerawork defies our expectations by refusing to show us the star’s face, a pretty audacious move for studio-era Hollywood. As Bogie remarked, “I can just hear Jack Warner scream. He’s paying me all this money to make the picture and nobody will even see me until it’s a third over.”

My Photochemical Romance: The Nitrate Picture Show 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me testify: yes, there is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Shock of the Lightning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Without End

A book blocks the woman’s face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time without end indeed. 

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Flowers of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear reader, I came close.

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Coda: Diva Gone Nitrate

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

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

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

leavehertoheavenfilm

15 Film Noir Valentines for All You Lovelorn Mugs and Molls

outofthepastIt’s that time of year when flurries of cards in Pepto-Bismol hues invade our lives with syrupy messages of eternal devotion. I see gestures of love like that and I think, “What would Raymond Chandler do?”

Well, he’d probably have a drink and say something funny and bitterly insightful, I guess. But I’m no Raymond Chandler. So I did the next best thing and spent some time communing with Photoshop to make shoddily satirical valentines.

When you think about it, though, film noir is first and foremost about relationships—romances that actually reveal the dark side of human interactions and the shallow pretense of bourgeois affection… oh, who am I kidding? I just wanted to make some damn noir valentines. As for the analysis, today, baby, I don’t care.

Please note that these valentines are ironic and are not meant as an endorsement of: homicide, codependency, passive aggression, guns, necrophiliac crushes, l’amour fou, watered-down penicillin, or bad romance of any kind. Make sure you talk to your doctor about whether hardboiled dialogue is right for you.

And, without further ado, the valentines…

Martha Vickers says what we’d all like to say to Bogie in The Big Sleep (1947):

thebigsleep_valentine

Rita Hayworth tells us how she really feels in Gilda (1946):

gilda_valentine

Gloria Grahame is not charmed by Glenn Ford’s hang-ups in The Big Heat (1954):

thebigheat_valentine

Grimy drifter Ann Savage just can’t quit Tom Neal in Detour (1945):

detour_annsavage_valentine

Noir’s rottenest couple, Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944):

doubleindemnity_valentine

You thought your girl- or boyfriend was clingy? Get a load of Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1946):

leavehertoheaven_valentine

It was surprisingly hard to come up with something romantic for Harry Lime (Orson Welles) of The Third Man (1949) to say. But I think this is pretty heartwarming.

thirdman_valentine

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth are fools in love in The Lady from Shanghai (1947):

theladyfromshanghai_valentine

Maybe Bogie loves Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon (1941), but he won’t play the sap for her!

themaltesefalcon_valentine

Ava Gardner explains to Burt Lancaster that she has some emotional baggage in The Killers (1946):

thekillers_valentine

Outlaw lovebirds Peggy Cummins and John Dall in Gun Crazy (1950):

gun_crazy_valentine

The ultimate in noir tragic coolness, Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947):

outofthepast_valentine

I couldn’t help but get a little mushy over my favorite noir screen team, Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire (1942):

gunforhire_valentine

Gloria Grahame recites some melodramatic script lines to express her despair over losing Bogie at the end of In a Lonely Place (1950):

inalonelyplace_valentine

Dana Andrews seems a tad too fixated on a portrait of a dead dame in Laura (1944):

laura_valentine

 Happy Valentine’s Day to all you femmes and hommes fatals!