The Exile (1947): King of Hearts

dougieIt would be a gross understatement to say that Max Ophüls knew how to make a camera dance. His cinema waltzes and gavottes, prances and strides, twirls and whirls, tiptoes and swaggers, sweeps and strolls, races and meanders, depending on the mood and meaning of the moment. His tracking shots keep time to the many rhythms of the human body and the human heart.

For The Exile, Ophüls’s balletic camera found an ample partner in Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Playing the future Charles II of England hiding out in the Netherlands, Fairbanks carries the film with a wry, world-weary charm, largely evoked through his posture and how his body travels through the screen space.

(If you need a quick history refresher, Charles Stuart fled England during the period known as the Interregnum rather than face execution by the Puritan zealots who took over his country and killed his father, Charles I. The Exile is a fanciful account of the months leading up to his restoration.)

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Prince Charles Stuart’s key strength—the quality that’s kept him alive through all those years of exile—lies in his adaptivity, and Fairbanks communicates this through the nimbleness of his movements.

Whether darting through a marketplace, leaping onto a river barge, or swinging onto rooftops to escape his foes, Fairbanks’s Charles displays a kinetic energy that we seldom associate with royalty. Kings sit on thrones. A monarch’s sedentary lifestyle is emblematic of his status as the pivot around which the whole mechanism of government turns.

But Charles is a vagabond king, a streetwise king, a king whose experiences living among ordinary people have enriched his character.

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Charles indicates his respect for the common folk early in the film when he tells his group of loyal companions that he won’t force a return to Britain until his people call for him. We initially get a series of swift camera movements as excited messengers and followers wind through the king’s broken-down headquarters, spreading the news that more and more citizens are chafing under Cromwell’s regime.

This giddiness ceases, however, when Charles gives his friends a reality check. Fairbanks delivers a beautiful speech, recorded in a grave long take during which the camera creeps slowly towards a medium close-up, as the King declares that he’s endured too much suffering to inflict another war on his countrymen.

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Now, some reviews of The Exile that I’ve read complain that the pacing lags. If you were expecting The Adventures of Robin Hood, then, yes, it does.

It is, after all, a movie about waiting, about an heir biding his time.

But I think this line of criticism has fundamentally misunderstood what The Exile wants to be: not a swashbuckling adventure, but rather a beguiling historical romance à la Sir Walter Scott.

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The movie takes the time to ripen the characters (and our investment in them) and to establish a multi-layered conflict. On the most basic level, The Exile pits Charles Stuart against the sinister Roundheads who want to kill him and deny him his kingdom.

However, the film also dwells on an internal conflict: whether or not Charles wants to take his place on the throne. Laying low in the countryside, Charles falls in love with Katie (Rita Corday), the enterprising and spirited woman who runs the farm where he works incognito.

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Their first kiss is a masterstroke of cinematic discretion: we see them embrace through a barn window, as the loose shutter opens and closes, opens and closes… until it finally obscures the view of their passionate reunion. Through this tender relationship, the prince discovers the joys of ordinary life, joys that he must eventually relinquish to do his long-delayed duty.

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If you love well-staged action, you’ll need to bide your time until the third act of the film, but it’s worth the wait. When the Roundheads try to seize Charles at Katie’s farmhouse, Fairbanks is a wonder to behold, an effortless, grinning demigod, tracing arabesques with feet that never seem to touch the ground.

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He’s not just eluding his would-be assassins. He’s creating art. His buoyant movements seem to establish his ideological superiority over the bad guys. The combat of bodies parallels the combat of ideas.

They demand totalitarian control. Charles advocates for freedom (lightly presided over by a just king). His response to the Roundheads’ rigid, dogmatic beliefs is resourceful and flexible. And he reacts to the Puritans’ brute force by capering and gamboling out of their reach—all the while lovingly followed by Ophüls’s camera.

It’s as though Charles’s belief in liberty translates into physical freedom of motion. Like the reed in La Fontaine’s fable, he bends and doesn’t break.

Consider it a dance-off of regimes. (Unsurprisingly, Puritans don’t dance too well.)

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The film culminates in a dazzling sequence set on a windmill, during which our hero climbs onto the spinning blades to fend off his attackers. I don’t want to give too much away, but prepare your mind to be blown.

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In addition to starring and doing his own stunts, Fairbanks co-wrote and produced The Exile, made at Universal Studios. Partially on the recommendation of Robert Siodmak, he selected Max Ophüls as his director. If this be a vanity project, here’s to vanity.

Despite the long-ago-and-far-away setting of The Exile, its emotions hit home, due (I would argue) to the personal experience of the two men who shaped it. Fairbanks delivers arguably his most moving performance as the heir to a burdensome, if illustrious, legacy—something he clearly felt in real life, as the son of silent superstar Douglas Fairbanks, sometimes called “the King of Hollywood.”

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The smile and the ability to wear a dashing moustache ran in the family.

As Fairbanks Jr. said in an interview, having a famous father “made it [his career] more difficult in the sense that people expected more from you.”

Despite the doors his family opened, Fairbanks remembered that there were directors and executives who would say, “ ‘You aren’t the man your father was.’ The door may be open to get in, but it stays open, to get kicked out of that much quicker, too.” However, just as Charles Stuart proves himself entirely worthy as a monarch, Fairbanks Jr. bears his father’s mantle with grace and a flair that was uniquely his.

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One also suspects that Max Ophüls’s experience fleeing Nazi encroachment through Europe added to the bitterness of this film’s portrayal of exile—and to the grimness and malevolence of its villains. In 1947 it would have been hard to watch the stern, humorless, black-hatted Puritans hunting down and dispatching dissenters and not think of S.S. agents.

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Ophüls conveys the oppressiveness of the Roundheads through the eerie gliding camera that snakes through their headquarters and through the stark, low-key lighting that the villains seem to bring with them. You couldn’t find a more different aesthetic from the warm, inviting glow of Holland in The Exile‘s early scenes.

The director shoots the Puritans in manner more akin to what you’d expect from Universal horror flicks of the 1940s than from a light-hearted swashbuckler of the same era. This visual choice portrays Cromwell’s followers—and, by extension, all despots—as real-life monsters.

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Interestingly enough, Universal feared the glut of Technicolor adventures on the market in the mid-1940s and vetoed Fairbanks’s desire to film The Exile in color, an unusual move for an A-budget movie.

However, black-and-white turned out to be the right choice, in my opinion, since it let Ophüls evoke the deathly threat of the Roundheads and endow The Exile with the feeling of a period engraving.

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To highlight the contrast between the single-minded Roundheads and the easygoing Charles, Ophüls interjects a sequence of vivid crosscutting. We see the doomy Puritans scheming in their cavernous lair, plotting Charles’s demise. Meanwhile Charles frolics around Katie’s bright farm, helping to plough fields and toting around baskets of adorable chicks (yes, really).

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Playing the formidable Colonel Ingram, Charles’s antagonist, Henry Daniell, that great and perpetually chilly character actor, cranks up the frost to career-high levels.

Daniell dispenses with the comforting roguishness and devilish wit that make audiences come to cherish swashbuckler villains, like Levasseur in Captain Blood or even Rupert of Hentzau in Prisoner of Zenda, in spite of themselves.

No, Ingram is a irredeemable fanatic, devoid even of humanizing vices like lust or greed. He considers himself the mouthpiece of God’s will.

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When Ingram shows up at Katie’s farmhouse, Ophüls startles us with the sudden change of ambiance. We never see Ingram actually arrive. He just seems to materialize.

Ophüls transitions from the happiest scene in the film to Ingram in a spooky long shot, sitting dead still at the farmhouse table, cloaked in low-key gloom. Charles peers out at his enemy from the kitchen, and the prince’s rakish smile is replaced with true concern for the first time in the film.

It’s as though Ingram has carried the pall of despotism around with him. This evil man and all that he stands for will finally force the reluctant king to fight for his throne… and his survival.

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The Exile is an underseen and underrated gem: an adventure with a heart, a romance with panache, and an artful swashbuckler that recaptures the romance of silent cinema. I’m grateful to have seen it on TCM (as part of the network’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and I really hope that it’ll get a DVD release some day soon.

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 7.22.44 PMThis post is part of my TCM Discoveries Blogathon. Please check out all of the wonderful entries!

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The Strange Woman (1946): Take Hold on Hell

The Strange Woman (1946Hedy Lamarr’s beauty hits me like Novocain. The word “stunning” shows up too often to modify things that are merely remarkable. But Lamarr literally stuns me, numbs my brain, and turns almost every critical bone in my body to mush. I’ll pay attention to camera angles later. Must. Look. At. Face.

I find it quite ironic that such a brilliant woman—the mother of modern telecommunications—should unintentionally exert a stupefying effect on those who gaze upon her. (She seemingly froze producers’ brains, as well, otherwise how do you explain White Cargo? Then again, that risible hokum was a box office smash, so perhaps the joke’s on us.) Lamarr is like a reverse Gorgon, paralyzing viewers with her physical perfection.

However, when I focus very hard to counteract the harmony of ratios that added up to produce Lamarr’s face, I realize that her beauty is just a piece of what makes her interesting to watch onscreen. She not only possessed a far-reaching mind, but could also summon a lot more acting talent that she’s typically given credit for.

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And, if you want to see beyond the glamour, The Strange Woman is the movie to start with. As director Edgar G. Ulmer said, “It’s the only picture where she really had to act.” Now, Ulmer was certainly exaggerating, but Lamarr’s portrayal of a conflicted seductress stands out as one of her most fascinating, layered performances. She’s not a villainess, a male fantasy, or the hero’s prize for good behavior; she’s a full-blown anti-heroine who carries the plot.

In the mid-1940s, Lamarr formed her own production company, Mars Film Corporation, a move that granted her far more control over The Strange Woman than she’d exercised over her previous studio films. Rather than choose a high-profile director to helm her first release, Lamarr personally selected fellow émigré Ulmer, who’d been displaying vast creativity on low budgets at the Poverty Row studio PRC.

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The Strange Woman adapted and sanitized a novel of the same name by Ben Ames Williams (whose Leave Her to Heaven had offered a fierce, captivating role for Gene Tierney, another underrated and alarmingly beautiful actress). Set in Bangor, Maine during the early 19th century, the story follows Jenny Hagar, daughter of the town drunk, who leverages her looks and intelligence to marry well.

Shrewd Jenny wins over the townspeople with her outward piety, manipulates her husband’s son to commit patricide, and eventually builds a business empire for herself. When she marries her friend’s fiancé, her first taste of true love ultimately proves her undoing.

hedylamarrA florid example of 1940s noir-flavored costume drama, The Strange Woman cultivates the audience’s sympathy for its femme fatale protagonist. The title alludes to a Biblical proverb warning against temptresses, a verse also used in the film’s publicity campaign: “For the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil, but her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.”

Yet, whereas the Bible refers to such female sinners as almost supernatural menaces, equating adulteresses with uncanny succubi, Ulmer and Lamarr set out to humanize the “strange woman.”

Her end may be as “sharp as a two-edged sword,” but her character also cuts both ways. The whole movie hinges on Lamarr’s performance, and she makes both extremes of Jenny’s nature, from heartfelt charity to merciless greed, plausible and compelling.

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You’ll notice plenty of material in The Strange Woman that would seem more at home in a pre-Code movie, including blatant sadomasochism and strong intimations of incest. In the film’s most analyzed scene, Jenny’s father, jealous of her lovers, decides to whip the Devil out of her, threatening, “This is one beating you’ll not like.” Instead of discreetly cutting away to another scene, Ulmer delivers subversive medium shots of Lamarr wearing facial expressions closely related to her Ecstasy collection, if you catch my drift.

hedylamarr12Before you accuse the film of needless titillation, this unhealthy corporal punishment confrontation provides the key to Jenny’s psyche. It exists to show us that her upbringing has irrevocably perverted her emotions, crossing the wires for love and hate, pleasure and pain in her mind.

In fact, at the end (Spoiler Alert!), Jenny causes her own death in a carriage accident, barreling towards her husband and his ex-fiancé, furiously whipping her horses. The excitement on her face, the angry thrashing of the whip, and the context of jealousy all echo the earlier scene with her father.

Damaged by the circumstances of her childhood, Jenny cannot escape the fury that her father took out on her and is doomed to propagate dysfunction. She’s not so much a “strange woman” as an all-too-familiar tragedy: a woman unable to heal from the wounds inflicted by an abusive father.

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To make the lasting impact of Jenny’s traumatic childhood even clearer, the film begins by portraying her as a precociously vicious child, an apt liar, and a total afterthought to her irresponsible father, who spends his time bumming grog money off of more affluent townspeople. Ulmer transitions from this kind of prologue to the plot in earnest when the young Jenny peers down at her reflection in the river, insisting, “I’m going to be beautiful!”

Her nearby father thoughtlessly throws his empty liquor jug into the water, shattering Jenny’s image. After a hidden cut, the water settles to reveal a glimpse of grown-up Jenny. The camera pans upwards and there’s Hedy, brimming with savage energy and determination. The presentation of Jenny’s passage from youth to adulthood—visually triggered by the careless discarding of the bottle—highlights the destructiveness of her father’s alcoholism.

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Throughout The Strange Woman, Ulmer’s love of sinuous camera movements, Baroque shadows, reflections, and expressionistic angles partner well with Lamarr’s slinky grace and the quietly diabolical intensity that she channels. In contrast to many glossy, talky, high-key Hollywood period dramas, this one didn’t try much to smooth the edges of a rough-hewn era.

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It went a million dollars over budget, but still taps into some of the Poverty Row rawness that infuses many of Ulmer’s films. He evokes a cruder time in American history when boomtowns were dangerous places filled with dangerous people and you did whatever you had to for survival. The stakes of Jenny’s social climbing, we know, aren’t frivolous. The tough faces of the sailors and lumberjacks, the muddy streets, the blazing riot fires in the distance, and the grunts of offscreen brawls all tell us that.

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Even in a halfway decent print, the candlelit night scenes really are dark. Those nocturnal exchanges anchor the film. Jenny talks her husband’s son into murder while gazing at her own proud beauty in the mirror, as though putting herself into a trance. She creeps over to kiss him, but not before looming in the foreground as he wrestles hopelessly with his conscience. Later, the night again becomes Jenny’s accomplice when she draws her final husband towards her simply by lying inert on a bed, like a spider waiting for a fly to get caught.

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If Jenny’s calculating side chills us, flickers of genuine kindness and generosity prevent the audience from condemning her fully. Sure, she might donate to the church primarily to boost her reputation, but the compassionate ease of her interactions with the poor leaves no doubt: she likes helping people, especially children, in need.

She’s not all bad. And her own badness torments her, as indicated by the tear she sheds in close-up while a thunderous evangelist rails against wicked women.

hedylamarr3Most poignantly, she refuses to desert her battered old friend Lena, a waitress with a less-than-pure reputation. When Jenny’s second husband orders her to turn Lena out of their house, she rebukes him: “You good righteous man! You hypocrite! Telling others what they must and must not do while you live in this house with me.”

The Strange Woman’s ambiguity, hinting that a woman can be both cruel and magnanimous, good and evil, puts a decidedly feminist slant on what could’ve been a mildly sensational sermon. On a visual level, the film sets up Jenny’s face as our primary emotional frame of reference; we’re encouraged to identify with her.

We feel through her, whether she comforts a hungry child or wordlessly ponders killing off her husband. Ulmer believed that directing really consists of pulling the audience into the thoughts and struggles of a character: “I’m trying very hard to give it a viewpoint: tell it from somebody I can feel for.” He and Lamarr certainly succeeded in doing so in The Strange Woman.

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By the time a radical preacher starts spewing fire and brimstone, we’re close enough to Jenny that we perceive the contradictions at work. “You cannot hide behind your beauty,” he howls. “Your beauty has made you evil. And your evil destroys itself.”

Try again, holy man. Beauty encourages those who perceive it to press the pause button on their brains and consciences, but you can’t blame the beauty alone. As long as anyone sees a beautiful woman as a target, an object, or, worst of all, a devil and not a person, can you really blame her for cultivating her erotic power and using her allure as a weapon? I sure can’t.

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The Strange Woman has fallen into the Public Domain, so you can watch it on YouTube and download it for free from the Internet Archive.