Night Must Fall (1937): Behind the Mask

posterNowadays, playing a psychopathic murderer is practically a rite of passage for movie stars eager to show off their versatility. But, in the 1930s, Robert Montgomery had to campaign for the privilege.

As Photoplay magazine reported, “He pestered M-G-M officials until they gave in” and agreed to adapt Emlyn Williams’s suspenseful play for the screen. Determined to take on the lethally charming lead role, the actor even agreed to pay for a part of the production.

Montgomery (and the studio) took a big risk with his star image as a coy sophisticate. To put this into perspective, only 10 years before Night Must Fall hit theaters, the ending of another famous thriller, The Lodger, had to be radically altered so that Britain’s favorite matinee idol, Ivor Novello, wouldn’t turn out to be a serial killer.

A decade later, audiences were apparently desensitized enough that the gamble paid off. Montgomery even reported a net increase in fan mail after revealing his dark side.

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Still, the actor certainly alienated a segment of his admirers, one of whom carped, “At a period in the world’s history when horror of one sort or another is our daily dish, it seemed unnecessary for Mr. Montgomery to inflict this spine-chilling opus upon his public.”

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But Montgomery was determined to prove a villain. And we should all be grateful that he was, because he gave us one of the most frightening murderers ever to menace the silver screen—possibly the scariest before Psycho—a devilish blend of charisma and repulsiveness.

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Night Must Fall is a delicate exercise in encroaching dread—and one largely controlled by Montgomery, who supposedly took the reigns from workman director Richard Thorpe. As the case of a missing woman disturbs the peace of a little English village, beguiling servant boy Danny ingratiates his way into the home of hypochondriac Mrs. Bramson. This crotchety, verbally abusive dowager, played to whinnying perfection by Dame May Whitty, is a just the sort of lady who’d tempt even the most morally-upstanding individuals among us to sweeten her tea with cyanide. She’s well known in the area for her bad temper and supposed cache of hidden money. Starved for excitement and adventure, Mrs. Bramson’s niece Olivia, little more than a servant herself, sets out to expose Danny’s true nature at the risk of losing her heart and her life.

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At almost two hours long, the film slowly builds in fear and suspense, eschewing dramatic plot developments in favor of layered characterizations. At the end of most scenes, you’d be hard-pressed to say what’s shifted in the characters’ dynamics, but you sense a looming shock for all those touched by Danny’s deceit.

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With brooding shadows from cinematographer Ray June and directorial influence from Montgomery, Night Must Fall revels in sardonically undermining Hollywood’s idyllic dreams of merry old England. Far from reassuring, this quaint landscape is perpetually teetering on the cusp of darkness (as the title suggests).

Unlike the play, which opens with a judge intoning a sentence at a trial, the adaptation begins outside, in the shadows, as a man shown in silhouette whistles to himself while burying something at the base of a tree. The fact that he’s doing so by the light of the moon—and quickly hides when he hears human noise—tells us that he’s not planting daisies.

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The audience thus enters the film’s setting of tea cozies and servants’ quarters already disillusioned, already conditioned to pierce through the veneer of comfort and civilized behavior… already aware of what’s rotting in the garden.

In other words, we see the world a little more like Danny the sociopath does: stripped of warmth, compromised by secrets. A ruthless zero-sum game ironically embellished by roses and doilies. The late-afternoon sunlight and quaint tweedy textures mock the viewer with their insincerity.

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From this tenebrous set-up, the movie as a whole hinges on Montgomery’s performance. He doesn’t disappoint. From the moment his Danny swaggers into Mrs. Bramson’s house—about to be called on the carpet for impregnating a maid—the audience recognizes his uncanny ease and casualness. Nobody’s ever that calm. Unless he hasn’t got a conscience.

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Now, I have no intention of trying to diagnose a fictional character, but I do admire how Montgomery’s acting anticipated clinical descriptions of the psychopath: not so much a full person, but a series of performances constantly being staged for the benefit of others and even for himself.

In 1941, Dr. Hervey Cleckley published a landmark study of psychopaths, The Mask of Sanity, explaining their fundamental emptiness: “We are dealing here not with a complete man at all but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly… So perfect is this reproduction of a whole and normal man that no one who examines him can point out in scientific or objective terms why he is not real.”

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Indeed, Danny does demonstrate such “machine”-like behavior, as though he’d been studying the way normal people behave, memorizing their habits rote, then playing them back.

Smiles don’t crinkle his eyes enough. His sleepy-eyed reserve erupts too easily into manic merriment. His gleeful recitation of nursery rhymes, his cigarette, forever perched at the same obtuse angle on his lip, that tune he whistles as a default noise—all these idiosyncrasies endow him with a rakishly automatic quality.

Montgomery’s roguish Irish accent, though pretty darn good, contributes to the mechanicalness of the character: too smooth, too mannered upon closer observation.

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Throughout the film, Montgomery often makes his usually animated face go unnervingly blank or impassive, especially when Danny doesn’t think anyone’s watching. At his comic best, the actor could screw up that beautiful mug of his into any number of funny grimaces or provoke laughter with a twitch of his eyebrow.

By contrast, in many medium close-ups from Night Must Fall, his cigarette practically betrays more emotion than he does. Devious melodrama villains snicker and rub their hands whenever they think they’re unobserved; this is at least recognizably human. Danny is spookier, because he possesses the ability to flip his emotions on and off like an electric current—which suggests that he never really felt those emotions anyway.

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The camera heightens the uncanniness of Montgomery’s performance by presenting Danny as a cipher. For instance, as the killer delivers a protracted, morbid speech, imagining the congregation in the local church shuddering while night closes in, the audience sees only the back of Danny’s head. Of course, throughout the entire film, we might as well have been looking at the back of his head the entire time, for how well he conceals his identity.

The menacing, hypnotic stream of words that pours forth from Danny, in contrast to the unreadable back of his head and shoulders, creates an eerie counterpoint that couldn’t have existed on a stage in quite the same way. Danny’s terrifying inscrutability washes over the spectators, jolting us into the realization that even the most outwardly affable individual could harbor a horrible, unknowable hole in place of a personality.

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Nevertheless, the film offers the viewer one unadulterated peek into Danny’s head, one glimpse of the blinding, childish panic that may represent his only genuine feeling. On the night the body in the garden is discovered, Danny peers out through the lace curtains of his window.

We see him from the outside, the glass pane a hovering box of light in the midst of darkness, reminding us of the many barriers—lies, charm, violence, false identities—the murderer uses to protect himself. That illuminated square also seemingly holds Danny a prisoner, evoking a sense of claustrophobia as his sins threaten to find him out.

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Suddenly, as he reaches to draw down the curtains, a match-on-action transports us inside his small room. In his pajamas, he appears more vulnerable and less slick than usual and almost collapses into a chair. The camera tracks in close, until we’re practically on top of his head, looking over his shoulder, aligned with his mind.

Then the focus racks to give us a sharp line of vision to the hatbox under his bed. The box which, the viewer knows by now, probably contains the head of his victim.

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We get a cut to a close-up of Danny, his shadow an abstract blur on the wall, as he covers his face with his hands.

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This brief expressionist scene, with its especially fancy racked-focus long take, provides the viewer with a benchmark of authentic emotion and squirmy intimacy in a film full of dissimulation. (I’d also note that the subjective, psychological camerawork foreshadows the first-person point-of-view in Lady in the Lake, indicating that Montgomery had a hand in directing this scene.)

Danny’s apprehension, his disgust at the object he’s brought into his own living space, and even a hint of necrophilia—I mean, why steal the head?—all bring the nightmare realm of his mind into relief. He’s not glamorous or sly. He’s the raw nerve, the open, oozing, festering wound that requires such a complex swaddling of lies and pretense.

For the most part, as Cleckley would say, Danny “is not real.” But for about 30 seconds here, shit gets real. All too real.

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While fully embracing the ugliness of his character, Montgomery also harnessed his star image to amplify Danny’s power as a fantasy vehicle. Awful though his deeds are, still more awful is his ability to leverage his evil as a kind of aphrodisiac. As the Scotland Yard inspector jokes about the unknown murderer, he’s a “regular film star,” an outlaw who revels in the publicity and the aura of romanticism that his crimes generate.

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The stakes of Night Must Fall don’t depend on whether Danny is caught or not, but on whether he succeeds in seducing Olivia and, to a certain extent, the audience. His capacity to horrify relates directly to how much we, like Olivia, are excited by his ruthlessness. Danny draws us into pity with stories of his wretched childhood, elicits awe with the virtuosity of his lies, and even gets us rooting for him by targeting the nasty old bag Mrs. Bransom. The danger of Danny is less what kills than what he awakens in others. How does he compromise Olivia and us, selling the glamour of his dirty deeds, making us believe that evil truly is glamorous and not just gross and sad?

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Only at its conclusion does the film allow spectators to fully perceive Danny as a predator who thrives on control and domination. In Williams’s play, Danny, manacled and about to be hauled off to the police station, grabs Olivia and kisses her “violently on the mouth.” Since the movie adaptation of Night Must Fall was released after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, nothing doing there.

However, just you try not to infer a sort of sexual gratification in his wordless triumph as Olivia skulks back to the house to join him, even though she suspects that he’s killed her aunt. Montgomery, a master of irresistible smugness under any circumstances, conveys Danny’s triumphant arrogance, leaning back in his chair with satisfaction and biting his thumb suggestively.

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All in all, Montgomery’s Danny alludes to a hidden temptation, affably fooling most characters, but coaxing the film’s viewers and Olivia irresistibly with the promise of a glimpse of what’s behind his mask. The fact that we do want to see—and that we shrink from the howling animal he becomes, disappointed by the annihilation of his sly wickedness—chastens us, but leaves us wiser. Well, at least, I hope so.

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In 1937, Photoplay magazine concluded its review of Night Must Fall by warning, “This will have you looking under your beds at night.” Worse, it’ll erode your trust and force you to question what’s real. It’ll make you think twice about the next person who compliments you, who makes you feel special, who makes you feel alive.

And it might even encourage you to look under that person’s bed—for a hatbox…

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This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Shadows and SatinSilver Screenings, and Speakeasy. Be sure to check out the other wonderful posts!

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The Haunted Palace (1963): A Portrait of Terror

vlcsnap-2013-10-27-23h49m23s129“You do not know the extent of my appetite… I’ll not have my fill of revenge until this village is a graveyard, ’til they have felt, as I did, the kiss of fire on their soft bare flesh—all of them!”

Joseph Curwen has no chance of escape. Lashed to a tree and surrounded on all sides by a baying mob of illiterate peasants, the stately master of the occult looks helpless, defeated, and vaguely preposterous with his frilly cravat and polished costume.

Then, he steels himself against the indignity and brazenly returns the gaze of his persecutors.

“Have you anything to say, warlock?”

Curwen trains his icy blue eyes on the crowd. “Yes. As surely as the village of Arkham has risen against me, so shall I rise—from the dead—against the village of Arkham!”

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The camera then assumes Curwen’s perspective, rapidly panning as he singles out the leaders of the riot. He pauses on each guilty, quaking face and levels his malediction. “From this night onward, you shall bear my curse!”

A torch is cast on the straw at his feet. The flames rise. Curwen looks about him in shock and disbelief, as though he cannot fathom his powers failing him. His face contorts as he attempts to bear the agony of the consuming blaze, but cannot. Curwen rears his head back, and a reedy, bellowing cry escapes him, mingling with the distant crackle of thunder.

vlcsnap-2013-10-26-23h13m37s205So begins the The Haunted Palace, my pick for the most unsettling of the Corman-Price collaborations. To address this head-on, the film, though presenting itself as an adaptation of Poe’s “The Haunted Palace” and also of Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” doesn’t really fulfill either claim, on a narrative level, at least. Sure, it borrows the basic premise and a few tidbits of mythos from Lovecraft’s novella, but bulldozes the modernistic intricacy of the original.

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Nevertheless, I relish the irony that this film, with its mutants and monstrous human-god couplings, is itself a misshapen hybrid, a cross-pollination of two American horror masters. Corman and screenwriter Charles Beaumont bred the cosmic weirdness of Lovecraft with the lusty revenge motifs of Poe to forge what I consider a truly disturbing movie. And Price’s virtuoso performance captures notes of the tormented conscience and the paranoid alienation that we tend to associate with Poe’s and Lovecraft’s antiheroes respectively. Not bad for a film shot in 15 days!

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I think we can all agree that Vincent Price boosted the quality of basically every film he was ever in—and if you don’t agree, you shall bear my curse. He was the ultimate value-added actor, turning even the most threadbare of characters into tapestries of terror. However, for the film in question, his taxing role provided a perfect showcase for his considerable acting talents. As Roger Corman observed, “I think the concept of Vincent playing the dual role of Ward and Ward possessed was a challenge, but the kind of challenge an actor loves. It gives him the opportunity to work in a more complex way on camera.”

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Price plays Joseph Curwen’s meek descendant Charles Dexter Ward who returns to Arkham to claim his ancestor’s palace. Despite the threats and protests of the village, Ward and his wife investigate the drafty mansion. Unsurprisingly, a haunted psychedelic portrait of Curwen soon gets hooks in Ward and, before long, the warlock is using Ward’s body to exact vengeance on the town and continue his attempts to mate the Old Ones with mortal women.

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Foreshadowing his deadly earnest performance in Witchfinder General, Price wisely dialed down his camp sensibility to practically nothing for The Haunted Palace. I’m a huge fan of all things camp, but it does have a time and a place. In a Corman-Price picture, one might crave the comfort of wink-wink theatrics or the risible excess of some medieval debauchery. The absence of the cozy over-the-topness we expect makes The Haunted Palace doubly squirm-inducing.

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If the audience wants ham, they’ll go hungry in this one. Even some exaggerated makeup design can’t defuse the chilling impact of Price’s serene wickedness. It’s the little things that make him so unnerving. The way he calmly pops a grape into his mouth as he connives to get his wife committed to an asylum. How he tosses a lit match onto an alcohol-soaked enemy without a twitch of sympathy. His sour wit as he lights ceremonial torches, cooing, “Well, I’ll admit the furnishings do leave something to be desired, but it has a lived-in quality, don’t you think? After all, home is where the heart is…” Curwen-as-Ward is no laughing matter.

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As far as cinematic depictions of possession go, The Haunted Palace stands out as one of the most implacable and frightening ever captured on film, in my opinion. No projectile vomiting, no levitation, no special effects, merely a different entity taking up residence in someone else’s body. Whereas a great number of horror flicks focus on the consequences of possession, relatively few movies dwell on the process by which the physical being, mind, and soul of one decent man are progressively permeated and conquered by a force of darkness. I mean, The Shining portrayed this kind of transformation brilliantly, but was Jack Torrence ever a normal, lovable guy? I think not.

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By contrast, Price’s Charles Dexter Ward immediately endears himself to the viewer. He is attentive and courtly towards his wife, polite to strangers, and, when the occasion calls for it, dryly humorous. The goody-two-shoes victims in classic horror movies tend to bore me to tears and have me rooting for evil in no time flat, but I appreciated how likable and initially unaware Price made his interpretation of Ward.

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Several of the most important scenes in The Haunted Palace are essentially monologues—just Charles Dexter Ward standing in front of his ancestor’s portrait and gradually coming under its malign influence. There’s the occasional ghostly voice-over to raise the stakes, but these integral exchanges mostly consist of just one man standing alone in a room. Doesn’t sound particularly cinematic, does it? Yet, through Price’s eloquent pantomimes in these portrait soliloquies, we witness Curwen’s venom slowly digesting the mild, gentle Ward. I have a hard time imagining any other actor “selling” such a sustained transformation.

The first encounter with the portrait offers an introduction: Ward and his wife walk towards the lurid painting and one shot-reverse-shot exchange suggests Ward’s connection and resemblance to it.

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When Ward next goes face-to-face with the eldritch portrait, we see Curwin’s spirit take root. Lighting his cigar, Ward glances at the painting. Then, in a closer shot, he stares up at the portrait with guileless blue eyes, but then winces, as a man might looking into a bright light or a heavy, hot wind.

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We get a series of cuts back and forth from the painting and Ward, who tries to shield his eyes but can’t resist its lure. Ultimately, he looks straight at the portrait and his face ripples from within. The forehead seems to heighten, the eyes recede, and the mouth fixes itself into a line of immovable cunning. It’s like Barrymore’s famous no-cut transformation in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—but in close-up. (In fact, it was that famous horror performance that stoked Vincent’s childhood interest in acting; he emulated Barrymore’s Hyde in front of his mirror for hours.) By moving a few muscles, Price alters his character’s identity. The audience sees the badness of Curwen enter and possess him.

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The third portrait scene is brief—a single frightening shot, after Simon tells Ward to “ask Mr. Corwen” the answer to a question. We see a long shot of the portrait and the camera tracks back to show Ward’s head in the bottom of the frame, dwarfed by the surroundings. The sudden intrusion of his head disorients the viewer, so that when Ward whirls around, revealing Curwen’s pallid, pitiless face, we’re all the more alarmed. Curwen has installed himself in Ward.

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The fourth major portrait scene stresses the triumph of supernatural sin over a normal, healthy mind. Under Curwen’s control, Ward cruelly tells his wife not to pry into his affairs. She runs off to bed and Ward, momentarily regaining his free will, calls back to her when a disembodied, resonant version of his own voice calls to him. The camera reframes to remind us of the painting’s presence. Ward turns towards it fearfully, but bravely calls out, “Leave me alone!”

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Two progressively closer shots of the portrait emphasize Curwen’s hypnotic power as the voice protests that he and Ward are really one. Corman cuts back to a shot of Ward, cowering slightly, as the camera sweeps down in a crane shot like a falcon in the dive. Cut to the painting: “My will is too strong…” Cut to Ward, whose face shows no fear, no love, nothing but a stony resolution as Curwen’s voice completes, “Too strong for you.” Price finishing that sentence in a slightly deeper, firmer voice scares the hell out of me; nothing has changed, yet we’re looking at a totally different individual. Ward’s own body is enunciating the victory of something that Ward hates and fears. The invasion is almost complete.

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There’s more spooky portrait soliloquy turmoil, but that gives you a taste of Price’s extraordinary task of making scenes like this—which could’ve been boring—into mortifying depictions of evil winning out over good. And you might be surprised by how much evil does win in this game.

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Some of the most effective horror stories I’ve read—Blackwood’s “The Secret Listener” and Onions’s “The Beloved Fair One” come to mind—derive their menace from repetition. A normal fellow explores and describes a confined location over and over and over again, eventually succumbing to its monotonous spell.

On film, it’s damned difficult to pull off this sort of horror that grows by almost imperceptible increments until the sum total of everything not-quite-right overwhelms the viewer.

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Of course, Corman still throws in a few drive-in shocks, like one of the townsfolk’s deformed progeny reaching its grotesque hands through a slot to receive a dinner of giblets. Still, he patiently let Curwen’s creeping evil unfold through variations on these portrait scenes.

Intimate and almost anti-cinematic, these gripping passages of time spent alone (but not really!) with our tortured protagonist make us wriggle as we notice how Ward emerges from each scene having imbibed more of Curwen into his nature. Corman thus approximates a “flavor” of fear that I usually associate with top-notch macabre literature.

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The performance has the meticulous shadings that come from strategic pre-planning. Roger Corman remembered, “Vincent and I would discuss in depth the character before each picture… In fifteen days, to shoot what were fairly complicated films, there was no time to have deep discussions about character. We had to go and shoot!”

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Price and Corman (left) rehearsing the movie’s opening sequence

The tug-of-war for the mind, body, and soul of Charles Dexter Ward, as conveyed by Price, elevates the film to the level of psychological horror. A key strength of Price’s dual characterization resides in his ability to react to the wickedness that overtakes him. The actor communicates Ward’s horror at the horror he’s becoming, as the good man pitifully struggles with the spirit that’s colonizing him.

Not only does Price bring two distinct personalities to life, but he also suggests the relationship between them—condescending domination on one side and appalled resistance on the other. He’s a one-man dialectic!

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In addition to Price, the film features some stunning wide-angle cinematography, by Corman veteran Floyd Crosby, that glints like a star sapphire. It also boasts a sublime score by Ronald Stein that conveys the otherworldly sweep of the narrative. An ill, woebegone Lon Chaney is appropriately raspy and lends his considerable horror cred to the mix, but doesn’t get much to do.

Apart from Price, the standout performance is Debra Paget as Ann Ward, who reacts poignantly to her changed husband and displays admirable fortitude and courage for a horror movie wife. She loves the man she married as much as she is disgusted by the belittling, lascivious Curwen.

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In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a delicate dance of eroticism and creepiness, Curwen-as-Ward tries to have his wicked way with her or, as he says, “exercise my husbandly prerogative.” All the great horror stars had a gift for suggesting both sexual attractiveness and repulsiveness and, if you watch this scene, you might conclude, as I did, that Price negotiated this balance most adroitly of all.

Be sure to unearth this underrated classic. I suspect that you too will fall under the spell of The Haunted Palace… though thankfully not to the extent of Charles Dexter Ward.

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I did this post as part of the Vincent Price Blogathon, which also I hosted. I am honored by the amazing bloggers who participated, so be sure to check out their entries!

Thirteen Women (1932): Tempting the Fates

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“They were schoolgirls together and their lives form one chain of destiny, women who believe!”

—Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy)

Peg Entwistle came to Hollywood because she wanted to be a star.

She didn’t make it.

It’s an old story and a sad one—a tale that really belongs to all of Tinseltown’s lost souls, although none can equal the cinematic coup-de-théâtre with which Entwistle ended her life.

The Welsh-born beauty acted in just one movie before she hurled herself off the H of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, two days after the film premiered. They say that her ghost still haunts the spot. And Thirteen Women happens to be her first and last movie.

Even without its connection to one of Hollywood’s most famous tragedies, Thirteen Women would stand out as one of the most eldritch concoctions of the trippy pre-Code era. In this horror-melodrama, the power of suggestion drives a group of wealthy young women to madness, suicide, and murder.

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Entwistle gave a nuanced, if brief, performance as Hazel Cousins who watches an acquaintance plummet to her death during a trapeze act. Deranged by the experience and maddened by a horoscope predicting violence and disaster, Hazel stabs her husband to death. We see her clutching a bloody dagger and screaming, under superimposed headlines announcing her crime.

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One has to wonder if the film exerted an insidious real-life influence on Peg Entwistle, perhaps even planting the seed of a dramatic death by falling in her mind. Just as her character seems imprisoned by headlines, Entwistle herself has gone down in history as a shocking episode in movie-land folklore. The fame that eluded her in life was ironically bestowed upon her in death. Did the dark plot of Thirteen Women, in addition to all of her other worries and woes, work some kind of malign spell on her? Did she relate too closely to the film’s theme of self-fulfilling prophecies? In any case, it’s a hell of a coincidence—and only one reason to tune in to this magnificently warped movie.

I consider Thirteen Women one of the most concise, effective nail-biters I have ever encountered. If you’re looking for the antidote to summer blockbuster bloat, look no further than this frightening pre-Code gem.

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Produced by David O. Selznick at RKO and directed by the rather obscure George Archainbault, Thirteen Women admirably truncated a popular novel by Tiffany Thayer. Clocking in at an incredible 59 minutes, the movie manages to sketch a blueprint for every revenge thriller that would follow. The one-by-one elimination of enemies, the grotesquely devised set-piece deaths, the gaggle of mean girls being menaced by their former target, and the ambiguous villain-protagonist will all feel remarkably familiar to modern audiences.

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As you may know, before transitioning to the tame post-Code era with her “perfect wife” image, Myrna Loy played an awful lot of vamps, tramps, and temptresses, often with an exotic flair. The parts usually fell beneath her talents as an actress (and fell within the egregious old Hollywood tradition of blackface and yellowface portrayals, which Loy later regretted). However, Thirteen Women gave Loy the most psychologically rich variation on her Oriental Villainess typecasting. Mixed-race anti-heroine Ursula Georgi has survived things that most of us get the chills just thinking about—and ostracism at the hands of her peers put her over the edge. Jaded, manipulative, and captivating, she’s out to exact retribution on the coven of white society snobs who shut her out of their privileged world at boarding school.

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Once a victim of fate, Ursula takes fate into her own hands. Using her seductive charms and wits to destroy her enemies, Ursula is sort of like a shadowy echo of Lily from Baby Face. Whereas Lily, that other pre-Code female mastermind, destroyed others to elevate herself, Ursula sees that destruction as an end in itself. Maybe she was reading Schopenhauer instead of Nietzsche.

Most interestingly, Ursula doesn’t merely set out to destroy these women—she sends phony prophecies about their imminent doom and effectively pushes them to destroy themselves. By using the name of a famous swami in her warning messages, Loy’s character reveals the strength of Eastern mysticism upon the snotty Caucasian women who had once dismissed Ursula and her culture.

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Ursula’s victims play right into her hands. As one of them wonders aloud, “But the moon does control the tides! And nothing can live without the sun. Why shouldn’t we be controlled?”

Rather than intervening directly, for most of the film, our femme fatale lets the power of suggestion gnaw away at her victims. The hoity-toity finishing school graduates succumb to their own demons—butchering their husbands, causing calamitous deaths, and shooting themselves.

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Thus, Thirteen Women intimates that your average 1930s society belle was concealing some kind of major anguish, rage, or mental imbalance. Perhaps the most disturbing subtext of the film lies in the thought that it doesn’t really take the powers of the occult to make us do awful things to ourselves and to the ones we love; we might do them all by ourselves.

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(Question of the day: would it be worth it to live in the shadow of an ugly death if you got to wear such beautiful 1930s outfits?)

Myrna Loy’s experience as a dancer serves her well in the part of Ursula. The slinky, serpentine physicality that she injected into her role adds to the ominous ambiance of the film. Her sinuous gait and her ability to stand perfectly dead still (to the point where I thought I’d accidentally paused the movie) reminded me of such uncanny villains as Jaffar in The Thief of Baghdad and Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood. We understand that Ursula’s intense hate has transformed her into a being so implacable, so focused that she is almost supernatural.

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Like the return of the repressed, Ursula shows up to expose the cruelty, hypocrisy, and vulnerability of her enemies. Her wickedness, after all, is really just the maliciousness of others reflected back to them. As much as the audience would like to completely sympathize with Ursula’s primary rival, the strongest of the former mean girls—astutely underplayed by a steely but nurturing Irene Dunne—we have to recognize that she brought it on herself. Who’s to blame: the monster or the bullies who created her? I’m particularly enamored with this mirror confrontation shot that seems to visually translate all of this conflict and ambiguity.

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Probing the open wounds of female aggression and racial tension, the plot also sustains a briskly paced series of death scenes and suspenseful set pieces. The film opens with a white-knuckler of a sequence during a death-defying circus act, quickly proceeds to a domestic murder, and witnesses someone being pushed in front of a subway train.

You can also expect a car chase, a woman leaping from a moving train, and an off-screen suicide—I’ve scrambled the order, so don’t worry about spoilers. I would also argue that this film contains one of the greatest, and simplest, suspense scenes of the 1930s, as an adorable little boy tries to reach for a toy ball that’s been filled with explosives. Not for the faint of heart, this movie!

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If we can sense that the adaptation lacks probably the depth of the original, the movie compensates with a major sense of style and a bizarre, magical expressionism. Leo Tover’s cinematography shapes a nightmarish pre-noir world, awash with mystery and imminence.

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Glowing astronomical orbs, glistening fabrics, and inky, low-key shadows all contribute to a feeling that the veil of illusion has been pulled back from reality. We can perceive the cosmic dread that hangs over the comings and goings of the characters, as they meet their destinies… or the end results of their own desires, perhaps.

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When each character dies, a gleaming star suddenly bursts onto the screen and transitions to the next scene. So, are we to assume that humans are indeed the puppets, prone to the indifferent vagaries of celestial bodies? Well, not really, since Ursula can knead destiny to serve her own purposes, pushing people down different trajectories than the stars actually foresaw for them.  Besides, Ursula’s victims actually sealed their fates through their nasty actions many years ago, which we can only assume that they committed of their own volition.

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However, if you pay close attention to the opening shot of the film, a seemingly unrelated image of a train speeding along in the night, you’ll notice it may actually represent the ending of the film from a different angle. In other words, Thirteen Women is carefully constructed for repeat viewing. From the first, the movie foreshadows Ursula’s own apparently predestined death and comes full-circle to this beginning at the very end of the film.

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Thirteen Women thus suggests that what we tend to consider a quirk of fate actually points to a more complex design, a tapestry of free will, unconscious longings, and, yes, some uncontrollable accidents of time and chance.

The fault is neither in our stars, nor in ourselves alone—but it doesn’t help that, all too often, we want to blame the stars.

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The Fallen Idol (1948): Learning to Lie

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A child of eight can’t act. I wasn’t looking for an exhibitionist. Adults have habitual features and defenses. A good actor must take something away, lose a part of himself before he can create a role. 

But with the right sort of child such as Bobby, there is nothing in the way. There is absolutely no resistance. He will do everything you tell him. 

—Sir Carol Reed

 

To call Bobby Henrey a “child actor” would disgrace the uncanny skill and patience of such professional children as Freddie Bartholomew and company.

Bobby starred in only two films: one of them a masterpiece, the other a flop. According to Guy Hamilton, the assistant director of The Fallen Idol, “Bobby had the concentration of a demented flea.” He succumbed easily to boredom and never ceased fidgeting. Co-star Ralph Richardson refused to act with Bobby at a certain point. A padded-up Hamilton often stood in to preserve Richardson’s sanity.

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However, seen by the camera and reassembled by editing, Bobby emerged as something much more extraordinary. He wasn’t acting the part of a child, full of calculated dimples and Victorian postcard sweetness. He was simply, sincerely, and sometimes maddeningly a child.

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Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, scripted by the great Graham Greene, refreshes the tropes of noir by making this child an unwilling participant in a lurid quadrangle of passion and betrayal. Bains, an English butler working at the French embassy in London, falls in love with Julie, a typist working there, and the pair conceal their relationship from Bains’s shrill, vindictive housekeeper wife.

Left in the care of Bains and Mrs. Bains, little Philippe, or ‘Phile’ (pronounced ‘Phil’), the lonely son of the ambassador, gets embroiled in this tangle of lies and conflicting loyalties. When Mrs. Bains accidentally plummets to her death in the midst of a jealous rage, the child witnesses only part of the scene and concludes that Bains, his hero, murdered her.

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Unlike the typical voyeur-witness in film noir, with an obvious duty to tell the truth and shame the devil as in Rear Window or The Window, Phile toddles into a complex empirical and ethical situation. Should he tell the truth and risk incriminating his idol? Or keep on lying—which might put Bains’s head in the noose even more quickly?

The fact that a twitchy, rather selfish child has to navigate this labyrinth of moral quandaries not only heightens the suspense, but also suggests how these kinds of human heart dilemmas bewilder us all—reducing us to little more than children.

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When Phile cries out, “We’ve got to think of lies and tell them all the time!” at a key tense moment of the film, he’s actually articulating the code of the adult world, a protocol of deception, running the gamut from genteel fibs to half-truths to full-on backstabbing.

Like his character Phile, Bobby Henrey also encountered an adult world far too soon. The French-born only child of two writers, he grew up in the bomb-shattered London of World War II. No wonder he had the attention span of a “demented flea,” with bombs going off around him during his formative years!

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 2.12.51 PMBobby’s silky blond hair and bow lips gave him a fragile, angelic appearance. When the boy’s parents featured him on the cover of one of their books, A Village in Piccadilly, the brilliant English director Carol Reed spotted the child and resolved to cast him in The Fallen Idol. Serendipitously, Bobby spoke French as well as English, and the script called for just such a bilingual child.

Even when speaking English, the lispy remnants of a French accent—R’s catching in his throat, S’s and T’s bleeding into each other—made Bobby’s treble voice both more adorable and more annoying. We sense his displacement every time he opens his mouth.

His strange inflections remind us of the difficulty of making oneself clear as a child. Just as all children wrestle with understanding the world around them, even the most verbal child struggles to make himself understood to the world. These little people grasp for words, putting together sentences like small-holed beads not easily strung together. Bobby spoke his lines like that: haltingly, off-key.

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And yet, I marvel at his casual fluency in adult idioms of the “old chap” variety.

When asked whether or not he’d like an ice cream cone, he stodgily replies, “I wouldn’t say no, Bains. “As he pours himself a drink, he mutters, “Hit me,” like a businessman after a long day at work.

We can imagine him echoing his diplomat father when he moans, “Now, will someone listen to me?” as though he were corralling a contentious summit of attachés.

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More important, Bobby’s Phile shines with a need to give love that rescues him from the label of the incorrigible embassy brat. You can feel a lingering and intimate engrossment in close shots of Phile’s hand caressing MacGregor, a glistening garden snake—the boy’s only friend other than Bains. Those images come across as some of the most poignant (and unlikely, given how little boys love to torment creepy-crawlies) representations of childhood affection ever to grace the screen.

Not realizing that snakes can’t recognize themselves, he puts a pocket mirror up to the tiny serpent, whispering, “Hello, MacGregor. Look—you’re very pretty, you know.” I’m sorry, I know of very few eight-year-old boys who profess their love to reptiles. He wants so badly to share his tenderness with something, even the most cold-blooded of critters.

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Bobby’s rendition of Phile thus plays out as one-third little girl, one-third little gentleman, and one-third utter terror. In his unformed innocence, he contains fragments of all of the other characters in the film: Bains’s sedate bravado, Julie’s melancholic kindness, and Mrs. Bain’s self-absorption.

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The Fallen Idol opens with an iteration of its most striking motif. Phile peers through the bannister bars of the ornate townhouse that he calls home, looking down at the people who bustle around on the parquet floor below. In the language of the camera, high angle shots usually suggest superiority, literally looking down on others.

Yet, In a peculiar way, we recognize Phile as both a mini-tyrant—forever showing up at exasperating times, puncturing a tragic romance with impunity—and a victim.

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Throughout the film, Phile’s point-of-view shots often observe the comings-and-goings of the characters from this vantage point, from a high perch.

Staring down at the drama from his roost, he sees things he really shouldn’t, traumatic, twisted adult things that he’s not ready to see. The high angle shots reveal both Phile’s precarious isolation and the odd degree of power that he ends up holding over the fates of the main characters.

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Only towards the end of the film do we see Phile from the vantage point that once was his, after his lies have spun completely out of control and his credibility has totally collapsed.

By lying poorly and slipping himself up, he casts suspicion on his hero whom he now views as a killer. And in so doing, he sheds his status, in his own eyes, as a special sort of child, a privileged charge and a secret-keeper.

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The genius of The Fallen Idol resides in its ability simultaneously to suggest the child’s perspective, to wink at the audience, and, most tantalizingly, to indicate that the Phile can digest much more than you might assume.

For instance, when Bains plots a clandestine excursion with Julie under the pretense of a visit to the zoo, Phile walks right past the door of the room where Bains is talking to her. Then, getting his wind up, he drolly tiptoes backwards. Cut to a point-of-view shot as the camera carefully tracks to eavesdrop as the butler insists, “The boy knows nothing.”

Later, when Bains pretends to be surprised at Julie showing up, Phile corrects him, saying that he was talking to her earlier. This son of a diplomat has not only been taught to lie precociously, he can also catch others in their lies, at times.

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However, we’re not encouraged to view Phile condescendingly. He only has a piece of the puzzle, true, but he’s no more muddled than any of the so-called adults.

His confused perspective parallels the equally anxious positions of the grown-ups. Indeed, the only one who gets the full story is the viewer. For instance, Mrs. Bains dies alone and only we know exactly how it happens.

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Phile watches Bains and Mrs. Bains struggle. Boy, is this kid gonna need therapy!

And so we arrive at the villain of the piece, the monstrous and pitiful Mrs. Bains. We’ve all had to deal with a Mrs. Bains. You know, that sadistic adult in your life who, out of her own bitterness, yelled at you not for doing anything really wrong but merely for being a child, for possessing the innocence and freedom that destiny had deprived her.

Now, Phile may not be the easiest child star to love, but I want to hug him when he turns to that malicious harridan over the dinner table and matter-of-factly tells her, “I hate you.”

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Her nostrils flair: “Master Philip, you’ll say you’re sorry for that.” His head barely poking up over the tablecloth, the tiny boy objects, “I’m not sorry.” As this dangerous exchange takes place, we get a reaction shot of Bains and can discern how impressed he is at Phile telling his wife what he’d probably most like to tell her!

Phile brings about this confrontation of cataclysmically pure honesty. So, of course, he’s sent to his room with no supper. It’s the last fully honest moment in the film.

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For an only or lonely child raised in an ambiance of high-stakes adult games like education or politics, childhood is a state of endlessly being patronized and dismissed.

Believe me. I know.

I grew up as a faculty brat, proud of my encyclopedic knowledge of secrets, of the petty rivalries and schemes that cropped up at the private school where my mother worked.

Take my word on it: long before most children can pronounce the word, they’ve come to hate hypocrisy. And by the time they can pronounce it, they’ve usually been coerced to embrace it.

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Children are the world’s dupes. Not because they lack intelligence, but rather because they possess far more of it than most grown-ups tend to realize. Children live in worlds governed by rules and they know all too well when they—or the adults around them—have broken a rule.

Whereas a child’s faults are often painstakingly reflected back to him and punished, the child who points out the transgressions of his elders faces a terrible and implacable resentment.  People take criticism quite easily from those who can be discounted by their own vices. But reproach from a child stings. The guilty do not like to be rebuked by the guiltless.

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We observe the double-bind that every child faces when Mrs. Bains wakes Phile up to ask him where Bains and Julie can be found in the house. The boy’s cherubic head rests on the pillow. A bobby pin drops next to him on the pillow.

Phile opens one eye. A cut comes quickly—almost too quickly—to jolt us with the frenzied face of Mrs. Bains. “Oh, you know all about them.” She hisses. “You’re not such a child as you pretend to be! You’ve got a nasty wicked mind and it ought to be beaten out of you!”

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The jilted wife treats the child as if he’s an extension of her cheating husband. Phile’s trilling, high voice chokes with horror. He can’t totally process what fuels the adults’ envy and passion, but he knows that he has no place being talked to like this.

He’s been swapped out for a grown man in a lover’s quarrel, feeling the heat of blame for his idol’s infidelity. It scares the hell out of him. Sex is like some algebraic variable that he hasn’t discovered but can discern from the facts, leaving the entire equation lob-sided and all the more alarming.

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The Fallen Idol stands out as one of the most haunting, stomach-churningly tense films I’ve ever seen. In terms of suspense, it schools Hitchcock, whose films rarely (if ever) showcased a performance as vulnerable and exquisite as little Bobby Henrey’s.

Carol Reed, gifted at handling kids as his Oliver! proved, charmed every ounce of that child’s cuteness, his mischief, his ability to bug the living daylights out of his elders.

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Crack cameraman George Perinal, who belongs in the cinematography greats pantheon with Jack Cardiff, captures Bobby’s face so as to wring every emotional nuance out of it. In one scene, when an inspector bends over to talk to the boy, a ray of light drifts over his face, giving him the look of a living painting.

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Most stunningly, as a terrified Phile runs through the noirish streets at night, his miniscule, pajama-clad body flickers through the chiaroscuro, a single point of focus in composition after composition of slick darkness and urban decay.

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I think that I am scarcely exaggerating when I conclude that The Fallen Idol represents the best film ever made about childhood and one of life’s most important rites of passage: learning to lie. And it all would’ve been unthinkable without Bobby Henrey.

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N.B. I am very much indebted to and fully acknowledge an article in the UK Guardian, “What Bobby Saw,” about Bobby’s involvement in the film for certain quotes that I’ve cited in this post and a lot of useful background information.

Although the analysis here is all my own, I would also like to recommend Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay “Through a Child’s Eyes, Darkly” which comes in the Criterion Collection booklet accompanying the DVD of The Fallen Idol, which gave me some great inspiration as I wrote this post.

This post is part of the Children in Film Blogathon hosted by Comet over Hollywood. Join us in celebrating child stars and heck out the other posts! They’re really wonderful.

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Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free Friday Film: Of Human Bondage (1934)

posterShe was no classic beauty. She didn’t have a voluptuous figure. Her stance and poise remind one of a hen—perpetually ready to peck away. To lascivious Hollywood producers, she wasn’t the ideal type of chick they aimed to maneuver onto their couches. They thought she possessed all “the sex appeal of Slim Summerville,” an insult which has been ascribed to several moguls.

And yet, over 70 years since her heyday, Bette Davis still exudes a charisma that is nothing short of spellbinding. One has the feeling that her libido is constantly coursing through her, barely held in check, like the fierce torrent that pours through a hydroelectric dam. Her undeniable sexiness derives from her daring, transcendent self-consciousness, the feeling that her every motion expresses a gesture of defiance or engages in a demonstration of some kind. Her characters are usually performing for someone’s benefit, even if it’s just their own. “Here I am,” she seems to be saying. “Even if I’m a mess, I exist. I’m acting. I’m taking action. And I’m not going to apologize for it.”

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On the birthday of one of the cinema’s great divas, I’d like to remember the movie that cloaked her in an aura of allure and fear, that transformed her into a true star, not just a cardboard goodie-goodie ingénue. Of Human Bondage (based on Somerset Maugham’s novel) provided Bette with her breakout role. She risked her contract at Warner Brothers to take the vulgar, hateful role of Mildred in a production at Radio Pictures (which would evolve into R.K.O. Radio Pictures) and Jack Warner hoped that she would fail.

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The sheer perversity and willfulness of her character, a cockney waitress who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with Philip Carey, a directionless medical student, no doubt echoed Bette’s own indomitable desire to get what she wanted. Watching Of Human Bondage still feels like witnessing a high-wire act: Bette’s nervous power zigzags across the screen and it’s not hard to understand why when you realize that she staked her career on her talent. And won.

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I’ve seen the film a few times and I still get the impression that Mildred might do something new, crazy, and ill-advised every time I tune in. Bette’s interpretation of Mildred manages to bridge the gap between tarty and uppity. She puts on airs, but never fails to accept an invitation to roll around in the muck. This woman lives for punishment, both inflicting it and receiving it.

However, rather than being a walking complex, a neurosis on legs, Mildred comes across as a multi-faceted person. I particularly applaud the sense of self-preservation that Bette brought to the character—despite her masochistic tendencies, Mildred doesn’t like the pain she brings on herself. She clearly wants to use Philip as her safety net, someone she can use and wring for money and security while she’s out hunting something better.

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Mildred’s attractiveness resides in this aspirational quality, mixed with an almost animalistic drive to find the fittest possible mate. She wears her shamelessness with the same confidence she wears pretentious hats or skintight slutty dresses. Here Bette’s witch’s brew of lust, venom, guts, and self-destructiveness foreshadows the strange alchemy of sexiness and repulsion that we associate with the femme fatale of classic film noir. Plus, after the producers saw Bette in this role, I daresay that all comments about Slim Summerville were quickly retracted.

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The movie also boasts a wonderful performance by Leslie Howard who did an excellent job of making Philip Carey, a rather weak man, still sympathetic and likable—not just a drippy victim. Leslie was a delightful, romantic actor, but here, he strikes the right pathetic, passive note that enables us to believe (well, almost believe) that a woman might recurrently reject and wound him.

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Although the film isn’t a masterpiece, director John Cromwell added several interesting psychological touches, redolent of German Expressionism. For instance, at the nadir of his obsession, Philip hallucinates and begins to see Mildred everywhere. The diagram in his textbook dissolves into her. The next day, he fails an important exam because the anatomical skeleton assumes her likeness. The film also throws us off balance by staging many shot-reverse-shot exchanges with characters stationed exactly in the middle of the frame, instead of the usual just-a-little-to-the-side. Frequent wipe transitions and swish-pan cuts enhance the brisk, disorienting grimness of this saga.

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Figure A: Bette Davis

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With a frank depiction of childbirth outside of wedlock, paintings of stark naked ladies, and strong hints of sexual passion or frigidity, Of Human Bondage stands out as one of the most mature Pre-Code films I’ve seen. It eschews any sort of glittery, wink-wink titillation in favor of gritty, uncompromising realism. Backed by Bette’s commitment to bringing out her character’s every wart, the film gives us a portrait of human wreckage, people destroyed not by a twist of fate, but by something as banal and unglamorous as a lack of self-control.

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So, I recommend that you watch Of Human Bondage. You will cringe. You will squirm. And you will marvel at the spitfire virtuosity of Bette Davis, coming of age as a screen actress. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’m embedding a remastered version of the film, but it’s in ten parts. You can easily find the other parts on YouTube. In case you find that too inconvenient, there’s also a lesser quality version of the whole movie contained in one video. This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

Free Friday Film: Bluebeard (1944)

Rather like the whole universe (or so I’ve heard), Bluebeard was made in six days. Well, to be fair, it took a bit longer than that, since the film was only shot in six days, but still, even Roger Corman thinks that’s quick!

This serial killer drama with horror overtones emerged from PRC, Producers’ Releasing Corporation, one of classic Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios which churned out B-minus movies on shoestring budgets for the second half of double bills.  Ironically, these trashy studios often allowed greater artistic freedom to directors than more prestigious studios—if those directors could handle extreme budgetary constraints.

Edgar G. Ulmer negotiated those limitations better than any other director. A frighteningly creative set designer, Ulmer knew how to make a little money go a long way. Shadows are cheap, so he often staged action against sparsely decorated walls, using an expressive play of light and dark to substitute for fancy sets. If you watch Bluebeard, and I hope that you will, keep an eye out for the shadows of Gaston’s suspended collection of puppets. They dangle like an obscure gallows that both reminds Gaston of the victims that he strangled—and looms over his head like the threat of his own hanging. Powerfully creepy stuff for a shabby shocker.

The lead role provides a tour-de-force vehicle for the saturnine, long-faced John Carradine who considered it his favorite performance. It’s not hard to see why since, in place of the crazy, cardboard serial killer we’ve come to expect from modern movies, the script crafts a multi-faceted, albeit unhinged, gentleman. Unlike the brutish or mercenary conceptions of Bluebeard in folktales or true crime stories, Carradine’s 19th century romantic, Gaston Morel,  is a tortured lover of beauty. He’s a puppeteer, a gifted painter, and a brooding connoisseur of women’s charms… who moonlights as a murderer. In this character, we see love, art, and death bleed into each other. He kills the things he loves and must also kill in order to paint—it’s all interdependent.

Art, in various forms, abounds in Bluebeard. Gaston’s secret profession as a snuff painter treats us to a gallery of spooky canvases. His avocation as a puppet master shines when we watch his guignol production of Gounod’s opera of Faust—taking place in miniature. Most pervasively, Bluebeard’s painterly visuals glow with a canted, misty splendor that does remind me of the real Paris, thanks to the crack camerawork of émigré Eugen Schüfftan (Quai des Brumes, Yeux Sans Visage). I also wonder how much of himself Ulmer put into Gaston—a morbid genius, enslaved by poverty, ideals, and passion alike. Art is an addiction for Gaston, like it was for Ulmer the auteur. Just as Gaston’s obsessions force him into an underground existence, Ulmer preferred to work for PRC rather than “be ground up in the Hollywood hash machine” of the big studios.

As additional boni for watching this film, gorgeous ex-star Nils Asther doesn’t get much to do as a Inspector Lefevre, but still looks awfully pretty, and Jean Parker turns in a fine performance as Lucile—the only woman who can live up to Bluebeard’s ideal, but despises his true self.

Watch Bluebeard, drink in the atmosphere, and marvel that it all happened in six days.

This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie!