Scary Funny: Dwain Esper’s Maniac (1934)

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Right now Torgo and the Master are sulking. Radiator Lady is in tears. And Glen/Glenda is stomping the hell out of his/her pumps. Because, I’m sorry to say, their movies were nowhere near this weird.

I want to make one thing clear before this goes any further: I am not recommending that you watch Maniac. But, if you do, you will have earned my profound respect. This movie will bore you. In fact, it might bore a hole right into your brain. It wants to steal your soul.

Actually, watching this film is, I suspect, akin to the experience of trepanation. Maniac violates the cherished cinematic logic of space and time so thoroughly that you begin to wonder whether you’ll ever be able to form a coherent thought again. The only defense viewers can muster against so insidious a threat is to laugh wildly and mindlessly. Herein lies the ironic beauty of Maniac: by the time it’s over, you yourself might very well qualify as the titular lunatic.

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Shot on location in somebody’s dank basement, Esper’s exploitation flick tries hard to pass itself off as a dramatization of mental illness. In other words, brace yourself for scrolling pages of rambling mumbo-jumbo about psychoses inserted without warning in between scenes.

The plot, and I do use the word loosely, resists dignity in any form. Don Maxwell, a down-and-out vaudeville actor, now assists the deranged Dr. Meirschultz in his experiments—raising the dead, naturally. (See, kids? This is why you don’t major in theater. Or film for that matter. Why, I had to join a firm of grave-robbers for two years to pay off my college loans… but I digress.)

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Squeamish Maxwell doesn’t exactly love the sordid errands that the doctor forces him to carry out. Still, on the bright side, he gets to revive the corpses of pretty suicide victims with vigorous massages.

However, when Meirschultz suggests that Maxwell kill himself to serve as a subject for the reanimation process, the lackey shoots Meirschultz instead. Realizing that his boss would be missed but he never would, Maxwell assumes his identity.

No sooner does Maxwell don an imitation of Meirschultz’s bushy Santa Claus beard and mimic his off-brand Bela Lugosi accent than the former ham actor slips into madness and believes that he is Meirschultz.

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“I vill be a great man!” He bellows, vowing to continue the doctor’s work. Apparently, this entails turning a patient into a sex-crazed zombie by injecting him with a glandular serum and performing sleazy examinations on scantily-clad young ladies.

Sadly, busybodies constantly interrupt Maxwell’s Nobel-worthy research. When a blackmailing widow and Maxwell’s own estranged wife show up around the same time, Maxwell decides simply to lock them in the basement and return to his regularly scheduled program of animal torture and hallucinations. Finally, the cops come to nab Meirschultz, break up the ladies’ wrestling match in the cellar, and discover the real doctor hidden in the wall.

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In a ludicrous, yet eerie epilogue (foreshadowing Norman Bates’s “I wouldn’t hurt a fly” scene), Maxwell addresses the audience from behind bars. Sobbing, the poor misunderstood multiple murderer confides that he only ever dreamed of being an actor. “I only wanted to amuse, to entertain,” He pleads. “But here I am. Spent my life perfecting an art that no one wanted, no one appreciated. But I showed them… Dr. Meirschultz—my supreme impersonation!”

Um, Maxwell, if it’s any consolation, you certainly amuse me.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that horror and humor complement each other, and the funniest parts of Maniac unsurprisingly emerge from its most unsettling scenes.

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Consider Maniac’s best-known moment, a highly disturbing shot of a cat’s eyeball being removed. (Trigger warning! You should know, however, that no animal was maimed for the purposes of this scene. A one-eyed cat with a glass eye was used.) While entombing Dr. Meirschultz behind a wall, Maxwell notices the doctor’s black cat looking at him. The unhinged actor, convinced that the feline is Satan, accuses the animal of standing between him and salvation. After a few disjointed shots of Maxwell chasing the cat, Esper provides this shot of an eyeball popping out of its socket.

11 “It’s not unlike an oyster or a crepe!” Maxwell-as-Meirschultz exclaims. Cackling, he drops the eye into his mouth.

Okay, so how do I even begin to react to this?

At first, I laugh. Bad acting and a wannabe Poe monologue about an evil cat = comedy gold.

Then I get creeped out. A spooky high-angle shot of Maxwell crawling out of a basement towards the camera fills me with dread.

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Then I laugh again, since we’re back in familiar territory. Jumpy cutting and pratfalls = bad movie = ha ha ha.

Then I want to cry. I don’t care if it was a one-eyed cat. Animal mutilation, even when simulated, always equates out to horror in my book.

10And then, despite myself, I feel like I’m going to laugh again. Now Shakespeare could get away with calling an eye a “vile jelly,” but the comparison between an eyeball and a crepe wins the 1934 WTF Cup. Plus, how can I hold back a snigger over the fact that the black cat transforms into a light-colored feline right before that eye removal shot?

Snarky pleasure and pain attack the viewer without warning throughout Maniac. Esper delights us with the most awkward transformation scene in the history of cinema, only to freak us out with an unexpectedly violent nudity scene. He tries to tickle our comic relief sensibilities with a quirky minor character named Goof who runs a death camp for cats. But he seemingly expects us to respond with earnest curiosity to a protagonist who suffers from every mental illness in the book—and to his lengthy hallucinogenic monologues, complete with superimposed diabolic footage stolen from (much better) silent films.

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You might be thinking, “What kind of nut would make a movie like this?” So, perhaps I ought to take a moment to introduce you to the life and times of Mr. Dwain Esper and his singular slot in film history. Okay, now, class, what’s significant about the year Maniac was made, 1934?

If you replied, “The pre-Code era ground to a halt and Hays Code censorship was enforced with new zeal”, gold star to you.

The shift back to family entertainment meant that audiences couldn’t depend on the titillation and gore they could once get from some Hollywood films. Exploitation filmmakers like Esper aimed to cash in on those forbidden desires. They’d produce often ridiculously choppy movies, but movies that nevertheless delivered the goods (or bads, rather) with scenes of drug use, kinky sex, and nudity.

esperOriginally a building contractor, Esper launched his cinema career when he acquired a set of abandoned filmmaking equipment as part of a property foreclosure. Abetted by his wife Hildegarde Stadie Esper, a streetwise carnie raised by her opium-addicted huckster uncle, Esper toured from town to town with “adults only” films. He directed his own movies on meager budgets, but would also promote and screen any sensational movies he got his hands on, including Tod Browning’s Freaks and Reefer Madness.

Gaudy lobby advertising and gimmicky publicity stunts would compensate for the less-than-stellar product Esper often exhibited. Audiences seldom got what the posters promised, but they did get to gawk at stuff that no mainstream movie of the era would’ve shown.

Operating outside the confines of the studio system, Esper could thumb his nose at the censors. Hildegarde cheerfully recalled the outrage they caused in some quarters: “The Hays Office—they hated us. You see they couldn’t stop us and that made them awful mad…they didn’t like anything we were doing. The only reason we liked it so well was because it was making money for us.” If necessary, Esper would reedit his reels to appease local law enforcement, but, all in all, Dwain and Hildegarde Esper were the Bonnie and Clyde of onscreen taboo.

Although not Esper’s most profitable film, Maniac nevertheless delivers awesome amounts unintentional humor through its sheer bizarreness. Amateurish exploitation films made contemporarily to Hollywood’s golden age affect modern audiences powerfully, I would argue, because they offer such unanticipated forays into creative plot premises or avant-garde techniques.

Jump cuts, temporal leaps, massive continuity gaps, and all manner of experimental devices—stuff that might not startle us that much in, say, a Godard film—prove deeply unsettling in the context of a 1930s movie aiming for the aesthetic of a Universal horror film. These formal eccentricities not only make us laugh at the incompetence of the filmmaker, but they also fray at our nerves and jolt us into nervous laughter.

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Similarly, nobody in this film acts like a human being—not the scheming widow who speaks in a monotone, not the gregarious cat-skin merchant, not the chorus girl dancing around her hotel room in her underwear for no reason. The magic of Hollywood acting resides in the fact that actors give us evenly stylized behavior and we accept it as reality. The black magic of Maniac gives us unevenly stylized behavior—that makes us feel like we’re watching any number of more famous horror movies through a distorting mirror. We behold a universe unthinkably out of kilter.

And then, because our short-circuiting minds can find no other appropriate response, we burst out laughing.

Maniac has fallen into the Public Domain, so you can watch it right now. Do you dare?

This post is part of the Accidentally Hilarious blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Click on the banner to check out the other entries!

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The Chase (1946): The Zigzag Path of Fear

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

—Chuck Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carnival of Souls (1962): Dead in the Water

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

I soon found out that it was no laughing matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silent September! A Buffet of Free Silent Films

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A diva’s work is never done.

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

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

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

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

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

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Trip to the Moon (1902) – Georges Méliès

On YouTube.

Canned Harmony (1912) – Alice Guy

On YouTube.

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Falling Leaves (1912) – Alice Guy

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

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

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

Intolerance (1916) – D.W. Griffith

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

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

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

Way Down East (1920) – D.W. Griffith

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

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

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

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The Kid (1921) – Charlie Chaplin

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

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

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

The Phantom Carriage (1921) – Victor Sjöström

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

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Häxan (1922) – Benjamin Christensen

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

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

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

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

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

La Roue (1923) – Abel Gance

Part I and Part II on YouTube.

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The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – Raoul Walsh

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

Battleship Potemkin (1925) – Sergei Eisenstein

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

The General (1927) – Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton

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

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Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang

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

Sunrise (1927) – F.W. Murnau

On YouTube.

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

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

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The Goddess (1934) – Yonggang Wu

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

Whistling in the Dark: His Girl Friday (1940)

posterThe Mayor: Whistling in the dark. Well that isn’t going to help you this time. You’re through. 

Walter Burns: Listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.

Fresh. Exhilarating. Spontaneous. Timeless. These are often the words that come up when people talk about Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, a movie closer to perfection than pretty much any other.

Well, today, I’m going to add a few more adjectives to the pot: morbid, noirish, and iconoclastic. And I mean that as the highest of compliments.

Upon a recent rewatching of this sublime screwball comedy, the inherent darkness of the film practically slapped me across the face. I mean, you try going into a producer’s office these days and pitching a comedy about capital punishment. The Angel of Death looms over this fast-paced comedy which teaches us that humor often works best when we’re all in the jittery throes of nervous laughter.

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Even beyond the grim crime and punishment of Earl Williams, His Girl Friday is structured by a more metaphorical contrast between freedom and imprisonment. Or, more precisely, the uneasy balance and tension between those two states at any given time in a person’s life. In the end, Hildy escapes the prison of a stuffy marriage, but she doesn’t get Freedom-with-a-capital-F. Rather, she exchanges the confines of normalcy for a more wonderful kind of captivity, an enslavement to her passions and to her talent.

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Earl Williams escapes death and Hildy escapes from dull matrimony. The parallel can’t be avoided. In fact, the movie serves that similarity up—Hildy literally wears it on her sleeve. Hildy’s wardrobe is characterized by an assortment of lines and stripes, which suggest the blend of playful and professional in her demeanor.

However, when she visits the prison, those stripes on the trim suit she wears to get her interview don’t resemble anything so much as prison bars. In fact, the straight lines (unlike the zig-zags she wears in the earlier scenes) are almost exactly parallel to the iron bars and their the low-key lit shadows.

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Throughout His Girl Friday, Hawks scatters a few shots that let us, the viewers, bask in the kind of importance that Hildy feels in her natural habitat, the newspaper world. As she breezes through the newsroom, a point-of-view tracking shot scans the smiling faces of her impressed colleagues, looking up at her.

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Later, when she visits the pressroom, her voice announces her presence from off-screen and all those sacrilegious monkeys of the press, suddenly turn her way, their face filled with admiration and a plausible substitute for respect. In other words, His Girl Friday sneaks in the occasional subjective shot, designed to make us understand what Hildy feels as the sob sister in the band of brothers.

But in the jail, we get a very different shift to Hildy’s perspective, a more metaphorical one. She’s sitting outside William’s little pen and asking him questions. We’re on her side of the grate, looking in at Williams. And then this exchange happens:

Earl Williams: I’m not guilty. It’s just… the world.

Hildy Johnson: I see what you mean.

In between those two lines of dialogue, as Hildy passes Williams her cigarette, there’s a cut that puts the camera on the inside of the cage. Suddenly, as Hildy agrees with Williams, it visually seems as though she’s the one behind bars.

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Now, it’s not a point-of-view shot. However, I felt a major change in the stakes of the scene at that point. This isn’t just another story for Hildy: it’s her last. This isn’t just another day for Williams: it’s his last. We sense a true bond between the pair of them as Hildy slips him her cigarette: at that moment, they are both the condemned, in a way.

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As much as Hildy only needs to wring a story out of the prisoner, I can’t help but perceive that the stylish lady journalist really does identify with his confusion. I mean, we get the feeling that her engagement to Bruce sort of happened to her. Does she want a man who will really take care of her? Well, yes, but I’d also assume that Hildy’s sudden bolt to the altar reflects the influence of society, the pressure to live a normal woman’s life. Staring into the skull-eyes of another man’s fate, Hildy actually catches a glimpse of her own.

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His Girl Friday presents us with three different couples: Hildy and Bruce, Hildy and Walter, and Molly Malloy and Earl Williams. We first see the first pair exchanging syrupy love dialogue: they demonstrate the somnambulism of domesticated love. Molly and Earl Williams obsess over each other with doomed passion—it’s like we’re watching a mini film noir embedded in a screwball comedy. Both extremes strike us as imprisoning relationships that incapacitate the characters. Only Walter and Hildy seem able to skip around each other and have fun in a dance of freedom and constraint.

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Quick quiz: which of these relationships do you want?

I love His Girl Friday for many reasons—the Syd-Field-defying length of many of its scenes and the overlapping dialogue, for instance—but mostly because I want to be Hildy Johnson. Because her love-on-the-go for Walter (and vice-versa) is one of the most unconventional romantic relationships portrayed on the classic Hollywood screen.

Even in the wackiest screwball comedies (as in Shakespeare plays), the story usually ends with the hint that the adventure is over. You can go home now, folks!  Harlequin and Columbine have overcome their obstacles and they’re going to settle down and have babies now.

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“I don’t care about your biological clock! This is a HOWARD HAWKS movie!”

His Girl Friday skirts this frozen conclusion. It overturns the belief that love brings about an end to adventure. A topsy-turvy attitude towards marriage crackles in the humorous inversions of its dialogue, as in Walter’s mock-lamentation about how divorce has lost its meaning:

“You’ve got an old fashioned idea divorce is something that lasts forever, ’til death do us part. Why divorce doesn’t mean anything nowadays, Hildy, just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”

It laughs at all the parlor-piano-with-a-doily-on-top values that most movies were selling hard in 1940s. Thank God.

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Okay, so now that I’ve worked all that analytical rubbish out of my system, let’s get right to the Cary Grant appreciation. That man made acting look so easy that it hardly surprises me that he never won an Academy Award.

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If you watch The Front Page (His Girl Friday is a remake), you’ll notice that it’s actually a much more visually flamboyant film. There are mirrored-corridors, flashy crane shots, and more conspicuous arrangements of light and shadow to hold your attention.

But His Girl Friday more than made up for all of that lost razzle-dazzle with Cary Grant’s roguish pyrotechnics. Whether he’s imitating Hildy’s pre-marital flirting (“Oh, Walter,” he coos, with a fey flutter of eyelashes), grabbing his ex-wife’s match bearing hand to light his own cigarette, or leading Bruce in a guided visualization of Hildy’s old age, Grant’s energy floweth over.

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He’s a marvel to watch, like a supernova in a double-breasted suit. And his dimple deserved supporting player billing. It even gets mentioned in the dialogue.

Hildy: A big fat lummox like you hiring an airplane to write: “Hildy, don’t be hasty. Remember my dimple. Walter.” Delayed our divorce 20 minutes while the judge went out and watched it.

Walter: Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve still got the dimple, and in the same place.

Tying into the black humor of His Girl Friday, Cary Grant gave us one of cinema’s most celebrated in-jokes by turning his own identity into a gag. I wonder, did Archie Leach have to “cut his throat” for Cary Grant to be born?

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And Rosalind Russell, who famously got the role only after Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne weren’t available, shows them all up with her brilliant performance. I have a hard time picturing Claudette Colbert (or any of the other fabulous Hildy candidates) camped out in a coal mine or stealing a stomach preserved in formaldehyde from a city morgue. At least, she’d still be perfectly gorgeous and innately graceful while doing so.

As a recovering comedienne, I admire how Russell embraces Hildy’s anything-for-the-story mentality. Her clumsy rush to cross a street as a police motorcade whooshes past her, hollering at the top of her lungs, stands out as one of my favorite moments in the film.

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Russell, however, dives into the character of Hildy like Hildy would into a dumpster. Chucking her purse at her ex-hubby and answering several phones at once, she displays a valiant klutziness that every woman can recognize in herself. We can believe this woman as the kind of tough but goofy broad that can and does win the grudging respect of a pack of self-absorbed dudes.

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The shyster and the sob sister belong together—whether they’re physically handcuffed together or just bound to each other by sarcasm and desire and the great puffs of smoke that they exhale at the same time. The glee of their rivalry teaches us that while love doesn’t necessarily give you a get-out-of-jail-free card, it should never make you feel like you’re behind bars.

Marriage is growing old together. Love never grows old. Like this movie. Now, that’s as corny as Iowa, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

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I’d like to smooch the idiot who let this movie slip into the Public Domain. Watch it on YouTube or download it for free at the Internet Archive. So, my Free Film Friday is His Girl Friday. How appropriate is that?

Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end this post without a gratuitous screenshot of the scene where we gratuitously see Cary Grant buttoning his shirt during a medical exam, now did you?

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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: Dead Men Walk (1943)

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“You creatures of the light, how can you say with absolute certainty what does or does not dwell in the limitless ocean of the night? Are the dark and shrouded legions of evil not but figments of the imagination because you and your puny conceit say that they cannot exist?”

Prologue, Dead Men Walk

The name George Zucco stokes the deepest reserves of my film geek love. This classically trained Englishman, with his cultured, grave baritone speaking voice and his startling black eyes, indecently bulging forward at will, is a veritable institution in horror.

Despite a distinguished stage career and several notable supporting roles in big Hollywood productions, Zucco found much of his work among B-movie chillers from Universal and cheap Poverty Row shockers. No matter how tawdry the material or how small the part, his effulgent glee in playing mad scientists, wicked priests, and all-round nasty rotters makes his performances richly pleasurable.

Unlike many of Zucco’s films, Dead Men Walk gave him substantial material that he could really sink his teeth into: a double role as an upstanding community doctor and his degenerate, occult-obsessed twin brother. The story starts with the funeral of Elwyn Clayton, as his brother Lloyd stands over the coffin. (Note to self: never name my child Elwyn.) Gee, Lloyd doesn’t look too broken up. Suddenly, the town crazy lady bursts into the chapel and announces that the dead man doesn’t deserve a Christian burial; he was an unnatural sinner. You know, I get the feeling that something’s not right here…

Sure enough, later that night, vampire Elwyn has risen from his tomb, abetted by his servant, Zolarr, played by Dwight Frye. Because of course he’s played by Dwight Frye. Who else would you call when you need a toady to the undead?

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After feasting on a young maiden, Elwyn drops by his brother’s office the evening after. It turns out—rather surprisingly—that the good doctor Lloyd actually killed his blasphemous brother. Or tried to, not knowing that his twin had attained immortal life as a vampire. Gloating over his power, Elwyn throws down the gauntlet, vowing a horrible retribution:

“You’ll know that I am no intangible figment of your imagination when you feel the weight of my hatred. Your life will be a torment. I’ll strip you of everything you hold dear before I drag you down to a sordid death. You’ll pray you’re dead long before you die.”

Yeah, and you thought your sibling was a troublemaker! In all sincerity, Zucco’s bald-ish, chortling vampire scares me almost as much as prime Lugosi. As Frank Dello Stritto wrote, “If Lugosi’s vampire is something of a lounge lizard, Zucco’s is a dirty old man.” Indeed, he’s the unassuming retiree down the street who secretly wants to suck your blood. His aged, commonplace appearance renders his ugly, mirthless chuckle and his desire to corrupt and destroy young women all the more appalling. He glows with malice.

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Rather like E.F. Benson’s chillingly ordinary vampire in “Mrs. Amworth,” Elwyn is a stealth threat. In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit shocked if the writer of Dead Men Walk was thinking of this particular image from “Mrs. Amworth” when dreaming up some scares: “I saw, with the indescribable horror of incipient nightmare, Mrs. Amworth’s face suspended close to the pane in the darkness outside, nodding and smiling at me…. [W]hichever window I opened Mrs. Amworth’s face would float in, like those noiseless black gnats that bit before one was aware.” Like the titular vampire in Benson’s tale, Elwyn is at his most creepy when hovering outside a victim’s window, bathed in moonlight.

So, who’s going to fight this menace? Surely we have some lovable Van Helsing figure, someone we can identify with and cheer on, right? Not exactly.

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(Who knew Woodrow Wilson had an evil vampire twin? Which reminds me, does anyone want to greenlight my script for Woodrow Wilson: Vampire Hunter?)

While we expect the bad twin to be effectively spooky and awful, the “normal” twin in Dead Men Walk has a surprisingly grim side too. He murdered his brother, no matter how pure his motives might have been. The side of good isn’t so spotless as we might hope, raising questions about the corruption inherent even in fighting evil. The element of fratricide lends gravitas and ambiguity to this dark, dualistic tale of sibling rivalry, a muddied, supernatural Cain and Abel.

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Is Dead Men Walk a great film? Well, no, it was made at PRC, and it’s not Detour. Directed by Sam Neufield, who’s probably best known for the dorky-as-hell I Accuse My Parents, this movie wasn’t worthy of its acting talent. The pacing definitely lags, and I’m phrasing that kindly.

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Mary Carlisle turns in a likable performance, adding suspense to the story as we see her life essence waning under the vampire’s influence. Alas, her love interest could barely choke out his lines. And Dwight Frye does not get enough to do at all. The visuals are appropriately shadowy—often to the point of blacking out parts of faces to suggest the depravity of the villains. Not everyone agrees with me, unfortunately, and some of the reviews elsewhere are just plain cruel. This movie was probably shot in less time than it takes to coax some of today’s movie stars out of their trailers, so let’s cut it some slack, okay?

If you love horror and derive comfort from snuggling up with a slightly creaky but very creepy 1940s horror flick, you can watch this one for free. And if you don’t love that, I will totally haunt you after I’m gone.

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

Daughter of Horror (1955): In the Shadows

“It stirred my blood and cleansed my libido.” —Preston Sturges on Daughter of Horror

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As I sit down to write this, I want you to know that I’m rubbing my hands together gleefully and cackling like a mad scientist about to unleash some freakish terror upon the world. Because today I’m going to introduce you to one of the weirdest, most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. And I watch Dwain Esper movies for kicks.

Reader, meet Daughter of Horror. She’s the bastard child of Salvador Dali and Ed Wood. Or maybe H. P. Lovecraft and Mickey Spillane. This 1955 avant-garde independent film drags us through the nightmares and misadventures of an androgynous delinquent chick, “the Gamin,” as she ventures from her hotel bedroom to prowl down mazelike streets. Over the course of one night, she’s nearly assaulted by a drunken bum, gets pimped out to a fat man, commits a crime, and slips in and out of many hallucinations. But where can we draw the line between madness and the squalid horrors of reality?

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Directed by the obscure John Parker and written by Z-grade producer/director Bruno Ve Sota (although there’s some debate as to who really deserves artistic credit), this oily, shoestring-cheap horror-noir contains not one line of dialogue. Yep, we’re dealing with a strangely contradictory silent film with a soundtrack. Apart from a few diegetic sounds—essentials like sobs, screams, laughter, and gunshots—you mostly hear a ghoulish atonal score by modernist composer George Antheil, filled with foreboding jazz and the occasional soprano wail.

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And—here’s the real boon—there’s the occasional passage of voice-over narration by none other than Ed McMahon, who intones a menacing, ironic commentary over the violence of the action and the Gamin’s psychotic breaks. From what I understand, the original cut of the film, called Dementia, didn’t have that voice-over, but I like it. Most critics have argued that the narration detracts from the integrity of the film.

I would differ—it’s like a parody of Hollywood’s typically ethereal depiction of schizophrenia or characters who start “hearing voices.” Instead of the ghostly whispers of poetic insanity, the Gamin is haunted by an out-of-control melodramatic TV narration. The voice peppers the film with choice remarks like, “Yes, I am here. The demon that possesses your soul. Wait a bit. I have so much to show you. So much that you are afraid to see.” If I ever start hearing an unseen game show host announcer chiming in to narrate my unconscious, I will know that I’ve finally descended into madness. (I’m expecting that voice any day now.)

The muffled, doom-impregnated ambiance of Daughter of Horror truly escapes words. It digs up a seedy universe that’s at once utterly unreal and much more gritty and recognizable than the sanitized sordidness of most films noirs. Grotesques populate its dark corridors, mutant people who scuttle around in the night, like bedbugs on a cheap mattress.

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The usual mechanisms of character identification grind to a halt. We struggle to form an attachment to the Gamin, since she’s all we have, but she’s inscrutable at best and monstrous at worse. We’re estranged from the Gamin just as she’s estranged from herself. This sense of alienation and neediness, of not being able to relate to the movie in a usual manner, plunges the viewer into a state of ambivalent confusion and unease.

Indeed, whereas film noir tends to lure us in with its smoke-ring glamour, Daughter of Horror keeps us perpetually at an arms length, disgusted but transfixed. It compels us to keep watching out of a balance of sheer unease and shock—from the very beginning, we know, as we do in nightmares, that something bad is going to happen. We’re only partially right. Lots of bad things are going to happen.

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To classify this film as one of Caligari’s children would be to state the obvious; what’s fascinating is how the Gamin fuses the somnambulistic monster, the vile murderer, and the heroine in distress all into one disturbed personality. Freudian overtones also crowd into this dark night of the soul. For instance, the Gamin’s flashback to her ugly childhood with a brutish father and a trampy, self-absorbed mother takes place in a graveyard, no less, which the characters inhabit as though it were their living room.

Although the Gamin’s father died a long time ago, he returns from the grave as a sort of guilt complex incarnate—he appears as a leering patron at a sleazy restaurant and later takes the form of the policeman hunting the Gamin down. Heavy-handed? No doubt, but still powerful and frightening.

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Whereas standard Hollywood flicks incorporated psychoanalysis as a means of explaining away complexes, as a kind of tool to decipher the world and make it safer, Daughter of Horror plunges us into a forest of smirking symbols. In this twisted cosmos, a cigar is never just a cigar.

Though drawn in broad, blown-up strokes, this movie still surprises you with subtle allusions and amusing touches. The generally transfixing cinematography shows what veteran director of photography William C. Thompson (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen or Glenda) could do when not saddled with Ed Wood’s trashy, inept vision. The film begins with a shot of a city at night with a flashing sign that reminds me very much of the flashing sign skyline opening of Hitchcock’s The Lodger. After that, we cut to a track-in camera movement that creeps past a flashing HOTEL sign into the cheap rented room of our sleeping heroine, where she clutches the bedclothes in the throes of a bad dream. The movie ends with a parallel camera movement, drifting away from the room, before cutting back to that chasm of starry sky. What fearful symmetry!

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Leer Cam! The camera slips inside of the room where the Gamin is dreaming… then right into her consciousness.

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If the lecherous fat man who picks up the Gamin resembles Orson Welles, as some have noted, the film also references Welles’ style with shots of striking depth, presenting multiple points of interest. In one of my favorite, the fat man gnaws away at a chicken leg while, in the background, the Gamin displays her own shapely legs as a temptation, then sneers when the corpulent creature keeps on chowing down.

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This bizarro gem of a movie not only borrowed bits and pieces from great filmmakers, but also foreshadowed future masterpieces. Those track-ins on the hotel recall the probing high angle shots that you see at the start of Psycho. And you’ll definitely recognize the whole smoky, grungy atmosphere of Daughter of Horror in Touch of Evil—they were both films at Venice Beach, California.

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So, today I’d like to invite you into this forbidding terrain of vast, cavernous spaces and hole-in-the-wall bars, of predatory men and even more predatory women. I offer you a superb, if sometimes clunky, wide-awake nightmare.

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: The Death Kiss (1932)

posterEver wish you could take a tour of a Hollywood studio—in the 1930s? I sure do.

Think about how fascinating it would be to stare at those huge early talkie cameras, to observe the complicated sound recording apparatus, to gape at the actors getting ready for their close-ups, or to sit in and get a sneak preview of the rushes. Hell, I don’t know about you, but I’d even be willing to take my chances sitting next to Darryl Zanuck in a dark studio screening room if I could turn back time and go there.

Unless you’ve got a time machine, perhaps the next best thing to a backstage tour through that bygone era is watching The Death Kiss, a standard whodunit set at a movie studio. Despite a workmanlike overall style, this standard genre flick deserves watching for its sheer documentary value alone. Debut director Edwin L. Marin shot on location at Tiffany Studios, the once-prestigious production company behind Journey’s End and Mamba which went defunct, rather appropriately, soon after the release of The Death Kiss.

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Not only are the soundstages real soundstages, but the maze of delivery doors, gates, pathways, and buildings that we see in the film give us a rare travelling “street view” of the old Hollywood experience.

Of course, architectural maps and photographs of studio lots exist. Yet, there’s something truly magical about a camera scanning through and capturing the dimensionality those long-lost spaces, those sprawling miniature kingdoms, or “duchies” as Joseph Mankiewicz called the studios.

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Back to the mystery: the plot follows Franklyn Drew, a wisecracking screenwriter at Toneart Studio who’s trying to save the woman he loves, Marcia Lane, a leading actress, from a murder charge. (And in case you never noticed, when screenwriters write about screenwriters, those parts almost invariably turn out to be smartasses.)

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In this case, I enjoyed the opportunity to watch David Manners—a pretty juvenile lead whom you probably know best from his startlingly dull performance in Dracula—play a character who doesn’t seem like he’s been cut out from a book of paper dolls.

Speaking of Dracula, this film reunites three male stars from that film: Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, and Manners. Classic movie buffs like me will certainly relish the chance to watch this trio appear in the same scene without trying to drive a stake through anybody’s heart. Lugosi’s mesmerizing potential as an actor languishes untapped in The Death Kiss—he’s fobbed off on a dull role as the studio manager. The solution to the murder, however, did keep me guessing until the last reel. Quite impressive, since these early talkie whodunnits often pack as few surprises as Hardy Boys novels.

I also strongly encourage you to watch at least the opening sequence of The Death Kiss. It goes like this: a gangland moll is sitting in a car, telling her two goons that she’s going to kiss a guy as the signal to shoot him. Swaying in a glittering gown of sequins and ruff of ostrich feather, she alights from the vehicle and duly smooches the poor sap. Rat-a-tat-tat! He writhes and falls to the ground in a hail of machine gun bullets. A shocked crowd gathers around… as the camera pans 180-degrees to reveal the director and movie crew filming the scene.

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All this elapses in one long take, binding together the illusion of film and the revelation of the mechanism that makes cinema possible.

Of course, the studio within the film is itself an illusion, it’s Hollywood as we’d like to imagine it. Nevertheless, that first shot impressed me with the litheness of its camerawork and how it challenges the audience, from the beginning, to see movies as movies, as carefully choreographed ballets of light and movement, as products, as creations.

More interesting still, the man who dies in the movie (within a movie) is actually the murder victim—he died in that opening shot. He wasn’t playing dead. He was dead. So, later on, the characters project the rushes of this scene in studio screening room to scour the print for evidence. Here’s the weird part: when they project it, we get a different perspective of the action from what we saw in the opening shot. There’s no fluid camera movement. Just a boring straight-on take. And it’s really boring—there’s none of the sophisticated jazz in the background and the business around the kiss plays out stilted and stagey. It’s almost as though The Death Kiss were trying to give us a little lesson on film: good talkies versus bad talkies, an interesting use of space versus a boring one. It’s a movie that makes you a little bit more aware of the nuts and bolts of cinema.

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Then suddenly a blotch of red, like blood, consumes the screen within the screen! Somebody infiltrated the projection room and burned up the negative, to destroy the murder clue caught on celluloid. The flare of red in a black-and-white film startles you, and it was clearly meant to—somebody went through the trouble of tinting those few frames for a trippy effect. I won’t list the films that have copied this burning nitrate shock effect. I’m not sure about this, but do I believe that The Death Kiss is the first movie to use the plot point of footage being destroyed—and to show it with a theatrically melting strip of film. Film, destruction, the fragility of human life just seem to go together.

For a standard 1930s mystery programmer, The Death Kiss uniquely pulls us into the world of movies and movie making.

So, give it a watch over the weekend. And please leave a comment to tell me what you think of this Public Domain film!

Stop the Clocks: The Stranger (1946)

It really ticks me off when people (including Orson Welles himself) dismiss his thriller The Stranger as, to use one of the dirtiest slurs in film criticism, his “most conventional film,” as a stylish but formulaic product of a genius on a short studio leash.

That’s a bit like saying, “Well, it’s one of Shakespeare’s less good plays.” Because, in both cases, we’re talking about something that’s a hell of a lot more insightful, complex, and entertaining than most of what else is out there.

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Welles takes a taut noir-suspense plotline and packs it with a larger sense of significance and trauma, as though time itself had blistered and burst under the withering, unfathomable atrocities of World War II.

Seriously—how many thrillers can you think of from the 1940s (and beyond!) that had the guts to use genuine newsreel footage of the horrors of the Holocaust as the crux of their moral and ethical stakes? That’s exactly what Welles did. Explain to me how that’s conventional.

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In case you haven’t seen this deceptively ingenious gem, the story concerns a Nazi war criminal, Franz Kindler (a high level architect of the Holocaust and dead-ringer for Friedrich Nietzsche). This evil mastermind carefully preserved his anonymity—down to burning every known photograph of himself—and fled to America after World War II.

Under the name of Rankin, Kindler has blended into life in the idyllic town of Harper, Connecticut and even married Mary (a luminous Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court judge.

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Yes, in the days before Google, who knows what kind of guy you might’ve married?

However, there’s no rest for the wicked, and Rankin’s being relentlessly pursued by an agent of the Allied War Crimes Bureau, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). The determined Nazi-hunter tracks Rankin/Kindler down by letting another war criminal out of prison in the hopes that the freed man will lead him to the big fish.

Kindler kills this hapless ex-comrade, the “little man,” so that he can’t betray Kindler’s identity. The problem is, Mary knows that the “little man” was looking for him. So Kindler has to try to kill her too.

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I admit: it does sound pretty conventional on the surface. But a plot synopsis fails to translate the excellence of this film.

First off, The Stranger looks great and is crammed full of stunning shots. We get a tense long, long take during which Rankin slowly turns back into Kindler as he kills his former friend—and while praying no less!

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Typical Wellesian angles crop up and enliven even the most rudimentary of scenes with a cockeyed creepiness. Through shadows so looming and poetic that they sometimes distract you from the plot, Welles paints a world subtly tattered and worn-down. Not even Harper, the hallowed bastion of New England purity, escapes the impact of a global trauma.

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After the war, we understand, things are different. And they won’t ever be the way they were. A piece of the world’s innocence has died. It’s broken. Gone forever. The Capra-esque, quaint little town of Harper has changed irreversibly.

I even wonder to what extent Mary’s discovery of her husband’s awful true self is actually a reflection of American veterans coming home from World War II as strangers to their wives. Perhaps the evil Nazi is just a stand-in for damaged American manhood, for the prison of post-war domestic life. Even commercial ads from the 1940s betrayed a noirish quality, like this one for Listerine!

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Look familiar? The following shot is from The Stranger, as Rankin looms over Mary in bed.

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In the wake of a global conflict, Welles depicts a troubling, warped pretense of normalcy. A creeping penumbra and crazy angles turn ordinary places like high school gymnasiums and events like faculty tea parties into cauldrons of fear and roiling secrets.

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I particularly appreciate how Welles uses clocks and mechanical devices, usually so reliable and quotidien, to create disorientation and explore the breakdown of perception.

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You see, the evil Franz Kindler, when not planning mass murder, has a passion for clocks and watches, which seems very apt indeed, considering the ruthless “clockwork” execution of the Final Solution. There are lots of allusions to clocks and clockworks.

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Mr. Wilson first gets his wind up that Harper is the place to find Kindler when he sees the hands to the clock on the Harper church tower spin around wildly while being fixed. After the “little man” manages to whack Mr. Wilson over the head with a piece of swinging gymnastic equipment in the Harper Academy gym, the rope swings back and forth in front of him, like a pendulum.

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When Kindler sets out to kill his wife, he writes up a little itinerary with specific time coordinates.

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Throughout the film, Kindler, a control freak if ever there was one, keeps returning to an old grandfather clock and winding it up, trying to make the old thing keep time.

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At the risk of getting too analytical, time is really one of the two media that make up the essence of cinema—the other is space, of course. So, how can we read or interpret Kindler’s repeated gesture, portrayed with some of the film’s most ominous and beautiful chiaroscuro lighting?

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We can perceive a slight metafilmic joke in Orson Welles as Kindler winding up the clock. (Incidentally, when Hitchcock made his cameo in Rear Window, he too is winding up a clock in the composer’s apartment.) Are we seeing the director as the artistic tyrant, the keeper of time dissolve into the sociopolitical tyrant, trying to make the world keep time with his unthinkable schemes?

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I might be overstating my case, but I think that we can infer a connection between the two most powerful mechanical devices in The Stranger: the clock and the film projector that reveals to Mary the extremes of what her husband (and mankind in general) is capable of.

At almost the center point of the film, Kindler/Rankin has confessed to Mary that he killed the man who came looking for him, but he claims that the “little man” was a blackmailer who would have threatened their happiness. Willing to conceal this justified murder and lie to protect her husband, Mary is called to visit her father and talk to Mr. Wilson.

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When she gets there and opens the door, the room is dark and flickering with projected footage. The lights come on and Mr. Wilson softens Mary up with a few questions—a body was uncovered in town, did you know him, ect.—before asking her to watch a film. The lights go out again and before we even see what Wilson’s projecting, the look of appalled stupefaction on Mary’s face makes us wonder what she’s seeing. Then we see. It’s a screen full of dead bodies.

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A moment ago, Mary thought she was involved in a murder mystery. That’s still true, but now the mystery isn’t whodunit—it’s howcouldsomeonepossiblyhavedunit? In place of one dead body, we get too many to count, too many to mentally process, strewn across the ground without emotion or order as the camera impassively pans across them.

Clearly shocked, Mary protests that she’s “never ever seen a Nazi.” But, and this is key, Wilson explains that they can look like normal people and act like normal people if it benefits them. I find it hard to believe that this statement is only supposed to apply to Franz Kindler in this context. After WWII, a lot of people nursed the belief that the people who committed atrocities were somehow different from the rest of us. It turns out, as Milgram’s obedience studies from 1960s have shown, a disquietingly large percentage of the population will kill if told that an authority figure takes full responsibility.

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But back to the scene, which suddenly turns documentary, as Wilson explains some of the more awful points of the concentration camps, like the gas chambers and the lime pits—and you see them. As does Mary.

Of course, using newsreel footage in fictional movies wasn’t so unusual—Casablanca, for example, is punctuated and grounded in reality by choice morsels of grainy footage: advancing Nazis, downtrodden refugees, mortars discharging their fire over Paris. Nevertheless, war on an open field had been filmed in WWI and audiences were used to seeing it. Even today, if you want to watch those Holocaust newsreels on websites, you get a warning that it’s disturbing, mature content.

And it’s one thing to see it in context as a newsreel, which occupies a fixed place in one’s schema of documentary media. You expect to see awful, real things in the news. You’re at least braced for it. In a movie? Not so much.

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A Nazi gas chamber projected in a Judge’s house in Connecticut.

To show footage from the concentration camps in a general admission fictional film is pretty damn radical, not to mention risky from a moral standpoint. (One thinks of the actual shots of Bruce Lee’s funeral used to mercenary and meretricious effect in Game of Death.) However, there’s nothing cheap and exploitative about how Welles inserts Holocaust images into The Stranger.

Including those indelible images in a made-up story, Welles blurs the line between the dream world of the movies and the real world, and, by mixing these up, he gives us a reality check that documentary footage alone cannot provide. Just as Mary wakes up to the evil that Rankin/Kindler harbors within him, we the viewers are jolted out of the diegesis of a pleasant little thriller to understand that this happened and will forever mark our memories.

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Woman in the dark: Mary watches the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

Reflecting on the Hiroshima tragedy, Marguerite Duras pointed out that we can’t even talk about it—we can only talk about the impossibility of truly talking about it. Welles finds a way around this dilemma of portraying the Holocaust by just borrowing newsreel footage. But he doesn’t do so in a “BAM! Truth at 24 frames per second!” manner. He takes care to suggest that this is not the whole picture. He carefully makes us see that we’re not seeing the atrocities—we’re seeing a film of the atrocities projected onto a screen… and filmed by another camera.

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We’re looking at a film of a film of the Holocaust.

The degree of separation, however, rather than hinting that we just can’t comprehend what happened, brings up the idea of individual cultural trauma. I can remember exactly where I was when I first saw that footage on YouTube (I had to lie and say I was over 18 and willing to watch disturbing footage in the name of historical interest).

That footage of the camps and the wide-eyed Allied liberators has become more than a document or an artifact. It represents a rite of passage, a kind of frozen moment in time that we all have to encounter at some point, a point that will then crystallize in our lives and haunt us. Can we wrap our minds around the sheer mechanical abomination of that footage? No. But it stays with us. The experience of watching that grainy phantasmagoria of suffering becomes an enclosed moment, a rupture in time.

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To get back to the scene, I find it significant that the images are not just projected onto a screen, but, at times, onto Mr. Wilson’s face. He is part of the screen, and he casts his shadow onto the image. Now, I don’t want to tread on what Welles himself called “the jagged edge of symbolism,” because the materiality of the characters, the room, and the image itself save the scene from trite symbolism. And yet, watching Edward G. Robinson interact with those images that seem to fuse with him conveys so much about the strange way in which cultural traumas both escape us and live in us.

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Here’s where the strength of the movies comes in: I can’t express this in words half as well as Welles can with images. I don’t want to explain all that. I want you to watch the movie and tell me if you see it—or more importantly, if you feel it.

And then there’s the motion of the film reels, turning at a regular pace and rhythm, ’round and ’round like the gears of a clock. Even once the film strip has run out, the reel continues to spin, the tail end of the celluloid slapping against the table and giving us another little wake-up call. The shots of the gears of the projector foreshadow images of the gears of Harper’s clock spinning out of control at the grand finale of the film.

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The out-of-control film projector…

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…and the out-of-control clock tower gears.

In a way, the clock is inextricably linked with the movie projector as both introduce a looming sense of dread that intensifies in the final third of the film.

Immediately after this scene, Franz Kindler/Rankin fixes the Harper clock and it chimes out—waking up the entire town as Kindler looks down at them from the top of the tower, godlike.

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The villagers come running to investigate the newly working clock.

Having disturbed the peace of the town, the clock continues to strike at important moments for the rest of the film. For example, as Kindler saws away at the ladder to the top of the church tower, planning Mary’s “accidental” death, the clock strikes—meanwhile, Wilson looks at the tower from his hotel room and, at the Rankin house, the sound keeps Mary from sleeping.  We see her tossing and turning as it tolls in the night. In a series of three shots, the sound connects the central characters.

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The devil rising: a mechanical demon moves in front of the face of the clock as Kindler engineers his wife’s death and the chimes sound out.

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The sound of the chiming links together all of these shots and stresses the relationship between the incarnations of good and evil, Kindler and Wilson—both could actually be “the stranger” referred to by film’s the title—and the ordinary woman trying to negotiate the right path between them after making a very big mistake.

The clock’s tolling also coincides with and sort of exteriorizes the knowledge of those horrors that Mary witnessed. The sound design of the clock’s booming chimes makes the “home stretch” of the film more taut, implacable, and tense.

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But it’s really at the end of the movie where the clock-cinema connection clicks, as Kindler holes up in the clock tower, where Mary comes to kill him with Mr. Wilson in pursuit.

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Mary takes a wild shot at Kindler and misses, but hits the clock mechanisms and sends them spinning out of control.

Her shot prompts a gorgeous set piece of accelerated montage as the wounded Kindler tries to escape—whirring gears, shots, jerky movements, a fall onto the face of the clock. Just as the gears of the clock have accelerated beyond reason, so the well-paced, patient suspense of the film gives way to a frenzy of quick cuts. The clock and the cinema freak out in tandem.

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Is the scene a little allegorical? With Mary as an avenging angel… and the actual angel statue on the clock stabbing the demonic Kindler and sending him to his death? Probably, but there’s something even more cathartic going on.

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32The scene ends with a shot of the face of the clock, the hands revolving madly, mimicking the fruitless spinning of the film projector when it ran out of newsreel footage. Some trauma lies beyond time, beyond what can be shown, but that incessant, unreasoning, out-of-control cycling hits a very emotional chord.

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Some collective memories or experiences are so vast and awful that they make our heads spin. We can’t ever understand those pivotal moments in history, just like we can’t ever take the derivative of a single point in mathematics. The weight of these remembrances make our usual linear conceptions of time and memory judder, overheat, and careen off of any framework of calculation. They mark the asymptotes of our cultural perception and recollection. And The Stranger helps us to understand this. Time itself seems to go haywire at the end of the film, as if the magnitude of the horrors of WWII had created a cultural momentum that derails all sense of narrative or fiction.

The Stranger manages to stare down the barrel of some of the most hideous things that humans have ever perpetrated against each other and pack that kind of ugliness into a genre picture! In my mind, it’s the direct ancestor of a film like Hiroshima, Mon Amour that manages to be both a love story in a silent era way and an avant-garde Mobius ring of loss and desire on macro and micro scales. The only difference is, The Stranger works on your mind subtly, without you totally realizing it. I’ve always really liked, respected, and enjoyed this film—even before I knew a jump cut from a jump rope. There’s something healing about it in the end, even if you’re not watching it for a dose of Wellesian genius.

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If you want a suspenseful, entertaining B movie, you’ll get it. But if you want an exorcism of a collective trauma and a darkly beautiful tale of deception, undeserved love, and a thinking conflict between good versus evil, you’ll find that too—even in as, ahem, conventional a film as this one.

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The Stranger is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch it for free right now! Download it at the Internet Archive.