The Exile (1947): King of Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dracula (1931): The Eye of the Storm

drac1Nobody’s been able to kill Tod Browning’s Dracula, but that sure hasn’t stopped critics from beating a dead… um, vampire.

Sadly, it’s become rather fashionable to dismiss the original Dracula as an overrated relic, lauded mostly because of its status as the first sound horror film.

Why, last week even I noted that the camerawork in the Spanish-language Dracula makes Browning’s movie, shot simultaneously, seem anemic by comparison. And I do stand by that statement; Spanish Drácula is a more technically accomplished film.

However, today I come not to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart, but to praise it as a brilliant piece of cinema. It’s time for me to reveal my undying (though not undead) devotion to the Lugosi version.

Are other adaptations of Stoker’s classic more faithful? More dynamic? More emotionally involving? Certainly. But I don’t think Browning wanted to shock us or take us on a thrill ride, although he could have. (Watch The Unknown if you don’t believe me!)

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Dracula may appear primitive, but therein lies its uncanny beauty. Sometimes sophistication isn’t half as convincing as simplicity. Eschewing ostentatious special effects and action sequences, the director chose to chill his audience with the silence and stillness of the grave.

As the documentary Universal Horror pointed out, audiences were accustomed to music during the silent era, so Browning wisely deployed the hissing nothingness of Dracula’s early talkie soundtrack to spook viewers. Similarly, the somnambulistic staging and acting reflect the emptiness of Dracula himself, a walking, talking corpse. Why do we wonder at film’s inertia? Its deadly title character freezes all that surrounds him, transforming every space into a tomb.

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And there’s something elemental and profound about how those famously Gothic visuals unfold. We watch the coffins open, the rodents and insects crawling around them, the dead brides rising. And then, the camera tracks into the Master, slowly, as though our desire to see, our curiosity, were an irresistible gravitational pull.

This iconic scene doesn’t serve character or narrative—we’ve already been told who and what the Count is. The images urge us to feast our eyes on decaying, eerie splendor, the ultimate in decadence. Everything about Dracula’s introduction calls out to us, tempting us just to look and be caught in looking by a creature that controls humans through their eyes.

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By regressing to an archaic, almost presentational style of filmmaking, this adaptation seeks to regress the audience back to the receptivity of childhood or perhaps to the superstitious dread of our ancestors. Dracula is no mere movie. It is a ritual, a summoning, almost a séance.

Lest we forget, in 1931, a movie character who turns out to be a vampire, not a criminal masquerading as one, was a revolutionary—and risky—proposition. The original Dracula trailer marketed the film not so much with promises of shudders, but rather with disturbing questions: “Do vampires really exist? Do they leave their prisons in the dark hours—reaching out for new victims?”

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For over 80 years since, we spectators have been training our suspension of disbelief, but we must remember that Dracula was a key film in setting up our credulity in the face of the impossible. Without Browning and Lugosi’s success in presenting a bloodsucking demon as stark reality, horror as a talkie genre might not have developed to the extent it has… or not at all.

The need to establish credibility explains the film’s apparently unimaginative style. Innovative editing or florid tracking shots might’ve startled us out of the hypnotic spell that Lugosi casts with his penlight-enhanced eyes. We accept the vampire as a threat because he doesn’t seem like a trick of the camera—or a product of hours spent in the makeup chair. His dark glamour locks right into our schema for dangerous melodrama seducers, gaining audiences’ acceptance because he modifies a type of villain they recognize. Lugosi created a vampire that suited Hollywood perfectly, luring victims and viewers alike with his imposing charm.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h43m26s110But, in the end, what makes Lugosi’s performance immortal, frightening, yet charismatic? What pushes his performance over the edge from bad guy to pure, ageless evil?

In my opinion, the throw-away shots of Lugosi—the ones that almost get lost among the jack-o’-lantern close-ups and those erotic bite scenes—often reveal most about his definitive interpretation of the Count.

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For instance, after Dracula leans in to bite Renfield at Castle Dracula, the scene shifts to the Vesta, a ship bound for England. Now the Count’s servant, the maddened, hysterical Renfield wakes the Master up while a tempest pummels the ship.

Once he’s risen from his coffin, Dracula glides above deck. As the camera gently rocks to suggest the shifting of the waves, the Count gazes offscreen with detachment and the sounds of the storm swirl on the soundtrack.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h43m58s172Browning cuts to shots of the ship’s deck, as men in rain slickers desperately struggle against the might of the gale, trying to control the violently thrashing ship. And then he cuts back to the Count, unaffected literally by the storm and figuratively by the misery and imminent doom of the sailors.

This juxtaposition, bordering on a lack of continuity, between the motion of the ship and the comparative stillness of the Count, endows the shots with an unearthly quality. He’s the eye of the storm and everything around him, everything he touches, turns dead calm.

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As I revisited Dracula a few days ago, this overlooked moment reminded me of a passage from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. A bit of a leap, I know, but this is how Marlowe describes the Svengali-esque blackmailer Amthor:

“His eyes were deep… And they were also eyes without expression, without soul, eyes that could watch lions tear a man to pieces and never change, that could watch a man impaled and screaming in the hot sun with his eyelids cut off.”

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-15h06m05s40The allusion to a certain very specific torture leads me to suspect that Chandler had the model for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, specifically in mind when he wrote that. In any case, what Chandler evokes here, the utter lack of compassion for (or even reaction to) suffering, helped me pinpoint the unique attribute that Lugosi conjured as the Count.

The classically-trained 49-year-old actor—who’d ironically won acclaim as Hungary’s foremost Passion Play Jesus once upon a time—brought a diabolic, remorseless disdain to Dracula that remains unmatched. But he didn’t need to express it or emote it. He projects it even when totally motionless, exuding that disdain from every line of his arrogant, mask-like face, communicating it with his aristocratic, rigid posture. And film’s oddly static style parallels the unholy immutability and the frozen contempt of Dracula.

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Which brings me to the part of Dracula that I find most frightening. I’ve probably seen this film a hundred times since childhood, but the flower girl scene never fails to creep me out. To refresh your memory, on a London street corner, a waif is selling violets for gentlemen’s buttonholes. A new prospective client, seen as the a silhouette of a top hat and a sweeping cloak, towering over the tiny girl, steps out of the mist.

If foreboding were an image, it would look like this.

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Still shown in long shot, the flower girl opens her mouth in amazement. In close-up, Dracula bears down on her, his eyes glowing. The girl stares back in stupefied terror. And then he leans in, as though to kiss her, pushing her back behind a column. Her pathetic shriek pierces the air.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-13h50m07s29Immediately afterwards, the Count strides along the street in his top hat and cape, satiated and puffed up by his latest meal. A whistle shrieks. Bystanders gather around the column and huddle over the flower girl’s dead body.

Meanwhile, Browning shifts to an establishing shot of the theater where the next important scene will take place. That’s the only real narrative purpose for the image, although Karl Freund embellished it with a subtle crane movement. In a slightly closer shot, Dracula arrives, turning around to survey the people coming and going. If you’re watching closely, you’ll see his lips curl into something like a scornful smile. There it is again—that glimmer of arrogance, that immovable conceit.

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The notion that this monster can look at a human being, a vulnerable girl trying to eke out a living, and think of her as a snack, scares the daylights out of me. It scares me more than all the spilled viscera and jump shocks in horror movies since. That brief episode defines Dracula’s depravity, leaving the viewer surprised and mildly disgusted.

The random ruthlessness of the flower girl scene haunts me most, though, because it punctures the romantic aura of the vampire myth. Dracula resembles a hot-blooded lover in the Valentino mold, but the Count’s sangfroid and his icy contempt put him in a freakish category all his own. And yet, we’re still attracted to him, aren’t we? (Speaking for myself, I’ll come out and say it: yes.)

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Lugosi incarnated what I consider the most seductive portrayal of evil captured on film. As he creeps towards the camera, advancing on the audience as well as Mina, his face contorted into a hungry grimace, we’re repulsed, yet spellbound. I suppose that’s partially what I mean when I say that Dracula is a summoning. It calls up some primal region in the human psyche where predatory impulses, which we rationally reject, become desirable—in spite of ourselves.

Whatever its detractors say, Dracula resonates in its unnerving stillness, compelling us to sit uncomfortably with all of the conflicting human feelings that this inhuman creature stirs up.

In 1950, when asked about his most famous role and its impact, Lugosi replied, “Dracula never ends.” And, you know, he was right.

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Night Shift: 6 Reasons to Watch Universal’s Spanish-language Dracula (1931)

villariasThey worked like children of the night, shooting from sundown to sunrise. Directed by a man who didn’t know a word of their language, the Spanish-speaking actors filmed an obscure alternative version of what would become one of the most famous movies of all time.

“Above all,” explains Lupita Tovar, the film’s heroine, “we wanted our version to be the best.” And, in many ways, it is.

For those of us who’ve watched and rewatched the Lugosi version, the simultaneously shot Drácula opens up a mind-boggling parallel universe—one with much improved camerawork and often more convincing acting.

This is a lavish, artful film in its own right, so much more than the “bonus feature” it’s listed as on home releases. If I haven’t hooked you already, here’s why any movie buff or horror fan needs to see Drácula.

 1. You’ll discover a little-known chapter of Hollywood history.

Why did a relatively small American studio make a foreign-language film in the 1930s? The answer, as usual with Hollywood, can be expressed by a single character: $.

With the coming of talkies, the problem of producing films for profitable foreign markets turned into a major headache for Hollywood. Unlike silent films, for which translated intertitles could simply be edited into prints, synchronized sound pictures posed a new obstacle. Dubbing was difficult and felt phony to audiences (like it still does, actually). Eager to keep up business during the early days of the Depression, studios recycled sets, costumes, and sometimes even actors to churn out complete foreign-language versions of some movies.

melfordGeorge Melford directing an early scene in Drácula

Spanish proved the language of choice for these alternate productions, although studios occasionally green-lit German and French versions. At Universal Studios, a Spanish-language version of the now-lost thriller The Cat Creeps offered Lupita Tovar, a beautiful Mexican actress, her first starring film role. Tovar proved so enchanting that Universal executive Paul Kohner not only championed a Spanish-language Dracula, but also fell in love with its star. Fair warning: once you’ve watched Drácula, you will, too.

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2. The flamboyant cinematography makes Browning’s version look positively anemic by comparison.

Most alternate foreign-language versions can’t hold a flickering Gothic candelabra to the English originals. Drácula, helmed by veteran silent director George Melford, is the exception, largely thanks to the fluid camera movements, tracing creepy arabesques around the set.

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You don’t have to wait long for an example of this superb camerawork. Our first glimpse of Dracula in his element practically bursts off the screen. As the sinister count appears on the stairs of his castle, the camera surges up the steps towards him. Universal’s famous crane—constructed for Broadway (1929) and repurposed in any number of films—endows the moment with a startling, supernatural ambiance, delivering a real visual jolt. Similarly, when the Count stands beneath Renfield’s asylum window, the camera tracks in from a long shot to a medium close-up, as though the vampire’s evil will were drawing us to him.

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In 1931, Universal had recently acquired a print of Nosferatu; Murnau’s grim, nightmarish vision, as well as the German expressionist aesthetic in general, clearly influenced Drácula more than its English-language counterpart. For instance, Melford devotes more screen time to the storm scene on the Vesta, piling shock value on a part of the narrative that Browning uses mostly for expositional purposes. Medium close-ups of the dead captain, Renfield’s shrieks in the gale, and Dracula’s rise from the ship’s hold all hit home for maximum scare power. And isn’t that what this is all about?

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3. The luminous Lupita Tovar runs the gamut from adorable to terrifying (even though she’s not called Mina in this version).

Rechristened Eva in Spanish, the Count’s main target undergoes a startling transformation when she comes under his malign influence. Tovar’s Eva shifts from a cheerful, normal girl to a morose, haunted victim. Now, I respect Helen Chandler’s stylized, anhedonic performance as Mina, but she hardly changes throughout the film and thus engages my sympathy far less.

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Tovar says that she put a lot of her own personality into Eva, making her “lively” in the beginning. We see that mischievous side as she insistently teases Lucia about her attraction to Dracula, ducking out from the door she just exited to deliver another friendly jab. Eva’s fearful, depressive state after Dracula’s first attack on her affects viewers all the more since we recognize the frightening trauma that’s overtaken her.

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With the Count’s blood coursing through her veins, however, Eva turns positively maniacal. Though she’s even livelier that she was before, Tovar evokes a vivacity at once seductive and unnatural. Her fiendishly aggressive, erotically charged interpretation of female vampirism was decades ahead of its time. I mean, Ingrid Pitt wasn’t even born yet!

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That said, Tovar did have some help from the costume department… In an interview, she noted, “I remember when I saw the English version later, the wardrobe was different. The dresses that Helen Chandler wore were all covered up. What they gave me were big décolletées, you know, what you’d call sexy. I wasn’t even aware of it!”

Update 11/13/2016: Lupita Tovar has passed away at age 106. May she rest in peace and be always remembered.

4. Pablo Alvárez Rubio delivers one of the most intense performances you’ll ever see on film.

Who would’ve thought anyone could act more strung-out than Dwight Frye, the English version’s giggling Renfield? Well, Spanish-born Pablo Alvárez Rubio reminds me of what Al Pacino would do with the part of Renfield. At one point, he literally chomps the scenery, gnawing on a chair in Dr. Seward’s office!

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Alvárez Rubio slips into hamminess, but it’s an epic kind of hamminess, the kind that assists us in believing the unbelievable. His frenzied, melodramatic acting in mad scenes impacts us because he starts out the story as such a friendly, likable fellow. (I adore Frye, but his subtly chilly quality as an actor puts us off a bit, in contrast with Alvárez Rubio’s easy affability.) Even once Renfield becomes Dracula’s servant, Alvárez Rubio rivals Frye for his ability to convey the tortured character’s fluctuating moods. One moment he seizes a fly with the fury of a wild beast; the next he filters back to his civilized self, apologizing to the doctors for his behavior.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-10h37m18s50Lupita Tovar remembered that his talent for simulating insanity astounded—and worried—the cast and crew: “We thought he was going to go crazy.” A real pro, though, Alvárez Rubio needed only a single take to harness his morbid pyrotechnics. Treat yourself to his ferociously tormented interpretation of Renfield.

5. It’s significantly longer than the English version.

Yup. That’s right. The Spanish version runs almost a full 30 minutes longer, bringing Drácula to a length that seems more appropriate for a modern feature than an early talkie. The additional length does take a toll on the plot, which seems to wander a bit more than the efficient English Dracula. However, on the positive side, the runtime gave director Melford and his cast breathing room to create more poignant relationships between the characters.

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If I have one issue with the Dracula we all know, it’s that the cast appears only mildly annoyed by the prospect of Mina and Lucy suffering a fate genuinely worse than death. By contrast, the Spanish version explores the pain of watching someone you care about fall apart. After Van Helsing discovers the bite marks on Eva’s throat, her father gives her a hug. His drawn-out, scared, paternal embrace stresses the relatable fear of losing a child. Similarly, Juan and Eva’s romance displays a mixture of tenderness, passion, and even a sparkle of fun that’s missing from the chemistry between Helen Chandler and David Manners.

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Within that extra half-hour, Melford also took the time to show spooky stuff you won’t see in the other version, such as shots of Dracula prowling through moonlit woods. The brief medical examination scene also presents us with one of the most grisly, yet matter-of-fact shots of the 1930s: an extended close-up of the two puncture marks made by a vampire’s fangs!

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-10h31m11s221 6. No, he can’t touch Lugosi, but Carlos Villarías’s interpretation of the Count is certainly interesting to watch.

Sadly, the one aspect of Drácula that indisputably falls short of the English version turned out to be the most essential: the title performance. Film historians tend to blame Spanish-born Villarías for the film’s relative obscurity. And I won’t deny it: Lugosi’s Dracula has more magnetism in his (unseen) fangs than Villarías’s Conde Drácula does in his whole walking cadaver.

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How dare you say that, Nitrate Diva! You’re in for it now!

But holding an actor accountable for playing Dracula and not measuring up to Lugosi just doesn’t strike me as a sporting criticism. Few actors have ever lent their mortal coil to any role so fully as Lugosi did to our favorite bloodsucking fiend. Nobody stacks up to the king of the undead. You set yourself up for disappointment by expecting otherwise.

So, the question to ask—instead of what he lacked—becomes what particular strengths did Villarías bring to the role? In my opinion, the lugubrious heavy served as a kind of missing celluloid link between the pestilential ugliness of Nosferatu and the suaveness of Lugosi. Villarías can believably kiss hands and stride into drawing rooms, but his animalistic nature reveals itself more readily than Lugosi’s.

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Consider his first big scene, on the steps of Castle Dracula: as Renfield struggles with the huge cobweb, Villarías stares down at him, menacing in a low-angle shot, his upper teeth bared and poised on his lip. Throughout the film, the Conde flashes a similar rat-like smile in moments of diabolic delight and visibly gnashes his teeth when cornered. Unlike the did-I-really-just-see-that hint of a smirk that Lugosi uses to suggest malevolence, Villarías’s toothy expressions make Dracula a more traditionally grotesque monster, a fairy tale horror rather than a bedroom villain.

Similarly, in contrast to Lugosi’s balletic predator approach, Villarías attacks the sleeping Lucia by leaning over and eagerly covering her with his cape. As he drapes the cloak over the sleeping victim, he really does resemble a bat, folding his leathery wings.

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Frequent extreme close-ups of Villarías’s glassy, bulbous eyes also heighten the repellent qualities of his interpretation. Given how jarring they are, it’s surprising to note how many of these extreme close-ups the film contains; you begin to feel that they’re almost as frequent as Lugosi’s many matinee idol close-ups in the English version.

vlcsnap-2014-10-10-17h43m37s95These striking shots invade our personal space, as though Villarías as Dracula were bearing down on us, dominating us. And this from a small screen! I can only imagine what they’re like in a movie theater! Reduced to his two glowing peepers, he reminds the viewer of an insect, surveying the world with inhuman, compound eyes. Lugosi deservedly gets the swoons and the shudders, but Villarías deserves some credit for wholeheartedly angling for an “Ewww…” every now and then.

vlcsnap-2014-10-11-12h02m32s244I wrote this post as part of the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by two fantastic bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Kay of Movie Star Makeover. You’re strongly encouraged to check out the other posts!

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Remembering Carla Laemmle (1909–2014)

phantom“If I should live to be a hundred, I should always hear the superhuman cry of grief and rage which he uttered when the terrible sight appeared before my eyes…”

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux

On June 12, Carla Laemmle passed away at the age of 104. Beloved of cinephiles worldwide, this remarkable woman danced in the original version of The Phantom of the Opera, spoke the first lines of Dracula, and was the last surviving cast member of both films. There’s an African proverb that goes, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Hearing of Laemmle’s death, I feel as though a whole nitrate archive had combusted.

Speaking for movie geeks everywhere, I like to think of Carla Laemmle as the high priestess of Universal horror. She was an unusual horror icon, for sure: a glamorous, sunny centenarian made more famous by documentaries about old Hollywood chillers than by her appearances in the original classics. A witness to film history, Carla Laemmle possessed the power to transport fans to the silent or early talkie eras with a vivid anecdote or observation.

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Carla, dancing on the Universal backlot, c. 1920s

As anyone who’s ever watched her in an interview or a behind-the-scenes featurette can tell you, Laemmle could summon some of the greatest gods and monsters of the past century at will—and she didn’t need the Scroll of Thoth.

One of her earliest memories, of the indelible flashbulb kind, stretched back to 1912: she could picture a newspaper headline about the sinking of the Titanic and recalled her parents’ shocked faces. In 1922, she’d seen Universal’s extravagant Monte Carlo set illuminated by every arc light on the lot for the fiery finale of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. A year later, she watched Lon Chaney as Quasimodo swinging from a gargoyle on the studio’s colossal Notre Dame duplicate.

Born on October 20, 1909 in Chicago as Rebekah Isabelle Laemmle, she changed her name to Carla in 1931 as a tribute to her uncle, Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle.

Ogden Nash’s doggerel about Carl Laemmle lavishing jobs on his “very large faemmle” has unduly tarnished the mogul’s accomplishments. Uncle Carl—as even employees knew carlhim—was a visionary who invested his savings in a Nickelodeon parlor and grew it into an entertainment empire. He gave opportunities to female filmmakers as early as the 1910s, took chances on first-time directors, and brought Irving Thalberg into the picture business. During his retirement, he leveraged his time, money, and prestige to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust.

In the fascinating documentary Universal Horror, Carla praised her uncle’s kindness and approachability: “He was a wonderful human being. He was very democratic. He would talk to everybody and listen to everybody… If they [employees] needed any financial help, he would give them help.”

It was Uncle Carl who urged Carla’s father, Joseph, to move his branch of the family from Chicago to Hollywood in the early 1920s to improve his weak health. Carla and her parents lived on carladancethe expansive studio grounds, known as Universal City. Almost a century later, she remembered exploring the backlot’s spectacular sets, playing in “New York,” “Monte Carlo,” or “Paris” on any given day, depending on her mood. As she recounted to Gregory William Mank, author of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration:

“There was a zoo, and almost every morning I’d wake to the roar of the lions—they were hungry for their breakfast! They had tigers, monkeys, an orangutan, and even two elephants. They had a camel, which was funny—this camel would get away and make the trek all the way up to our bungalow and graze on our vast green lawn. I named him ‘Houdini’ because he always got away. I’d go out with oats and lure him into the garage and then call down to the zoo and tell them, ‘Houdini is here!’” 

To this little girl, Universal’s fiefdom “was a fairyland.”

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Our clearest view of Carla (center left) in The Phantom of the Opera

In 1925, choreographer Ernest Belcher, also Carla’s dance teacher, cast her as the prima ballerina in The Phantom of the Opera, Universal’s new deluxe “Super Jewel” production—a huge undertaking for a studio that mostly focused its resources on low-budget Westerns and comedies.

Sixteen-year-old Carla was undaunted; she had been taking dance lessons since early childhood. Instead of being scared, she remembered that dancing for the camera was “a big thrill” to her. “It was a very elaborate, very expensive production. The stage was an exact replica of the Paris opera house.” Rigorous rehearsals often took place on that enormous stage with the real orchestra featured in the movie playing for the dancers. During filming, a full audience of nattily dressed extras would watch and applaud at each take. “It was like performing in a real opera,” she said.

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When not working, Laemmle would watch her longtime friend Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney from the sidelines. She told Michael Blake, author of A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney’s Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures:

“I remember seeing Lon in his makeup and it was pretty scary. I’d say it was ghastly. I don’t know how Mary was able to work next to that face every day. It probably helped her when she was to look frightened! As I recall, the color of his makeup was a chalky white.”

Just to put this into perspective, Chaney’s makeup design was so secret that his face was blanked out from all publicity photos sent to the press. Carla Laemmle was thus one of very few people given a preview of his bloodcurdling phantom.

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As for Laemmle’s second famous tie to horror history, her brief part in Dracula remained something of a mystery to her. She was simply told to report to the casting office and given the role.

By 1931, Carla’s cousin Carl Laemmle Jr. was running Universal, having been given the studio by his father on his 21st birthday in 1929. However, as Carla explained, the change in leadership brought about an aesthetic shift that the studio founder hadn’t foreseen:

“Carl Laemmle Jr. loved horror. When he was a little boy he was crazy about anything that had to do with the macabre… so, he thought it would be a great idea to make movies like that. But his father was dead against it.

Perhaps Junior wanted to please his father and win his blessing by putting a little more of the Laemmle clan into the picture.

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Interviewed by Leonard Maltin at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2012, Laemmle revealed that she was allowed more or less to create her costume and she went for a note of self-effacing humor, selecting a dowdy suit, an out-of-style cloche, and Harold Lloyd-ish glasses. Ostensibly the secretary of a wealthy woman on tour, Carla’s character reads from a guidebook in the opening coach scene, before being jolted out of her seat by those inhospitable Transylvania roads.

Her klutzy pratfall and schoolgirl reading of the local lure adds enough humor to pull audiences into a film heading towards uncharted waters. After all, in 1931, a film where the bad guy really did turn out to be a vampire—not a criminal pretending to be one—was downright revolutionary.

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Little did Carla know at the time that she was speaking the very first lines of the first important sound horror movie, kicking off Hollywood’s first major foray into the supernatural, and launching a classic that, like Dracula himself, will probably never die.

Outside of the horror genre, perhaps Laemmle’s most notable appearance was in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, an MGM production. She emerges like Venus from a seashell, hollywood revuesinuously dances in a proto-bikini, and beckons suggestively to the camera, every inch the pre-Code cutie. She continued to dance onscreen and to play small film roles through the 1930s, before ultimately opting to perform in live venues.

As the heady heyday of classic Hollywood drifted into the past, film historians began to draw on Carla’s increasingly valuable first-hand accounts of the golden age. Reintroduced to viewers through making-of featurettes, she continued to received fan mail from around the world, which she considered a testament to the enduring spell of Dracula. Into her 104th year, she could recite the lines of dialogue that made her such a cherished cult figure:

“Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age…” 

Laemmle brought two layers of awe to her interviews and documentary appearances: she was a wonder herself, but she also communicated her own wonder at that bygone age (to borrow a phrase from her famous line) that she had witnessed. What she saw was impressive then—and it’s even more impressive over a century later.

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Longevity was nature’s gift to Carla Laemmle, but she chose to make it a gift to film lovers everywhere by cheerfully recounting the early days of Hollywood filmmaking. Not only could she clearly recall moments so far away that even celluloid might buckle under the impact of the years, but she also shared them with contagious enthusiasm and joy.

Her personal affection for the creepy classics resonated with new generations of fans like me. She echoed our love of the horror flicks produced by Universal when she confessed, “I never got enough of them. You got scared, but you enjoyed it.”

Recommended Online Viewing:

On YouTube: Laemmle remembers The Phantom of the Opera in clips from an interview with David J. Skal

On YouTube: Laemmle discusses Dracula and Universal with Leonard Maltin at TCMFF 2012

On YouTube: in conversation with her niece Antonia, Laemmle talks about her family history and old Universal City

And, of course, at the Internet Archive: The Phantom of the Opera, with restored 1929 tinting, toning, and two-strip Technicolor sequence. Keep an eye out for Carla. She is on the stage, held aloft by a male dancer just as the curtain closes. However, you can spot her more easily in a backstage scene immediately after this intertitle: “The Phantom! The Phantom is up from the cellars again!”

Modern Myth: Frankenstein (1931)

I need to reign myself in when writing about Frankenstein. God knows, I could easily concoct a series of blog posts about Colin Clive’s hair alone. So, I’ll isolate one moment that has always fascinated me and try to bring it ALIVE!

Recognize the scene? This is a pristine publicity still, I believe, but you can still get the gist (and some extra angst!) from my slightly murky screenshots.

The monster has dragged his maker to the windmill. Henry Frankenstein wakes up and tries to run away, but the creature stops him and they take up positions on either side of a turning wheel in the mechanism of the mill. In shot-reverse-shot, we get Frankenstein looking at his creation and the thing looking back, as the gear continues to turn between them. There’s just so much in these two shots. They conjure up a multiplicity of meanings.

Following a pretty intense chase sequence, this pause in the action, almost like a fermata, really sticks in your memory—or at least mine. Karloff, for his part, communicates a rising rage against the only person whom he can hold responsible for putting him into this situation of pain and chaos.

For once, Clive’s character isn’t a ball of nerves. He really looks at what he’s made, as though he’s seeing it for the first time. I also think that I detect a certain amount of perverse pride in Henry Frankenstein’s eyes. Remember that scene where Waldeman and Frankenstein double-team the monster, trapping him while trying to administer a sedative? Well, now the tables are turned… Henry’s trying to get away from his monster and his creature clearly has the brain capacity to trap him. One can sense just a little undercurrent of ironic accomplishment. Not only has Clive’s Frankenstein made a man, but a man who can hold his own with his maker.

Frankenstein’s monster shows the capacity to learn and get the upper hand. He thus becomes his master’s greatest achievement and his greatest nightmare.

There’s also an odd “tag you’re it!” aspect of this scene. How many comedies give us this kind of scenario, with two characters faking each other out as they run around a desk or something? It’s a child’s game, really, and both Frankenstein and his creation are like children, causing harm and acting willfully without fully comprehending the ramifications of their actions.

To put a revolving series of bars between the camera and the character also adds a visual flamboyance to the stare-down and draws the viewer in with hypnotic movement. The cyclical motion is like a model or a concretization of the reciprocal gaze. With sound and image working in conjunction, the creaky, yet steady rhythm of the turning mill wheel both grounds the scene in a set pace and makes it uneasy, unsteady, in motion. Now, this turning wheel separating the creator and the creation suggests a perpetual tension and, at least to me, suggests the idea of the monster and maker inscribed in a dialectic relationship.

What an angle! Stunning visual means of conveying the collision-of-universes aspect of this death struggle.

The philosopher Hegel wrote about this concept of dialectic, of a pair of opposites (not just binaries, two things that are just at different ends of a spectrum) but opposites that are forever clashing—as epitomized by the master-servant relationship. The servant wants to rise and become the master and make the master his servant. The master wants things to stay just as they are. Even if you flip the positions, somebody’s going to be unhappy, because each wants “to supersede the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being.”

It’s a perpetual cycle of conflict, upheaval… and conflict again. It goes ’round and ’round. After all, why else do we, in English, say revolution for both upheaval and turning?

The mill wheel, interposing between the camera and the faces of the Frankenstein and his monster, drive home this tension of seeing oneself in the other and of trying to extricate oneself from that other. Creator and creation can’t really be separated though—they are mutually defined. The wheel connects them to each other on this visual level and allows us to feel this ineffable link, this potent, mythic moment of the pair tragically recognizing themselves in each other and recognizing that they recognize it.

On another, perhaps more obvious, level, the decision to set the conclusion of the film in a windmill also recalls Don Quixote. After all, the mad Don tilts at the most famous windmill in Western Civilization, because he believes it to be a monster. Robert Florey, who wrote the script for Frankenstein, added the windmill. It doesn’t appear in Mary Shelley’s novel, and, although the initially scripted scenes were heavily reedited, Whale clearly made the decision to make the gears of the building quite prominent. Now, I would certainly apply the adjective “quixotic” to Dr. Frankenstein and to his quest. In his character, the romantic and scientific traditions intersect to form an impractical genius who makes things he can’t cope with.

Highs and lows: extreme angles emphasize the fragility and volatility of Frankenstein’s genius. 

This turning windmill also makes us as viewers aware of a churning, orderly edifice in which Frankenstein and his beast suddenly find themselves. Now, I’m dancing on the jagged edge of symbolism here, but the mill creates the feeling that the movie is now inside a working, mechanical system.

Indeed, as the bars of the mill wheel pass between the camera and their faces, this interposing object recalls the zoetrope—one of the first pre-cinema moving image devices which gave the appearance of life by parading a series of images through a tiny peep-hole slot.

(Evidently, I’m not the first person to make this observation. After I pressed publish on this one, a rabid horror fan friend of mine directed me to a similar point in the work of Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr, The Flying Maciste Brothers. Well, Newton and Liebniz developed calculus independently…)

Now, what does Dr. Frankenstein want most of all? He craves to know how things work, what mechanisms of nature rule the world. The windmill reminds me of the suite of laws that hold together the universe—and continue to do so, in spite of whatever strange dreams man might dream.

“If I could discover any one of these things… I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”

Frankenstein and his monster, however, both become heroic because they have the guts to stare into that mechanism: Frankenstein by choice, his creation by way of the calamitous existence that was thrust upon him. Their exceptional destinies are intertwined and the movement of the wheel seems to knit them together—as doubles, as a dialectical pair, as two individuals who madness and bad luck has rendered aware, whether rationally or intuitively, of the forces that govern the world and which, when tampered with, grind a human being to despair.

For me, the beauty of Frankenstein resides in the morbid, yet poetic way the film doesn’t just portray modernity, but also practices it. For instance, in true Gothic novels, one prototype being Ann Radcliffe’s celebrated Mysteries of Udolpho, any time a skull or skeleton pops up, we’re dealing with a key plot point or shock-value moment… and you have to wait for about 200 or so more pages for another one.

James Whale, on the other hand, constantly throws this kind of memento mori imagery at us. Even Dr. Waldeman, who presents himself as the healthy scientist, in contrast to Clive’s obsessive one, keeps a line of skulls on the back shelf of his study.

Or, consider the classroom scene preceding the brain theft, which opens with this droll, direct shot of a dead man’s feet.

There’s a very similar shot in Murnau’s Faust, with the feet of plague victim appearing disproportionally large in the foreground, but the effect achieves a grimmer tone there. The cadaver in Frankenstein possesses a good deal less dignity. He’s just served as a visual aid to a bunch of med students, and his feet poke humorously right into the camera, into the spectator’s face as it were. These med students even start to chuckle when, nudged by the gurney, an anatomical skeleton, suspended from the ceiling, bobs up and down. Whale depicts a world at least partially desensitized to the horror of death.

In place of the dreadful, foreboding atmosphere of Browning’s Dracula, Whale gives us a bizarre mixture of irreverence and fear. Frankenstein shows us a world in which death is not the master, but the servant. Death is the thing that we’ve learned to chuckle at and demean—even as we cower before it.

I think that a lot of this cynical attitude towards death comes from the director’s time in the trenches of WWI. A lot of gears were in constant motion on the front…

Like all great works of art, Whale’s Frankenstein doesn’t allow a viewer to pin it down with a single meaning. The monster and his maker both win over our sympathy—and even the torch-wielding villagers do, too! But, for me, the crux of the drama occurs at that moment when the creature and his maker face off with a searing reciprocal gaze, separated by that marvelously evocative wheel that seems to both separate them and unite them. This visually stunning, revolving flourish elevates what could be a stagey, old-fashioned finale into a truly modern metaphor for the gears of the universe, for the mechanical man… and perhaps for that ultimate in life-creating edifices—the cinema?

Dance of Death: Romantic Obsession in The Raven (1935)

The Raven, directed by Lew Landers,  isn’t the vehicle that any of us would hope for in a Lugosi-Karloff movie. Most of the script plays like a bad stage stock-company mystery-thriller and mentions of Poe within the framework of the story, which could perhaps have been effective, feel forced and trite. I mean, really—when a main character’s hobby happens to be reconstructing torture chambers from Poe stories, the artifice makes me want to stage a protest or at least yell at the screen. Even Roger Corman had the decency to refrain from such obvious tactics and at least let us know that Torquemada (or whoever) just happened to have left some age-old implements of pain around the castle.

I can’t help but watch this film and think, “What a colossal waste of two very fine, intense performances from Lugosi in his sharp-as-a-dagger prime and Karloff in all of his ambiguously sympathetic splendor!”

And yet.

Always this “and yet” haunts me, returns to me like the half-remembered refrain of a song. I find it very difficult to discredit a movie entirely. This “and yet” is a critic’s conscience, rapping away at my skull, like that damn black bird tapping on Poe’s (or rather the poem speaker’s) door.

Because The Raven contains at least a few sequences that I consider very fine and thought-provoking. So, Bela Lugosi is a brilliant surgeon (um, is this anyone else’s fantasy, too?) whom a prominent judge calls in to save the life of his daughter who’s been severely injured in a car crash.

Dr. Vollin (Lugosi) agrees only out of pride—because he gets a kick out of showing his colleagues that he can succeed where they’ve failed. Here I’d like to take a moment of pause to say how much I appreciate that kind of intellectual macho that Lugosi could bring to his roles. He hardly ever uses physical force in his parts and yet he conveys strength and commands respect. His laser-like, focused virility makes him the equal, in my mind, of such machismo icons as John Wayne and Clark Gable.

But back to the scene.  So, Lugosi gets into his surgery scrubs and then glances over and sees this unconscious girl, looking for all the world like a corpse—and a nun’s corpse, at that, with a surgical towel around her head. And he falls instantly in love with her.

We know this because the double shot-reverse-shot exchanges and the extreme close-ups tell us so. (Ah, editing—the language of love!) Every smart director who’s ever directed Lugosi knows to feature his peepers and these almost abstracted images of his eyes work even more powerfully when isolated from the rest of his face by a mask. He’s totally infatuated. The cold composure of his introduction melts away into these wild eyes that almost peer into the camera, as if asking, “What am I supposed to do?”

He masters himself and tells the anesthesiologist to put the girl under. And, instead of letting the audience watch this, the point-of-view lets us feel as though we’re being sedated. Blackness consumes the screen.

Then music plays and we see the inside of a house, a roaring fire, and the formerly comatose girl now sits attentively listening as Vollin plays the organ for her. Every time I watch this, I remark on the dreamlike atmosphere of this scene, coming, as it does, right after the administration of ether.

But whose dream is it? His or hers? Turns out that we’re meant to accept this scene as reality… but it’s the one time when the over-baked dialogue intertwines beautifully with the atmosphere of the piece. The transition from an operating room to a semi-love scene announces a surreal tonal switch and one which jolts the viewer into an enhanced awareness of the fact that we’re watching a movie.

As Jean (Irene Ware) sits there in a slinky 30s gown listening to Vollin play, she’s sort of an ideal woman—not just an adoring blank slate, but also a creature that Vollin can congratulate himself on bringing to life. She’s practically the bride of Frankenstein without the electroshock treatment hairdo. And he’s her Dr. Frankenstein. As she tells him, “You’re almost not a man…” For his part, Vollin does permeate the air with an Olympian confidence. Trim, angular, and so sure of himself that one could hardly imagine doubting him, he’s the perfect man to end up deluding himself and falling in love with a person that doesn’t really exist.

Like Dr. Gogol in Mad Love, who cherishes the idea of making his dream woman responsive to his desires, Vollin nurtures a love which is really a twisted version of the courtly love tradition. To offer a cynical interpretation: I love you… because I don’t know you. And frankly, I don’t want to. “Sois charmante et tais-toi!” if I permit  myself to quote that great admirer of Poe, Charles Baudelaire.

Another facet of Vollin’s love for Jean derives from the fact that her life is a testament to his power as a surgeon. She’s forever in his debt, so the equation even becomes, “I love you… because you have to love me.”

I also appreciate the unhealthy tactile quality of Vollin’s infatuation with Jean—and vice-versa. The moment when he feels the scar on the back of her neck suggests the strange physical connection that they shared before she knew his name.

 

Her feelings for him border on hero worship. She accepts him as a god. He completes her, he saved her from death. Which is why it’s so appropriate that she pretty much dresses up as his fantasy and performs her dance-interpretation of his favorite poem: “The Raven.” This mutual and rather noirish obsession could plunge two people right over the edge of madness.

Visually, the film associates Vollin’s profile and his sinister, predatory look with the shadow of the stuffed raven he keeps in his study.

 

So, I think it’s interesting that Jean tries to thank him by assuming the same dark avian aspect. It’s as though she is trying to become part of him as she ecstatically flits across the stage for the eyes of all… but really for the gaze of one. For Vollin, not for her dull, dependable fiancée.

Right, because my father would go ballistic if I brought home Dr. Bela Lugosi… Not.

The first fifteen minutes of The Raven rejoice in a real maze of psychological twists, surreal changes, and a dance, literal and metaphorical, of subtly subversive attraction. Which is a shame, because, in attempting to be a stagey revenge thriller rather than a sinister, gothic romance worthy of Poe (one thinks of Cat People or Son of Dracula)… the script throws it all away and turns Vollin into an embarrassingly obvious loony and Jean into every other bland, squealing horror heroine. What a waste.

Rotten Blood: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

In all my years of watching old movies, only one film frightened me so much that I had to turn off the TV set.

And I was one little tough ginger snap when I faced off with Murders in the Rue Morgue. I was 8-years-old, but going on about 100 after a medical crisis that left me way more likely to identify with scarred-up bad guys than with menaced little girls.

I could crack up at some seriously raunchy R-rated comedies and was used to watching Psycho with my parents—frequently over a breakfast of pancakes with chocolate sauce.

But even I, jaded little eight-year-old I was, couldn’t make it through Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. I couldn’t even make it through the first third. I think I was, like, 18 before I actually stoked up enough courage to watch the film to its end.

And I’m glad I did because it practically seethes with innovation. Karl Freund’s camerawork paints a dense world of fog, crazy angles, shadows, and carnivalesque attractions. The heritage of Caligari rears its head, to be sure, but there’s an added realness to it all. I’ve lived in Paris, I’ve walked through the perpetual party that the city is in the daytime… and through deserted streets at night. Frenchman Florey and expressionist genius Freund instilled a grainy, ever-moving texture to the film that aptly translates the darkly festive vibe of Paris.

Which brings me back to that scene that scared the Hell out me.

A woman being tortured on a big wooden frame, like a meat rack, as a man punctures her again and again with a syringe. Her shrieks. Her utter subjugation to a raving lunatic. These are not quaint relics of what the Pre-Code era thought spooky. They survive as every normal person’s worst nightmare and certain abnormal people’s most lurid fantasy.  The torture scene in Murders in the Rue Morgue, for better or for worse, sketched the blueprint for every filmic depiction of a sadistic killer to follow.

I am referring, of course, to the scene in which Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle abducts a prostitute, injects her with gorilla blood to see if she’s compatible for mating with Erik the Ape—and thus kills her.

This scene toys with you in that, beginning with the abduction scene, Florey orchestrates a perpetual crescendo of violence. We, the viewer, constantly think, “Well, it can’t get worse than this, right?” And then it does.

Let’s take a close look at this scene—so horrifying that it was cut by many regional censors.

Dr. Mirakle looks out of his carriage window.

A street lamp smashes. The camera tilts down to show a woman screaming then pans over to two men fighting. Not fist-fighting in the burly, entertaining fashion of the movies. Their choreography feels naturalistic, gritty, ugly.

A knife flashes into, then out of,  the frame. We know that its blade buries deep into another man’s flesh because he moans.

The woman is still screaming. The wounded man, in one lightening motion, sends something flying. We hear a throwing dagger slice through the air and bury itself into his opponent. They both fall.

 

This fight scene adds nothing to the plot. It’s pure gratuitous violence, although I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, inserted into the structure of the film to wring our spirits of every last drop of comfort. This is not a horror movie that graces only four people or so with its interest. Oh no, this is a horror show that goes out of its way to suggest the gruesome things that cling to the skin of the city like leeches.

Even though the fuzzy, mist-filled look of this scene belongs to the silent era, sound facilitates an even higher degree of fear.

The streetwalker’s mixture of horror and hysterical laughter fills the soundtrack with perversity. Her cries and cackles are jarring because they don’t let us totally sympathize with her. Her shrill yelps and giggles provoke displeasure—they’re not only hard on the ears, they make us feel, well, kind of dirty for even watching this. Unlike the lyrical, gracefully stylized monster attacks in Frankenstein and Dracula, this sequence of human violence slaps us in the face with the luridness of horror, of the thrills and chills that sell the tickets.

Perceiving his window of opportunity, Mirakle steps from his carriage and walks right into the camera, as though it’s the viewer he were creeping up on. His silhouette floods the screen with darkness.

Suddenly, we’re on the other side of him, looking at the prostitute as he advances towards her through the whirling mists.

Like a phantom, Mirakle (right) advances…

The disorienting feeling of “passing through” Mirakle (or of him passing through us) not only amps up the surrealist quality of the scene, but also infuses the sequence with the unstoppable dread of a nightmare. We know that something awful is going to happen, but we’re powerless to stop it.

The iconography of the black cloak, prostitute, and streetlamp all spark associations with the popular image of the serial killer, best represented by Jack the Ripper. Florey and Freund press all the right buttons to taunt us with the imminent destruction of the helpless woman.

 “A lady… in distress?” The tight, extreme close-ups that follow increase our unease with their intensity. Lugosi’s ghoulish facial contortions contrast with the wide eyes of the young streetwalker (Arlene Francis, if you can believe it!).

She gets in the carriage. Fade to black.

Okay, so this is where a NORMAL Hollywood film would cut to the woman lying in the morgue and we could infer that Mirakle performed some failed experiment. Years of watching movies prepares you for a nice, refreshing ellipsis here.

No such luck.

Immediately the high-pitched screams of the prostitute startle us as we see the shadow of a woman squirm on a rack. Dr. Mirakle performs his tests on her and adds his yells to hers in a cacophony of cruelty as he tells her to calm down so that she can be “the Bride of Science!”

I’d also note Florey’s subversive use of synchronous sound in this scene. The streetwalker’s sobs and moans, however, infuse the scene with a weird… sexual vibe. After all, this victim didn’t need to be a prostitute. The screenwriter could’ve chosen to invent some innocent girl on her way home, but no, the credits tell us from the first to expect a “Woman of the Streets,” as she’s billed.

This suggestion of a sex crime disguised as an experiment returns when Mirakle capers over to his desk to check the blood sample. As he peers into the microscope, his cry of anticipation—and ultimately of disappointment—mingles with her sighs. There’s definitely a weird crossover here between this woman’s, ahem, profession and the warped excitement that Mirakle derives from her.

Mirakle rises and starts to scold his victim for her “rotten blood!” because she failed to give him what he wanted, until he realizes she’s dead. Then he flips into utter religious despair—something that reveals the deeply mixed-up, addled nature of Mirakle, the fanatical man of science. (Note that his stage, or perhaps real, name, Dr. Mirakle: Doctor plus “miracle” with a “k” already hints at this perverse irrationalism-medicine  link.)

The exaggerated shadows and Lugosi’s own melodramatic posture of prayer remind me of mannerist paintings and their bizarre mixture of fervor and distortion.

Now, I don’t like it when directors fall into the ugly trap of naïvely equating a character’s suffering with Christ’s martyrdom. It feels cheap—unless the director can bring an added nuance to the allusion. Which Florey does admirably, with the crucified prostitute here.

A moment ago Dr. Mirakle viewed this woman as human garbage. As soon as she dies, however, she becomes a fragile, holy thing for one fleeting instant. Then he chucks her into the Seine.

Mirakle kicks open a trap door and jettisons the prostitute into the Seine.

I’m not a forensic psychologist, but this behavior, these quicksilver changes from contempt to reverence (or vice-versa) characterize the warped minds of serial killers. Humans turn into throwaway objects without the slightest warning. Lugosi’s performance runs the gamut from passion to anger to remorse to self-pity to anticipation of the next attack … an emotional arc that, from what I’ve read, fuels the violence of many serial offenders.

(And, let’s face it, a prostitute, a fallen woman, would also have been a morally acceptable victim for censors of the 1930s. Because, according to the hidden logic there, they deserve to die more than ordinary good girls like the heroine of the film. So, in a way, the sociopathic reasoning that we witness is also shared by a larger social system of morality which deems some people worthless.)

In other words, I was right to recognize this as a very, very sick scene, one that force-feeds us a glimpse into an aesthetic simulation of real madness and torment, not a glamorized supernatural ballet.

Of all talkie genres, horror stands out, perhaps second only to the musical, as the most likely to call attention to its own construction. Consider the assortment of carnival barkers and mountebanks who populate the Universal Horror cycle. Consider how often some character recites or alludes to some legend or dismisses these legends as fictions. Or, indeed, consider how often the movies used prologues to refer to their own shock value as potentially lethal spectacles. I don’t like calling something so meta! because I think that cutsie, overused term has come to describe any questionable art form that winks at its patrons over how bad it is. I love certain bad movies, but I will still call them bad.

However, horror films of the 1930s cultivated a much darker strain of “meta,” forever hinting to the viewer that their status as attractions reflects back on the sordid tastes of the viewers.

How far do you want to go? For me, that’s the meta-question at the heart of the genre. How horrified do you really want to be? And… how much do you enjoy what you see?

The moment when we’re truly scared, we have to look at ourselves and realize that, gulp, we’ve been enjoying all the awful things up until that point. We’re accomplices in the grisly murders, silently abetting the progress of the monsters in a double bind of pleasure and revulsion.

Well, at 8-years-old, I’d reached my limit with Murders in the Rue Morgue. At 21, I can finally realize why I was so scared. I’m glad I was.

Here’s to the things that make us look away, to the things that make us turn off the television! May we never fully enjoy them. And may we turn to thought and self-reflection to process the trauma that is cinema.