Hands Up! (1926): Top Secret

rayIn 1926, two silent comedians made movies set during the Civil War. One was panned at the time, but went on to win its rightful place among the greatest movies ever made.

The other, praised upon its release, is all but forgotten.

Indeed, I’ve heard more than one silent movie devotee refer to Hands Up! as “the funniest movie you’ve never heard of.” Well, we really need to do something about the “you’ve never heard of” part.

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Sure, Raymond Griffith’s masterpiece isn’t as great as The General—and you’d have a hard time convincing me that anything is—but it comes mighty close. There was plenty of greatness to go around in that golden age of comedy. A contract player at Paramount, Griffith turned out hilarious, original comedy confections even within the constraints of the studio system. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the snide brilliance of the so-called silk hat comedian deserves to be rediscovered and enjoyed today. Modern audiences might even be surprised by how morally daring his comedy is.

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Unlike his contemporaries, Griffith rejected the role of the underdog, the harried little man you root for without reservation. By the time he was making feature films, Chaplin wanted you to like him, even when he was behaving badly. Keaton wanted to earn your esteem and to earn it the hard way. And Lloyd wanted to be your personal hero. That contrarian Griffith, far from trying to attract our sympathy, often goes out of his way to make us dislike him. He invites us to question his ethics and to savor his pratfalls all the more because of his doubtful motives and his urbane appearance.

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The comedian himself cited schadenfreude as a central ingredient of his humor. As he told Motion Picture magazine, “the high hat stands for aristocracy, for snobbishness, for aloofness. The boy in the street would rather fire a snowball at a silk hat than at any other type of headgear. In reality, he is taking a whack at what the hat represents, not merely at the hat itself.”

Griffith’s character does appeal to the audience through his competence and panache, but, boy, is he a smug, unscrupulous fellow. His one saving grace is that he makes us laugh with his pride as well as with his falls. It might not be off the mark to identify his persona as a proto-playa. Impressing us with his sheer nerve, he wins the audience over with his vices rather than his virtues.

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Directed by Griffith and Clarence Badger, Hands Up! takes full advantage of the star’s slippery charm. In the role of a Confederate spy known only as Jack, he inveigles to divert or destroy a shipment of gold that would save the Union cause. Brave, but decidedly not heroic, Jack literally carries a couple of aces up his sleeves, woos two women simultaneously, and cheats a Native American chief out of his headdress with a pair of loaded dice. He’s the man we hate to love.

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With his diminutive height and dapper style, Griffith accentuated the comic potential of his starkly un-rugged brand of manhood. In one of the most quietly funny moments of the film, Jack’s primary foe, burly Captain Logan (perennial villain Montagu Love) attempts to intimidate the spy in a stagecoach. Logan pulls out his enormous Colt revolver and casually examines it.

Never one to back down, Jack whips out his firearm—a dainty two-shooter, you know, like saloon madams keep in their garters—and fussily begins polishing it. The enemies sit as mirror images of each other, insouciantly posed but with the hypothetical line of fire from each of their guns trained unmistakably on the other.

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On the most obvious level, the wordless, macho exchange tickles us because of its, ahem, symbolism. (Oh, you men, always trying to prove who’s got the biggest, bestest gun!) More important, this bit of business illuminates an amusing contrast between the characters and how they fit into the movie’s historical context. Captain Logan fully embodies the robust masculinity that we tend to associate with our gun-totin’, hard-drinkin’ Civil War-era forefathers.

Griffith’s Jack, on the other hand, might strike us as comically effete for that period—and as rather unprepared for the toughness of his opponent. Yet, like his miniature pistol, he’s discreet and surprisingly useful in a jam. In a later scene, Logan holds a man at gunpoint, the tip of his Colt on the hostage’s head… whereupon Jack darts out from behind and jabs his foe in the belly with the ladylike pistol that looked so innocuous.

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In other words, Hands Up! suggests that caliber doesn’t matter; it’s the dexterity of the spy that counts.

The wit of Hands Up! often emerges from clever repetitions: sets of two parallel sequences, shown in succession, become outrageously funny as the differences (or the similarities) between the variations pile up. For instance, the film opens with scenes of the Union and Confederate agents receiving their orders respectively from President Lincoln and General Lee. First, bulky, straight-faced Captain Logan accepts his mission in a static conference room. Lincoln turns to Logan and to Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service and future founder of the famous detective agency. The President confides, “Gentlemen—this is a secret between the three of us.”

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Immediately afterwards, Jack obtains his instructions in a scene that begins the same way, but ultimately overflows with kinetic hilarity. A succession of classics from the slapstick playbook embellish an interaction that, just a moment ago, served as standard exposition. As General Lee and his aide wait in a cabin under heavy Union fire and bombardment, Jack bounds off a horse and darts into the meeting place in a whirl of dust.

64Lee explains the commission and Jack accepts, just as a bomb detonates the cabin sky-high, leaving Jack and the General shaking hands in the debris. By leading us to expect identical (and thus rather tiresome) scenarios, Griffith and Badger undermine the viewer’s expectations—and then literally blow the roof off of them.

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Unfazed by the explosion, Lee echoes Lincoln’s words exactly, “This is a secret between the three of us!” An errant bullet mows down Lee’s aide.

Jack doesn’t flinch and dryly corrects the General, “The two of us, sir.”

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Now, that update is funny, but a pretty damn morbid kind of funny. Even Lee looks a trifle scandalized by Jack’s lack of shock. Griffith engineers a joke that depends on the audience’s desensitization to onscreen death, or at least to the deaths of characters we don’t know well. His barely-there quip reminds me of the wry James Bond one-liners that make us chuckle just after 007 has dispatched a henchman.

While I’m on the subject of everyone’s favorite super-spy, I’d note that our Jack comes across as downright Bond-ish in his luck with the ladies. The most fertile running gag of Hands Up! involves Jack courting two daughters of a pro-Lincoln mine owner with a series of identical gestures. Towards the end of the film, he’s trying to make a getaway with the gold when each sister stops him. Within the space of a few minutes, he proposes to not one, but both of the girls—in the exact same manner!

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Played through once, the mini love scene might provoke titters of laughter by gently lampooning melodramatic love scene tropes. Played through twice, with recycled intertitles and all, the scene’s satire on relationships ascends to a truly farcical level.

I won’t tell you how this love triangle resolves itself, but let me say if you’re thinking, “Um, threesome?” you’re actually quite close. I usually have no qualms about spoilers, but the ending of Hands Up! is as unexpected as it is uproarious, so I’ll keep that one top secret for now. It’s worth tracking down a copy of the film just to find out for yourself how the romantic subplots conclude.

28Cunning as its saboteur protagonist, the comic style of Hands Up! also draws deftly on illusion and ellipsis. For example, early on in the film, Jack is discovered as a spy and about to face a firing squad. The entire execution scene revolves around Jack’s clever ruses to distract his would-be executioners. We neither see him being caught, nor do we actually see him escape. The sections of narrative that most silent comedians might be inclined to emphasize and elaborate on have been omitted entirely.

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In fact, the audience only learns that Jack has escaped when the head of the firing squad does—and it gives us a moment of supreme tension. The line of gunners fires and we wince. Huh? What? Who kills off the protagonist? But Jack, apparently tied up and facing a wall, doesn’t collapse. The soldiers fire again. He’s still standing? How is that possible? The head of the squad steps forward to check—and realizes that his men had been shooting at a trompe l’oeil painting that the prisoner had daubed on the wall. (Evidently, Confederate spies are forced to take a course in rapid-fire oil painting before entering the field.)

54Later in the film, Jack relies again on the power of illusion to save his hide by tricking an enemy to fire at his reflection instead of him. Because the audience only sees into a fragment of the room where Jack is hiding, we can’t know that he’s stowed behind the door—away from the line of fire. In this instance, an illusion plus a spatial ellipsis generates tension and then relief. While the gunpowder clears, we see Jack hastily making his getaway.

mirrorNow, I’ve really only scratched the surface of this rich, action-packed classic. You really owe it to yourself to see the movie. Like many of the best things in life, Raymond Griffith’s best work demands a little effort—to track down a scarce DVD or scout for an even scarcer screening. I’m sending you, dear reader, out on a little mission like Jack’s: retrieve the comedy gold. Perhaps then this movie, and the sublime comedy of its secret agent protagonist, won’t be such a secret anymore.

44(Note: Hands Up! is not by any means politically correct by today’s standards. Duh. It was made in 1926 and was cartoonishly depicting 1864. That said, I refuse to make any apologies for a movie that’s still less offensive—and way more funny—than plenty of what you can watch on TV right now.)

This post is part of the Snoopathon, a blogathon celebrating spies in classic cinema, hosted by the amazing Movies Silently. Click the banner below to check out the other entries!

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Odyssey of Nostalgia: The Human Comedy (1943)

PosterIf you can watch The Human Comedy and not cry at least once, I don’t think I want to know you.

Of course, I realize that the hip thing for a modern reviewer to do is denigrate the film as mawkish propaganda… which is only a small part of why you’ll never catch me doing so.

As for the greater part, the timelessly moving scenes in Clarence Brown’s WWII-era coming-of-age drama, written by William Saroyan, more than outweigh any syrupy sentiments. Seen from a vantage point of seventy years later, many of its intimate vignettes powerfully memorialize the personal sacrifices of all those who served—and all those who loved them. Although it may idealize, preach, and meander, the film delivers a handful of unforgettable moments, so heartfelt and honest even in their MGM glossiness that they reawaken the emotional impact of an anxious period which is, sadly, slipping away from living memory.

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Most important, The Human Comedy deserves our respect as a tender, thoughtful elegy for America’s fallen soldiers of WWII. Because the majority of the action takes place in the little California town of Ithaca, the story conveys the loss of an individual with greater poignancy than a standard war movie could.

The main plotline centers on high school student Homer Macaulay (a captivating and unusually soft-spoken Mickey Rooney) who, to help support his siblings and his widowed mother, takes a job delivering telegraphs. (By the way, are you picking up on the Odyssey allusions yet?) Homer thus becomes the frequent bearer of the worst possible news: condolence messages from the War Department. Working in a telegraph office with old-timer Mr. Grogan (Frank Morgan), Homer sees the tidings coming in on the wire for the first time. Far away from the violence of the battlefield, the clatter of typing and the neutral, freshly inky letters of “We regret to inform you…” translate the sorrow of the news by reminding the viewer of an absence, a hole in the lives of the recipients. We don’t see the death. We don’t know the details. And the matter-of-fact precision of the telegraph machine only accentuates the sadness of the news and the helplessness of those about to learn of it.

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Homer grabs the message and heads out on his bicycle to change someone’s life forever, riding to the outskirts of town. Greeted by grey-haired, heavily-accented Mrs. Sandoval, the messenger obviously wants to escape the situation… but Mrs. Sandoval can’t read English, so he’ll have to break the news himself. Hesitating and looking down at his telegraph, Homer rips it open and the message drops to the floor.

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Here, Clarence Brown seizes the opportunity to slow down the pace and draw the audience into the suspense. A cut takes us to the hem of Mrs. Sandoval’s skirt as she picks up the letter, and the camera fearfully tilts up to reveal her expectant face. In the reverse shot, Homer fumbles for a way to break the news slowly. “It’s from the War Department.” Cut to Mrs. Sandoval; she doesn’t understand, but seems to intuit what she’s about to hear. Cut back to Homer. He looks down. He looks up. Finally he forces himself to meet the mother’s eyes. “It says that your son is dead, Mrs. Sandoval…” We anticipate that the bereaved mother will fall apart, as Brown again cuts to the mother’s face, but instead it’s Homer whose voice trembles as he stammers that maybe there was some kind of a mistake.

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The almost clumsy naturalism of the performances, Homer’s futile attempts at denying the news, and, above all, the straight-forward elegance of the staging imbue the exchange with the delayed-reaction horror of unimaginable loss. The scene (which you can watch here) is a masterclass in self-effacing, yet potent continuity system filmmaking.

As the news finally sinks in, Mrs. Sandoval collapses into a rocking chair and starts to sing a Spanish folk song. Unexpectedly, after such a realistic segment, part of the screen dissolves to show a younger version of the bereaved mother, rocking her son as a baby, and then back to the present.

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Is this the mother’s vision? Or Homer’s? Homer lingers in the half of the frame untouched by the flashback, but he’s still visible, included in her vision. Well, I appreciate the ambiguity, but I personally read the effect as a fusion of their mourning in a moment of intense empathy. After all, the WWII-era in America, despite a number of underlying social problems, did encourage people to pull together and feel the pain of others.

And I consider it significant that the first mother Homer must inform is clearly coded as a new American, someone on the margins of Ithaca’s establishment. Since this is an MGM film, even the outskirts of town are quaint and cozy, but you needn’t be a historian to recognize the tiny houses as a glamorized immigrant shantytown. The Human Comedy, for all its schmaltziness, acknowledged that the costs of American ideal were often inflicted most severely on those who’d barely been able to enjoy the benefits of being American. I also applaud that the first war-related death that comes to our attention is an American who differed from the Andy Hardy-esque Anglo-Saxon denizens of Ithaca. The film reminds its audience that anyone who chooses to lay down his or her life for America is a true American, regardless of his or her background.

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Moreover, Homer’s bond with Mrs. Sandoval transcends class and cultural differences to honor a sacrifice and to grieve a loss. Although Homer’s reaction surely stems in part from his worries about his own brother, I believe that the connection he feels goes deeper than that. And therefore never send to know for whom the telegraph comes; it comes for thee.

In this scene and elsewhere, the film wistfully examines the dynamic between absence and presence. Indeed, a narration from beyond the grave opens the film, as Mr. Macaulay explains how, although he has passed on, the essence of his character thrives in the places and people he cared about.

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With Mr. Macaulay’s face superimposed over the images, swooping aerial and crane shots float over the town, eventually zeroing in on the youngest Macaulay son, Ulysses. I strongly suspect that this metaphysical opening influenced It’s a Wonderful Life, made three years later. These sun-dappled, gently descending shots approximate the dead man’s benevolent point of view, almost like a guardian angel’s.

Mr. Macaulay is there, but he is not there—like those who left to fight.

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Despite their physical absence, their continued presence can be felt in numerous ways. For instance, the audience’s first glimpse of Marcus Macaulay arrives when Homer proudly takes off his delivery boy cap to show a group of G.I.s the picture of his brother he keeps there, forever on his mind. To stress the spiritual link between this talisman and the real young man, a dissolve from the photograph introduces the first actual shot of Marcus. In addition to obvious symbols of remembrance, like service flags in windows, the incidents of daily pleasures and frustrations in the town allow us to observe what many of the soldiers are missing… and how they are being missed.

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In perhaps The Human Comedy‘s most tear-jerking sequence, Homer reads his brother’s latest letter aloud to Mr. Grogan. It sounds almost anti-cinematic, doesn’t it? A teenager reading a letter to an old man in a telegraph shop. Yet, in the simplicity of this scene—basically long take medium shots, interrupted by the occasional close-up of Grogan—Marcus’s absence aches.

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Only Marcus’s words, spoken by his brother, remain of him in the moment. Marcus isn’t there, but ironically his presence is felt so acutely, precisely because he’s not there. And Rooney’s halting, sensitive reading of the letter conjures that void where a brother should be. He is utterly spellbinding. Van Johnson, who played Marcus, got tears in his eyes just thinking about Rooney’s performance in a 1992 interview, recalling, “I just think it tore everybody to pieces.” Get your hankies, folks, is all I can say.

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As you watch The Human Comedy, and I hope you will, notice the preponderance of long shots, especially those in deep focus, with a clear foreground and background. Director of photography Harry Stradling Sr. (who worked on Suspicion and A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just two of his best) endows the film with an open, multifaceted look. Instead of showcasing just the stars in the cast, he tends to compose shots with a number of faces and details. Even the most dramatic scenes mostly avoid the glut of close-ups we’ve come to expect from serious acting. It’s as though the film were urging us to remember that, although it tells the stories of certain individuals, everyone’s got a story and they all matter.

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In “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, the French film critic André Bazin argued that deep focus photography, which often involves more than one center of attention, facilitates a more democratic style in film. Unlike manipulative montage-driven tactics, this technique enables the eye to wander the frame so that a viewer can interpret the visual information for himself.

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Now, if you’ll pardon my egregious oversimplification of film theory, The Human Comedy visualizes the American ideals of diversity and democracy through its cinematography. Although the film certainly never yields in its endorsement of patriotism, the liberty allowed to the eye reflects an ethos of freedom and independent decision-making.

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Propaganda doesn’t leave much room for choice, but Brown and Stradling’s abundance of long takes and multiple planes of action and focuses of interest offer the audience a wider world than one might expect.

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In a narrative sense, to evoke part of that wider world, The Human Comedy cultivates one major character who ostensibly doesn’t initially fit with the apple-pie ideal of contentment and family in Ithaca. As Marcus Macaulay’s best friend in the army, Tobey George listens with rapt attention to Marcus’s stories of home.

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Tobey confesses that, as an orphan who doesn’t even know his real name, he lacks everything that motivates Marcus. To nourish Tobey’s hope of coming through the war alive, Marcus invites his comrade to share his memories, to adopt Ithaca as his fantasy hometown.

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In one telling scene, Marcus and Tobey ride on a mortar being transported to the front as Tobey says his prayers aloud—and it sounds as though he’s reading from Marcus’s thoughts, as he recites the litany of home-town sights he longs to visit and to protect through his service. As Brown switches from close-ups of each man looking wistfully into the distance, we can sense the transfer of thoughts and dreams between men from very different backgrounds.

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Through Tobey, The Human Comedy quietly admits that Perfectville, U.S.A. is largely a chimera. After all, like many, if not most, soldiers, he could just as easily have lived and died without experiencing the joys of a tight-knit family and community for himself. Yet, by granting this outsider the ultimate homecoming, the movie gives viewers from all walks of life permission to yearn for that ideal.

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At the end of the film, as Tobey hovers by the Macaulay household, he gazes in at Mrs. Macaulay, Bess, and Mary singing and playing an old-fashioned love song. Framed, contained, and shining, the domestic scene seems like a window into heaven, in contrast with the shadows of the evening and the silhouette of Tobey’s head and shoulders from behind. Here Tobey stands in for the audience members who are also beholding this vision of harmony and probably wanting to be a part of it. He watches the family the way we’re meant to watch the movie. This shot actually echoes an earlier shot during a brief sequence in a movie theater. In both cases, the darkness is punctuated by a square of light and a potent image of hope.

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The Human Comedy isn’t as naive as it might appear. Guess what? People didn’t get any more complex in the last seventy years or so. You can love an abstraction and try to make it seem real… while never losing sight of the fact that it’s an abstraction. In this way, Clarence Brown subtly reveals and celebrates cinema’s power to build dreams—like the myth of Ithaca and the Macaulays—that can sustain a population through tough times.

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No wonder Louis B. Mayer—a ferociously patriotic adopted American—considered this film his favorite of more than 800 movies made under his reign at MGM.

Still, if The Human Comedy rejoices in its own ability to refine and market collective fantasies, it acknowledges that the true credit for those dreams belongs to those who defend them. This drama honors the lives lost in WWII with glowing sincerity by glorifying the values and ideals they fought for, even if those ideals never fully existed in their lives.

In other words, most of us don’t make it to Ithaca—even the men and women who gave their lives for what it represented. But, thanks to them, Americans can keep on dreaming of it. And as long as we do, perhaps, like Mr. Macaulay’s narration suggests, those brave individuals are still living in us.

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Hearts of the World (1918): Battle Dress

hearts“It was exactly as I had imagined wars in many particulars. I saw, for instance, many troop trains moving away to the front. I saw wives parting from husbands they were never to see again. I saw wounded men returning to their families. I saw women coming away from the government offices, stunned with grief, a little paper in their hands to tell that the worst had happened. 

“All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them on in the pictures for years and years that I found myself sometimes absently wondering who was staging the scene.”

—D.W. Griffith, quoted in Photoplay magazine

The soldiers couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the two girls—sylphlike belles swaddled in long coats, headed on a train towards no-man’s-land. One can imagine the battle-weary young men on their way to or from the trenches rubbing their eyes, thinking that the girls were some sort of mirage. Civilian women didn’t go to the front. Hell, even trained nurses didn’t go to the front. It simply wasn’t done.

And yet, there they were: Lillian and Dorothy Gish, accompanied by their mother, hurtling into the belly of a blighted war zone in France. They traveled to a ruined village, within range of bombardments from German long-distance guns. Brought over by that great general D.W. Griffith, the sisters had been drafted to star in his next picture, a WWI drama which would be called Hearts of the World, once its narrative took shape.

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Hardly any of the footage captured in France actually appears in the final film. Yet, what Dorothy and Lillian saw and heard there—and in England, during air raids that riddled the civilian population, crushing schools full of kindergarteners before the sisters’ eyes—haunted them. In her autobiography, Lillian shared a vivid snapshot of the kind of devastation she witnessed on a daily basis: “I remember the odd feeling I had seeing a coffee pot perched on top of a pile of rubble, the sole evidence that a house had once stood on the spot.”

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This shot of real town in France was included in Hearts of the World.

And let me reiterate: few surviving civilians came closer to WWI than Griffith and his crew. Even hardened war correspondents weren’t allowed such comprehensive access to the horrors of the front. The psychological impact of the sisters’ proximity to death and destruction added a shade of genuine trauma to their intense performances… even though those performances were safely captured in California.

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Now, it’s tempting to dismiss Hearts of the World as The Birth of a Nation II: This Time We’ll Only Offend the Germans. The plot certainly bears a resemblance to Griffith’s infamous Civil War epic. In an idyllic French village, Marie and Douglas, both children of American families, are torn apart by WWI.

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While Douglas goes to the trenches, Marie stays in the village. On the day that had been set for their wedding, a heavy bombardment all but razes the town and the French are defeated; Marie happens across Douglas’s unconscious body, faints, and believes him dead. When the Germans occupy the town, the beastly Hun in charge takes a shine to Marie. Will the Allies liberate the village in time to save Marie from The Fate Worse Than Death?

dorothyincostumeAlthough clearly not the heroine, Dorothy Gish’s supporting character soundly “stole the show,” even in Lillian’s words. She stands out as one of the few sexually aggressive and sympathetic women in Griffith’s oeuvre.

Playing a wandering lady minstrel, “the Little Disturber,” Dorothy exudes a free-spirited vitality and a quirky, Chaplinesque sensuality. In contrast to Marie’s goose-tending, rose-caressing demureness, the Little Disturber behaves with delicious impropriety.

She corners the man she likes (Douglas, Marie’s fiancé) and plants a kiss on the reluctant fellow right in a public street! Afterwards, when she returns in despair to a man she’d previously rejected, the Disturber flashes the new object of her affections with a look of such hostile amorousness that he cringes, unsure whether she’s going to smooch him or wallop him!

With her cute pageboy haircut and independent attitude, the Little Disturber no doubt resonated with the young women in the audience who had borne the brunt of the home front war effort and would shortly claim their right to vote—and bob their hair.

The fact that Dorothy copied her wiggly, zigzag walk from a streetwalker she saw in London speaks volumes about the endearing, working-girl vulgarity of the character’s persona. As she recounted to Kevin Brownlow:

“Griffith suddenly said, ‘Watch that!’ I saw she [the prostitute] had the darndest walk. And the way I walk in Hearts of the World is exactly the way that girl in the Strand was walking.”

Dorothy Gish keeps the spark of humor and hope alive even in the darkest moments of the film. Her Little Disturber demonstrates how the tribulations of war actually bring out the deepest virtues of certain individuals. Once frivolous and flighty, she nurses Marie, her former rival, back to health.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h11m32s232Moreover, at the suspenseful climax of Hearts of the World, it’s not the hero who saves Marie, but rather the resourceful Little Disturber. With one well-placed hand grenade, she obliterates the whole pack of wicked Huns about to break down the door and capture Marie and Douglas.

Her feisty resistance interjects some unexpected humor into a scene where, when a collaborator catches her in the act of mourning for the French, wiping her tears with a tablecloth, the Disturber chases the traitor away with a broken champagne bottle!

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 11.06.44 PMJoie de vivre: the Little Disturber abides with a song in her heart 

The Gish sisters’ interpretations complement each other beautifully. They were, by this time, veterans of the Seventh Art, and the scenes between them have all the delicate, practically invisible mastery of a well-sung bel canto duet. In one funny, poignant scene during the occupation, the Disturber finds Marie’s picture keepsake of Douglas and starts kissing it. Marie walks in and sees her. Their reactions—sheepishness on the Disturber’s part and tactful understanding on Marie’s—communicate a new bond between the two characters, a relationship all the more exquisite because it’s so surprising. Even such different women can become spiritual sisters through kindness and compassion.

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Lillian Gish teases all possible nuances out of Marie’s character, bringing a feverish, trapped quality to an otherwise routine fragile-but-unbroken role. You can discern the strains of harrowing, gritty fear that she would exhibit so thrillingly in Broken Blossoms. She traces her character arc from an ordinary, loving girl to a total emotional wreck back to an ordinary, loving girl with sweet simplicity. For instance, as she folds her unused wedding dress and puts it in a chest, she does so with all the tactile tenderness of a mother burying her only child.

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Later, as she totters across blasted fields in search of her fiancé, the floating lack of purpose in her movements translates her psychotic break even when we see her in an extreme long shot. This is a woman who has been emptied of all grief, all pain, all hope; she is almost a ghost.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h14m34s7In a 1918 interview, Lillian remembered, “I saw one woman whose little brood of three had been torn to pieces by German nitroglycerin. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t saying anything. But if there is a hell I saw it in the depths of her dry, sunken eyes. If I could reproduce that look on the screen they would call me greater than Bernhardt. And if I did I should go insane.” Well, she came pretty darn close.

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With material that might’ve come from a bad 19th century melodrama, Lillian gives us a performance of madness worthy of Ophelia.

All in all, Hearts of the World strikes me as both a throwback and a strikingly modern portrait of the first total war. Part pro-American propaganda, part anti-war drama, the film cobbles together footage from a striking range of sources—staged battles shot in England, real ruins shot in France, smuggled footage of the German army, and, overwhelmingly, scenes filmed on converted sets and stages in Hollywood left over from Intolerance.

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A French village… shot in England. The boy with the wheelbarrow is none other than Noël Coward in his first film role. No joke!

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Real footage taken at the front… behind German lines!

Hearts of the World pushes the reconstructive possibilities of editing to a logical extreme—even more so than Intolerance, I would argue. It’s the Kuleshov Effect on steroids: shells fired in France seem to “land” in California.

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However, the film was misleadingly marketed as mostly a documentary. This irresponsible advertising—combined with its graphic content—makes it another blot on Griffith’s checkered record. Perhaps that’s why the film remains so commercially ignored and elusive; I had to watch it on an old VHS cassette and get my screenshots from a documentary about Griffith. Which is ironic, considering that Hearts of the World smashed box office records among an American public that wanted to savor the Hun-bashing glory of their entry into the fray.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h10m16s235Oh, and that VHS cassette even neglected to include the most infamous scene—“The Dungeon of Lust,” in which two lascivious German officers abduct and assault a peasant girl. (Did I mention that Erich von Stroheim chewed some of his first scenery in this?)

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Stroheim menacing a maiden…

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h07m46s21 …And Stroheim menacing an extra, while serving as Griffith’s military advisor for the film

Prepare yourself for opulent German orgies and gratuitous scenes of Lillian Gish being beaten by a hulking officer because she can’t pick up a sack of potatoes bigger than she is. You will see primitive, prejudice-nourishing panoramas of kink—that were disgustingly presented as Gospel truth.

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If you cannot quite bring yourself to forgive Griffith for such exploitation of the medium and its persuasive power, you’re not the only one. As Lillian Gish observed, “I don’t believe that Mr. Griffith ever forgave himself for making Hearts of the World. ‘War is a villain,’ he repeated, ‘not any particular people.’”

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Beyond question, Griffith hated war. And particularly World War I. He opposed American intervention from the start, and Lillian Gish described him openly weeping at civilian casualties. If he succumbed to the flattery of European governments and the pressure to produce a biased film, he nevertheless betrays his loathing for the inhumanity of it all.

Griffith’s distaste for violence reveals itself in his implication that World War I reminded him of a predictably directed movie, a mass of clichés. War, indeed, reduces the hearts of the world to just so many figures, formations, legers, plot devices. Other than the high-stakes chess players in their offices, we all turn into bit players, extras in a gaudy global production.

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The death scenes of both Marie’s mother and her father agonizingly etch the human toll of World War I onto the screen.

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This shot of her father’s dismembered corpse, reduced from a lovable individual to a pile of rubbish, translates the appalling meaninglessness of death in a vast conflict. Griffith illuminates both macro horror of war—the numb, dumb pointlessness of this death—and the smaller-scale ugliness of conflict. The orphaned little boys burying their parent under the floor tiles. The young girl unable to tear herself away from her mother’s body. The broken, shattered skeleton of a garden wall where roses once bloomed. As Griffith said to Lillian, “This is what war is. Not the parades and conference tables—but children killed, lives destroyed.”

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Cinematography by hardened war cameraman Alfred Machin, in addition to more lyrical footage taken by Griffith’s cameraman Billy Bitzer, contributes to the deliberately uneven, deglamorized portrayal of modern warfare.

5 1Despite its upbeat denouement, Hearts of World is perhaps not a film with a message, but rather a query to send into the universe. The film’s intertitle prologue best articulates it, wondering, “After all, does war solve any question?”

World War I certainly didn’t solve it. Which is why there was the inevitable sequel.  And we still do not have the answer. Although it’s not the coherent masterpiece that The Big Parade or Journey’s End turned out to be, Hearts of the World at least dared to ask the question, “What’s the purpose of all this carnage?” with words, images, and, thanks to the Gish sisters, searing performances.

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This blog post is part of the Gish Sisters Blogathon, hosted by The Motion Pictures and Movies Silently. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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Body Politic: The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

posterIf Douglas Sirk, Akira Kurosawa, and Caravaggio teamed up to remake Quo Vadis, the result might turn out similar to The Colossus of Rhodes.

This splashy, yet affecting peplum epic gave audiences their first true glimpse of Sergio Leone’s vibrant talent, even if it wasn’t his directorial debut. And who doesn’t love the chance to watch a great artist’s vision emerge from otherwise standard programming?

Leone fills the widescreen TotalScope format with saturated, dynamic tableaux that look painted rather than filmed. Expect moments of cheesiness, for sure, and I’d personally be disappointed if I couldn’t taste the asiago. Yet, I couldn’t fight the feeling that I was watching the history of the epic—from Greek vases, to Roman mosaics, to Renaissance and Baroque painting, to grand scale silent films—being relived and rediscovered.

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Colossus lovingly integrates all of these layers of grandeur. It compiles the all harmony of composition, the pageantry, the sumptuousness that we associate with the best of Western Civilization. And to this heritage, Leone adds a key ingredient: a terse après-guerre dose of disillusionment.

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Our tale focuses on a Greek war hero, Darios, who visits the island of Rhodes for a pleasure trip. However, you don’t have to be Socrates to smell something rotten on the island. Nobody likes the isle’s ginger-bearded tyrant—who’s nearly assassinated twice over the course of Darios’s first day there—and a bunch of rebels work on stirring up discontent wherever they can.

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A toga party gone horribly awry.

These freedom fighters initially try to kidnap Darios, hoping to convert him to their cause. Freaked out, the hero attempts to flee Rhodes and thus unintentionally ends up becoming an enemy of the state and an ally to the underground cause. Needless to say, Darios encounters torture, sexual politics, treason, nasty proto-gladiatorial death spectacles, and many, many opportunities to provide the camera with peplum buffalo shots.

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If that plot sounds like “a rip-roaring corn harvest,” as the New York Times called it, well, believe me, the material yields surprising insights in Leone’s capable hands. His grim eye for the prospect of mortality and ruin even in the midst of celebration recalls that special “something to do with death” that he would later harness to illuminate the tropes of the Western.

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For instance, when Darios prepares to relax on his first night in Rhodes, he enters the ruler’s opulent party digs to find a bevy of beautiful maidens and a few exotic acrobats flipping around in the middle of the space. A graceful, slightly blurred and dizzy almost 360-degree pan swivels around the room, taking in the sheen of the women’s clothes and the succulence of the food… as the acrobats dart in and out of the frame.

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These bodies interposing between the camera and the already decadent panoply create a kind of visual hyperbole. Jean-Luc Godard used the word “delirium” to describe the impact of Douglas Sirk’s striking colors. Here, Leone attains a similar phantasmagoria, a practically 3D splendor larded with the trappings of wealth and power. Your eyes glut themselves; they feel like they need a trip to the vomitorium.

Okay, remember that pan shot. I’ll return to it in a minute.

Darios reclines and starts chatting up the luscious, if inscrutable Diala. I’m guessing Darios had a whole phalanx run over his head once, because he dopily follows this femme fatale down into the catacombs under the palace gardens.

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Stumbling into a tomb of mummies, Darios calls for Diala. And we get another long, patient pan shot, this time a full 360-degrees, morbidly surveying the desiccated, wrapped bodies lining the stone funerary chamber, still wearing gold ornaments that are now useless to them. These two parallel pan shots, in successive scenes, deliver a potent, spooky moral: all is vanity, all is decay. The colorful ecstasy of that celebration will inevitably end in a tomb.

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Entropy haunts Leone’s films. Whole towns rot into nothing or burn to the ground. Characters we love die. Cherished schemes fall through. I admit that neither my analysis nor the idea of decay and decline are likely to win any awards for originality, but what does mesmerize me is the eloquence and concision of Leone’s observation, enabled by the cinematic form.

With that pair of pans, one displaying hedonist delights, the other expressing a detached stoic view of mortality, Leone brings millennia of philosophy to the screen. Death looms over us all. Should we bury ourselves in sensuality and try to forget? Or should we look hard at the world and at ourselves? Those are the big questions. Leone etches a little metaphysical dilemma on the surface of his story with two camera movements.

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Speaking of surprisingly deep aspects of this movie, the central conceit of the film, an enormous watchtower statue of Apollo that holds vigil over the harbor of Rhodes, also resonates outside of the framework of a lusty sword-and-sandals fest. The producer of the film flipped out when he realized that the title wasn’t referring to a hero, but to a statue, thinking that the plot would lack dramatic value and a prerequisite hunky protagonist. The statue serves as a point of reference for the entire film, and the extent to which this major set piece received billing and attention as a thematic element obviously went beyond what those financing the film were expecting.

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According to a very interesting article on this film at TCM, Leone initially wanted the Colossus, the titular main attraction, to resemble Mussolini—even to stand akimbo like the swaggering Il Duce. So it’s safe to assume that the master did intend to deliver a message about tyranny and modern politics, even if he set it thousands of years earlier. Fortunately this heavy-handed anti-fascist statement didn’t come to fruition, but that didn’t stop Leone from using the statue, actually two 30-meter halves of the body, as a powerful metaphor for government.

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I mean, when you think about it, our conceptions of the body and politics intertwine quite a bit. Even in English, words that we associate with hierarchy or order often include “corp” which comes from the Latin word for body. We talk about organs of state. People in charge still receive the title of “head.” Our language has hardwired us to consider the state as a human organism, a single body with various functioning parts.

The colossus, really a defense base for a corrupt regime, provides us with an image of the state as a body and of a body as the state—both of which prove dysfunctional. This huge, cast-medal figure inspires awe initially, as the camera slowly tilts up to reveal its size.

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Yet, in crowd shots, the statue occasionally appears to be standing on the masses, as if they’re all carrying this burden without recognizing it. Parts of the body often disrupt or break up with widescreen frame—a foot occupies half of the screen, great big legs divide the sky in half, a huge face gives us a close-up even as the men next to it are tiny as bugs.

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All humorous allusions to North by Northwest and Sabotage aside, the colossus visually suggests to us the theme of individuals dwarfed by a totalitarian regime. This supreme, inanimate body exists as a rampart and a weapon; though it takes the form of a man, it contains no humanity.

Nevertheless, the various parts of the Colossus sometimes comment on the action. For example, when Diala’s conscience starts needling her, the eye-windows of the statue seem to stare inwards at her. This creepy décor gives the impression of looking, even if it clearly can’t see her.

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During the film’s most memorable fight sequence, Darios climbs out of the statue’s ear to spar with guards on the colossus’s arms. The contrast between the flailing struggles of the little men and the unchanging, unmoving, unwieldy behemoth strikes me as slightly comical. Like a totalitarian government, the colossus might be strong, but it’s pretty dumb!

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When the “invincible” colossus finally does clatter into the sea, Leone dwells on its total defeat and destruction. We witness it teetering back and forth, suddenly looking human for the first time, like a drunken soldier.  Then it hurtles towards a face-plant into the waves in a long shot. Cut to a disdainful high angle shot as it ignominiously belly-flops onto the surf and the breakers dash it to pieces. There’s nothing dignified about it; the only tragedy is one of waste and broken illusions.

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Thus Leone undermines the very concepts of hero worship and iconography which often bend to serve the whims of oppressive governments. We’re dealing with a director who, let’s face it, has a love-hate relationship with myths, because myths both deceive us and give our life meaning.

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In the end, this kind of fetishized representation, investing a single person or object with absolute power, risks destroying the very civilization it supports and nourishes. Behind the paintings, the frescos, the mosaics of the ancient world lurk the many bad, brutal men, presented as ideal leaders with ripped bodies. The Colossus of Rhodes exalts the glory of Western civilization while exposing its obsession with dominance, hierarchy, and authority.

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When Leone chooses to shatter all pageantry and pomp of this peplum epic, he doesn’t do so for mere spectacle value. He smashes the idols as an admonition to the viewers never to trust bread and circuses—including the ostensibly safe bread and circuses of the peplum epic.

Although The Colossus of Rhodes does end with a glimmer of hope, the storm sequence surprised me with its whirling despair and indiscriminate violence. We watch acts of selflessness and crime being punished the same way: with pointless death. Looters get struck down by falling debris. A man runs into a burning building to save a child, but no sooner has he brought the little one back to its mother than a collapsing beam kills them all. A strong man attempts to pull a heroic stunt by holding up a building himself. He is crushed.

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The innocent and the guilty alike perish in droves during this tempest of indigo skies and heaven-sent fires. In this senseless carnage, we recognize the Italian World War II experience of endless bombings and humiliations that the population suffered for the sins of their abominable, neo-Roman government.

It’s easy to groan at the storm in Colossus as a deus ex machina that gets the protagonist off the hook without him having to do anything. However, Leone fully exploits the horror of the near-apocalyptic tempest. This manifestation of the gods’ wrath not only tears apart the wicked city, but also rips away at the idea of traditional heroism. The good as well as the bad (and, oh, what the hell, the ugly) meet sticky ends. Any Herculean theatrics will probably get you mown down more quickly.

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Darios helps a few people, but mostly concentrates on grabbing his girl and taking shelter. We understand that staying alive itself may represent the highest form of wisdom and heroism when the world goes crazy. The irate poetry of this sequence, with whole impressive sets crumbling, orange flame spurts licking the sides of the screen, baggy ancient garments whipped about in the wind, recalls the end of Seven Samurai and prefigures the disastrous beauty of Apocalypse Now’s napalm shots.

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Be sure to dig up The Colossus of Rhodes. The pacing lags and, admittedly, the acting doesn’t exactly thrill. Rory Calhoun runs around in his man-skirt, looking affable, performing adequately, and making the part of Darios into a 20th century dude. He’s a self-indulgent man at the top of the food chain who’s mostly interested in himself; only when he gets embroiled in the conflict against his will does he develop any sympathy for the underdog.

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The tyrant acts tyrannical, the traitor acts treacherous, and the sad rebel girl acts sad.

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Only the elusive Diala, played by Lea Massari (Anna from L’Avventura), generates any major photogenic energy with her majestic gait, and I-don’t-give-a-damn default facial expression, and tough winged eyeliner.

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You get plenty of eye candy in the form of street magicians, brightly-dressed mobs, and fleets of hunky soldiers, choreographed with a skilled eye for space and balance. Plus, you can drool over the obligatory pre-sacrifice liturgical belly dance performed by priestesses in ancient Greek cheerleading outfits. Honestly, I think that’s the only reason those Greeks made sacrifices at all.

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But, best of all, savor Leone’s gift for dismantling myths and heroes and unmasking bullies and madmen, as he takes one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world and stunningly smashes it to smithereens.

I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Please consider writing a post yourself and be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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Destination Tokyo (1944): Guys… and Dolls?

Wolf and NitaIf I mistook Destination Tokyo for reality, I might be inclined to think that, when women aren’t around, men mostly turn into a noble band of brothers who spend their time in ardent discussions of patriotism, responsibility, God, and philosophy. No offense, boys, but yeah right! Indeed, despite its fine, suspenseful construction, this movie would be about as colorless and invertebrate as a sea cucumber if not for one character.

In spite of my unreasonable love for Cary Grant, I admit that John Garfield walks away with the show as Wolf. This gregarious tomcat of a man brings a whiff of truth and humor to the screen, recounting his many conquests and elaborately comparing women to submarines—and subs to women! It’s as if all the sex drive, all the locker room talk, all the virility that we associate with the American male of the 1940s took refuge in the aptly named Wolf. Garfield’s lusty working class charisma buoys the film up and serves as the perfect counterpoise to Cary’s saintly, gracious paterfamilias.

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Two concepts of manhood.

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If Cary’s Captain Cassidy embodies what every American man of the time was supposed to be (or would’ve liked to be), Garfield’s Wolf is much closer to what the man of the time actually was, I’d say. In contrast to Cassidy’s manly perfection, Wolf is exuberantly imperfect. And thus, instantly lovable.

Now, we’ve all come to recognize the tropes that populate any war movie or all-male ensemble cast, including but not limited to: the voice of reason, the intellectual, the Hotspur, the white-haired father figure, the dreamer, the wet-behind-the-ears new guy, and, of course, the ladies’ man. Garfield’s character easily falls into the last category. Nevertheless, he refuses to be defined by that narrow frame.

Whereas another actor might ride this part, going with the flow of the snappy dialogue and waggish idiosyncrasies, Garfield tickles every emotional nuance out of his character. For instance, when he finds a phonograph record under the pillow of a dead companion, Wolf leads the men to play it and hear what it says—expecting something steamy, “Maybe it’s one of those censored records!” When, instead, he’s greeted by the voice of the fallen comrade’s wife, talking about how happy she is to be married to him, Wolf reacts with surprise, amusement, then with a creeping melancholy.

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This mega-bachelor, this charming skirt-chaser suddenly begins to understand what he might be missing, the joy of a relationship, not just a hook-up. Epiphanies are hard to act—they’re so easily overbaked. But Garfield gives us a small glimmer of mental movement behind that mug of his. He’s not converted, but he has gained something.

Unfortunately, much of the so-called “character development” that occurs during Destination Tokyo serves a blatant ideological purpose—the boy grows into a man, the atheist intellectual comes to embrace God, the high priority military operative learns the real nature of courage, not as an absence of fear, but as the mastery of fear. However, in the case of Garfield’s Wolf, the interiority that he communicates doesn’t bring about any major change in his persona.

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At the end of the film, he’s still planning to go and live it up with the dames when he goes back on shore. But he’s a different person. A slightly different person. In life, every experience changes us somehow until the changes add up to make the people we were distinct from the people we are. That transition isn’t complete yet, but watching Wolf in a state of becoming is magical—all the more because we don’t expect those delicate shadings of growth from a basic, carnal dude like him!

The movie’s use of cinematic language also positions us closer to Wolf than to the other men. Interestingly, Cassidy and Wolf are the only two characters in Destination Tokyo who can bring us back to land—that is, their memories trigger flashbacks to the home front that we the viewers can also see. Cassidy visits his wife and daughter in his dreams and, as he faces death, his son’s face flashes before his eyes.

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These idealized visions contrast with Wolf’s flashback to a dame (what else?) earlier in the film.

Whistling “Night and Day,” Wolf launches into a bawdy story about spotting a gal outside a lingerie store in San Francisco. “Ah, she was built for speed, like a destroyer… but kinda compact too, like a submarine. There she was a-comin’ down South Street, right on my starboard beam. The minute I sees her, I says, ‘Up periscope!’”

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Unsurprisingly, he’d been leering at some mannequins when this swell dame pops up—as does a beefy navy type, who horns in, proceeds to escort the babe into the store, and buy her something lacey and sheer as Wolf peers through the window in dismay, nose pressed to the glass. “There I am: anchored. Dead in the water… bulkheads busted in!”

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No sooner does the tomato get her frilly “thingamajig” than she leaves the interloper in the lurch—and turns to Wolf, asking, “Going my way, submariner?”

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Dissolving energetically back and forth between Wolf telling the tale and the actual scene, this sequence interjects a delightful bit of comedy and camaraderie. Wolf comes across as a storyteller with a gift for wringing his escapades for suspense value. He works his audience and the movie’s audience.

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Of Destination Tokyo’s flashback sequences, Cassidy’s images of his wife and children (in real life, the children of director Delmar Daves!) are solitary, linked only to his point-of-view. On the other hand, Wolf’s naughty story is a shared theatrical experience, staged in the imagination of any of the men within the movie who make up his audience—listening to the tale and trying to picture it. The strength of Wolf’s personality allows all involved to escape from the confines of the claustrophobic sub.

I also love the use of sound in this scene. As “Night and Day” continues to play over the soundtrack, almost like a music video, Wolf’s voice-over speaks all the dialogue that accompanies his memory. We hear both the growling tones of his rival and the suggestive voice of his would-be dalliance in Wolf’s voice. He performs his memory (or perhaps his fantasy), like a one-man repertory company! If I were a guy trapped in a metal capsule underwater, I’d want Wolf around…

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The script contributes another nuance to Wolf’s character by hinting that all the stories he tells might be fabrications—because, unlike the other men, he lacks a regular sweetheart. Indeed, there’s at least one clue in the flashback sequence that Wolf was embellishing his tale, if not making it up entirely: he refers to the woman as being “up to my chin” when she actually appears several inches taller than him. Although we do see the sexy scene that Wolf describes to us and seeing is usually believing, we begin to wonder just how much we can trust our narrator.

Is he merely compensating? Like many skirt-chasers, Wolf emerges as a particularly lonely man. In one poignant scene, all the men repose in their bunks, with pictures of their wives and fiancées, whereas womanizing Wolf lies there alone, like a forlorn little boy.

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Garfield imbues Wolf with a tender childishness that saves the character from cliché-dom—and from lecherous creepiness. We’re talking about a man brings A DOLL onto a submarine for heaven’s sake! Certainly, his act of bringing a woman-in-effigy, a hot miniature blonde, onboard strikes us as a slightly kinkier version of bringing, say, a French postcard or a Playboy centerfold. Wolf also explains that he uses the plastic dame as lure to get girls—a pick-up gag. He takes Nita the Doll into a restaurant and talks to it, to provoke the attention and curiosity of real women.

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However, the presence of a toy woman also reminds me of a security blanket or a teddy bear. During the intense depth charge scenes, Wolf braces himself against the shocks in his bunk with Nita beside him as a comfort.

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Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about “transitional objects” like teddy bears, that enable us to transition from experiencing the world as a part of oneself and ones imagination to interacting with a real world, a network of relationships. Wolf seems unable to make that shift completely. Sex is a kind of transitional object for him, as indicated by his flashback, which may be real and may be imagined… or a mixture of the two. Wolf even refers to his physical strength standing in contrast to his “weak mind,” but the weakness stems not from a lack of intelligence but rather from a strange inability to dissociate imagination and reality.

He’s the one, after all, who puts up the silly sign “Los Angeles City Limits” in a Tokyo cave, as if he were mentally transporting himself somewhere else. He’s the one who kisses both the submarine and the torpedo, as if they were women, or perhaps extensions of himself. And who describes sexual encounters like naval battles!

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Nita the Doll, as a transitional object for an adult male, both a fetish and a comforting toy, helps us recognize the underdeveloped boy mentality that explains a lot of why people are willing to fight wars, I’d say. As much as Wolf epitomizes a certain type of hardboiled American manhood, his askew sexuality, his inability to lead a committed relationship, and his confused attachments to objects and fantasies reveal something damaged in him. Garfield’s natural vulnerability as an actor subtly discloses this weakness, underneath the shiny surface of the good-time guy.

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I know this analysis sounds like a bit of a stretch. I mean, isn’t Wolf just comic relief? Well, yes, I’m sure that’s how he was intended, but I feel like the weirdness of this character deserves to be decrypted a little more. In his own small way, he foreshadows the link between sexual dysfunction and annihilation that makes Dr. Strangelove such a brilliant parody. We witness Wolf’s loose link to reality in every loony military leader who takes his aggression or ego out on the world.

He Volunteered for Submarine ServiceAlthough Wolf isn’t unnecessarily violent, “weak mind[s]” like his are often the fuel for the violence of total wars—an unhinged fantasy life makes people do all sorts of strange things. Why else do military posters frequently involve sexy ladies? Because the two things sort of go together. Wolf wasn’t so odd to bring Nita onboard. As this WWII poster shows, girls and the submarine service went together in recruits’ minds.

Whether you buy my thesis or not, watch Destination Tokyo because it’s a startlingly accurate depiction of a WWII American sub, because Cary Grant practically glows with idealized male role model glory, because it portrays several amazing real life incidents—such as an impromptu underwater appendectomy! But, when you do watch it, keep an eye out for the woman who gets the most onscreen time—Nita, Wolf’s doll. And think about what she might say if she could talk.

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~          ~          ~

(As a postscript, I would like to address the fact that Destination Tokyo is very much a product of its time. Slurs on the Japanese like “Nips” and “Japs” abound in the dialogue and I’d be lying if I said that the rushes of victory that the film delivers don’t depend on the dehumanization of the enemy. What’s worse is that the script flat-out demonizes Japanese culture, stating that there’s no word in the Japanese language for romantic love. Okay, wise guys, then how did Shikibu Murasaki write The Tale of Genji?! All that bigotry is Destination Tokyoegregious. No argument there. You definitely wince hearing Cary Grant say, “I hear Japs are happy to die for their Emperor. A lot of them are going to be made very happy,” as bombs drop on the unsuspecting civilians of Tokyo. It ain’t pretty.

However, I would point out that the submariners’ attitudes toward the enemy are realistic, although indefensible. I mean, I don’t expect soldiers to say, “Hmm. Well, your average Japanese fellow is OK, but I’ve got to kill them for many ethical, social, and economical reasons.” War is Hell because it demands that men embrace this kind of nasty us-versus-them talk in order to be able to do what they must.

I think that’s a damn sight more honest than the plentitude of movies nowadays that swap out real people foes for grotesque CGI enemies that aren’t even human to begin with. Those fake panoramas of gore stultify us by letting us enjoy death where there never was any life. Which is why I’d question the ethics of movies like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings right along with Destination Tokyo.

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This 1944 movie does give us at least one moment of almost-enlightenment. When the beloved Mike is killed, Captain Cassidy launches into an informal eulogy about how Mike loved children and was proudest when he bought his kid a deluxe pair of 5-dollar roller skates. Cassidy insists that Mike died for a world filled with more roller-skates—even for Japanese kids, who deserve lives free from inculcated militarism and a doctrine of blind self-sacrifice. We’re still in the realm of propaganda and apologism. Those roller-skates are a rationalization, sure enough, but one that sounds more plausible, human, and admirable than mindless killing.)

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I am proud to present this post as part of the John Garfield 100th Birthday Blogathon, a terrific idea organized by Patti of They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. Please check out the other entries and learn more about this amazing actor, lost from us, alas, all too soon.

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Getting out of the Boat: Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now

2“Never get out of the goddamn boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got out of the boat. He split from the whole f**king program.”

I’ve loved Apocalypse Now from the first time I watched that orange feathering of napalm burn through lush tropical forests to the lilting, funereal strains of “The End.” That opening shot spoke to me, whispering the truth of how ugly things can be beautiful and how the camera can charm that beauty forth.

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It was like looking through the eyes of another, not through a point-of-view shot, not even through the lens of a different philosophy—but through the eyes of madness, of someone for whom destruction was lovely. I had never felt anything like it. It horrified me, shocked me, inspired me, and changed me. It may have been the first time in my life that I encountered Art, that grand, fearsome, traumatic thing that we hear so much about.

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On the other hand, Black Narcissus refused me any such revelation until it was almost over. Having bought a Criterion DVD at a jumble sale (the poor fool who threw it away!), I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating in an academic sense. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

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The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. “Holy ****!” I exclaimed to myself. “Sister Ruth got out the boat!”

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both won Academy Awards for cinematography thanks to the hypnotic, ethereal camerawork of Jack Cardiff and Vittorio Storaro, in 1947 and 1979 respectively. (Both films should have won Best Picture, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

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Above: Jack Cardiff. Below: Vittorio Storaro on location for Apocalypse Now

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Apart from the two movies’ shared aesthetic interest in exoticism, they are extremely different. In contrast to the classically trained, crafted acting style of the performers in Powell and Pressburger’s film, Coppola chose a stable of hardcore method actors. While Black Narcissus seemingly fits into the mold of a women’s drama, Apocalypse Now has claimed an immortal place in the annals of cinematic machismo.

Black Narcissus departs utterly from realism by shooting not in the Indian mountains, but in England—against huge blow-ups of aerial photographs of the Himalayas, brightly painted to striking effect. We all know that the production of Apocalypse Now, filmed on location in the Philippines, mirrored its plot. As Coppola lapsed into the Kurtz mentality and actors started to succumb to the harshness of the environment and the strain of shooting, reality bled into fiction.

Nevertheless, I cannot separate these films in my mind. To me, they’ll always be spiritual sisters. I don’t doubt that Cardiff’s vision for Black Narcissus influenced Storaro’s photography for Apocalypse Now, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

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Fearsome transformations….

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I have seen a precious few films that seem to be aware that they’re in color. I mean, yes, the costumes, the sets, the lighting in most non-black-and-white films have all been carefully selected for their hues and tones, but the emotional powerhouse of color remains untapped.

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Warpaint of different hues…

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Color speaks to us in ways that defy rational thought. Baudelaire once noted that color is the most important element of a painting, because even before we can make out the figures, at a distance, the harmony or dissonance of colors allows us to intuit the essence of the scene.

In my opinion, color needs to “put the zap” on our heads, to paraphrase a few lines of Milius’ brutally insightful script for Apocalypse Now. Seriously—this is why I tend to prefer black-and-white films. Why show me colors unless they’re going to astonish me? Color needs to tell us something, not in terms of symbolism, but in terms of emotion and reaction. Both Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now define dreamlike, vividly colored places, jungles and mountaintops, which not only magnify our perceptions, but also unleash our inner natures.

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Shades of observation: Sister Clodagh and Captain Willard.

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Apocalypse Now is not an anti-war film any more than Black Narcissus is an anti-religious film. Both of them transcend such unambiguous messages to tell us something much more vast about the soul of civilization. Sister Ruth certainly isn’t the charismatic genius that Kurtz is, since men have a cultural outlet for their madness—war—whereas women just get neuroticism. However, these two figures both revert to something primal and frightening. (Eventually Captain Willard does, too.) Sister Ruth and Kurtz split from the program of lies and moral rationalizations that govern the minds of their peers. Rather than persisting in fighting the call of the jungle, they give in. Their madness prompts some of the most fantastically beautiful images captured by a camera. 

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We watch traditions and codes of conduct plunge into a flamboyant psychosis that wasn’t so far away all along. Seductive, unreal colors, enhanced by sinuous camera strokes, hold us captive and enable us to feel the strength of those impulses towards annihilation, impulses that enthrall those who “got out of the boat.”

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As Nietzsche theorized, great tragic art must balance a tendency towards orgiastic self-destructiveness (the Dionysian) and the tonic splendor of appearances and expression (the Apollonian). If Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both depict the triumph of the Dionysian, of chaos and entropy, they nevertheless uplift us rather than depressing us. They temper our despair in mankind with our faith in art.

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Cardiff and Storaro extensively studied the great masters of painting—the color palette of Narcissus was based in part on Vermeer, and there’s quite a bit of Caravaggio in the way Apocalypse Now uses virtuosic contrasts of color and blackness. The compositional brilliance and luminosity that the cinematographers lend even to scenes of abhorrent violence or confusion strike a balance between these elements to produce cathartic experiences that, for me, have not been equaled by any other films.

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From lips to eyes… and from eyes to lips. Contemplating empty faces (Sister Ruth’s and the face of a Khmer statue) with camera tilts.

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Jack Cardiff had to campaign to get the sort of surreal, opalescent color contrasts he harnessed for a subliminal effect in Narcissus: “I was always fighting with Technicolor [representatives] because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was.” Instead, in certain scenes, he filled shadows with green light and colored the arc-lights slightly blue to suggest the distracting crystal coolness of the skies. Cardiff reflected that few viewers, perhaps one in ten or fifteen, would consciously notice these things, but that the choice would impact the mindset of the audience and contribute to the story.

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In addition to these more subtle manipulations, gathering momentum as the film unfolds, Black Narcissus overwhelms us with exaggerated panoramas of the edge of the world. The screen celebrates the giddy delirium that courses through Sister Ruth as she rings the bell on the edge of the cliff. We experience the rush of that chasm, shown in breathtaking canted angles.

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Later, through the translucent deep blues, febrile oranges, and acid pinks of her freak-out, we feel the terrifying release of Ruth’s transformation into a strange, unnatural creature—part modern woman, part painted devil.

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Kurtz’ poetic insanity penetrates the eerie iconography of Apocalypse Now. The glowing amber quality of light, the oppressive Prussian blue skies, the sulfuric yellow and psychedelic lilac gas flares, the impenetrable greens of the jungle all exteriorize the jewel-like ferocity of his Zen psychosis.

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“We’re all his children, man…”

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Kurtz, this faceless demigod, the diamond who cuts through bullsh*t, realizes that those who win wars must fully embrace “the horror.” But that appalling clarity, that knowledge also rots away at him from the inside out. Captain Willard’s voice-over tells us some of this, but such verbal information would be meaningless if Storaro didn’t paint this decay into every lopsided, eclipsed shot of Kurtz.

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Storaro, referring to his revolutionary use of color shading in Apocalypse Now, spoke of how he used the visuals, especially rich shades of black, to get in touch with the barbaric, “unconscious side” of humanity that Conrad’s novel conjured up: “The heart of darkness that he was looking at does not belong to another culture, another place, but part of our self.”

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Cardiff and Storaro both found intense, wordless ways of representing this slip into a primordial darkness, into a place beyond reason. When Sister Ruth begins literally to “see red” the screen suddenly snaps to pure blue as her rage forces her to lose consciousness.

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The first time I saw it, I though there was something wrong with the DVD, it startled me so!

Similarly, Apocalypse Now gives us an amazing shot in which the camera literally turns upside-down and then right-side-up, and then up-side-down again as Kurtz’ acolytes drag Willard through the mud to meet the elusive Colonel for the first time.

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Cinematography literally means writing with light and motion. Cardiff and Storaro wrote disorientation and temptation into the screen with shadows, with movements, with delicate shadings of color.

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The call of the jungle… Sister Ruth and Captain Willard stalk their prey.

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both dwell in the realm of exoticism, in the amplified Other that’s really just another guise for something flickering within us. These movies let me see Western civilization, the epicenter of my own values and all that I hold dear, transplanted and fragmented into a vibrant nightmare by the prism of madness.

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They also take me full-circle back to the primitive psychic engines of that civilization—Eros and Thanatos, sex and aggression—without asking that I transgress, without asking that I myself get out of the boat.

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~          ~          ~

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by three of the nicest ladies, coolest movie mavens, and best film bloggers out there, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Check out their blogs and this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

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.

Journey’s End: Remembering Colin Clive on His Birthday

Journey's End“I’m no Clark Gable in the matter of looks; I require a good dramatic play before my fatal charm is discernible.” —Colin Clive

Fatal, indeed.

On this date in 1900, Clive Clive came into the world. In 1937, he died alone and unhappy in an oxygen tent, succumbing to alcohol-exacerbated tuberculosis. He didn’t stay here for long, but in some ways he never left.

He lives in a thousand imitations of his broken-reed voice, in horror movies that he hated making, in the dormant celluloid of films not available for distribution, and in my cinephiliac obsession. He always seemed to be a bundle of nerves—even beyond the diegetic gallery of tightly-wrapped characters he played, from the alcoholic Captain Stanhope to the blasphemous Dr. Frankenstein to the traumatized Stephen Orlac.

The twitchy, overblown energy of Clive’s performances, his harnessed panic, makes you somehow more aware of what the film critic Laura Mulvey has called death at 24 frames per second, the poignant passage of time as captured by the camera.

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There are many things that I would like to say to Clive, but someone else pretty much wrote it all down and actually sent it to him when he was still around to read it:

I want to thank you for the little bit of rare beauty you have given me, a real spark of something which does not exist in the world today. I am not speaking of your great acting nor the great part you brought to life so expertly. Others have done great acting before, and there have been many great parts written. I am speaking of something which, probably, was very far from the mind of the author when he wrote Journey’s End, and from your own when you acted it. Perhaps that which I saw in you exists only in my own mind and no one else would see it, or care to see. I am speaking of your achievement in bringing to life a completely heroic human being.”

This is an excerpt from a beautifully written fan letter by no less than Ayn Rand (!) who saw Clive perform in a stage revival of Journey’s End in 1934. She was herself a successful playwright at the time. Clive replied that her praise meant a lot to him. I hope that he internalized some of it. Whatever anyone may think or feel about Ayn Rand, I must admit that she seized on a key aspect of Colin Clive.

Journey's EndIt’s ironic that Rand, who championed iron wills and inner strength, should have so admired a man whose weaknesses and insecurities destroyed him. And yet, Clive was not just a downward spiral, but an aspiration towards something higher.

All of his performances have a grace and beauty to them, as if even the most loathsome characters could have been better people—should have been, but were cut off by some cruel twist of fate.

When Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein delivers his speech about clouds and stars and eternity, he becomes my personal definition of the heroic in mankind. In this case, I know exactly what Rand was on about.

Some actors have fans, and that’s just fine. Colin Clive has a cult. I wonder what he would have thought of us, the endless Googlers of his image, holding vigil over his memory. I’m not entirely sure that he would have been pleased. He may well have been a trifle freaked out.

But I would like to remember him on his 113th birthday with a few words about his first film, in which he recreated his signature stage role: Captain Stanhope, a part he seemed born to play.

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The cast of Journey’s End and James Whale listen to the radio on the set.

Directed by James Whale, Journey’s End reminds me a lot of Das Boot: quite long, claustrophobic, and character-driven. After two hours, confined almost entirely to the trench set, we feel as though we’re really in there with these damned, laughing fellows. We come recognize and cherish their foibles and mannerisms through the intimacy of the camera.

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I must confess, though, the first time I saw this, I found myself disappointed by how terribly uncinematic it seems. Then again, overwhelmingly stationary shots are par for the course in an early talkie.

Whale matter-of-factly plunks us down in the trench and lets most of the action unfold in medium long shots, with the occasional significant close-up—a yucky blancmange, a box of candles, hands opening a letter. Apart from the striking chiaroscuros of a few bombardment scenes and some muddy tracking shots, we get little sense of the innovating flair James Whale clearly had for making horror jump off the screen.

However, trench warfare isn’t cinematic, is it? It’s not a sweeping crane shot. It’s not lyrical in the least. It’s creaky, stale, and soggy. Journey’s End manages to convey these qualities aptly, while still mobilizing the force of our bond with the characters to hold our attention. By about ten minutes in, we like these unfortunate chaps. We wonder which ones of them are going to die. We hope that the causalities will be minimal.

The cast works remarkably well together. David Manners, in particular, will surprise you if you’ve only seen him play juvenile romantic leads. As Raleigh, he transforms from the fresh-cheeked schoolboy soldier into a mortified, disillusioned young man. Returning from a raid in which most of the men died, Raleigh collapses onto a bed; Whale gives us a close-up of Manners who really did pull out all the stops. He looks shattered, hollow-eyed, sweaty, and broken—a far cry from his wooden pretty boy reputation.

Journey's EndWhale does occasionally oblige us with moments of conspicuous filmic brilliance. For instance, at the very end, when the cowardly Hibbert hesitates to join the front line, we get a shot of the doorway to the top of the trench, where a body is being carried past on a stretcher in silhouette. It borders on allegory: the doorway to death. The image shifts towards abstraction, like the famous reaper shots in Dreyer’s Vampyr. A WWI veteran himself, Whale knew how to reduce trench warfare to a bare, razor-sharp grisaille. This touch foreshadows the morbid, metaphysical resonance of Frankenstein.

Just as Frankenstein begins before it starts with the sounds of weeping that precede the opening images of the funeral, the deep, booming bass of exploding shells begins over the credits of Journey’s End—and keeps banging away through the film until the audience’s nerves have gone to pieces, too. Pretty astute use of sound for 1930.

Journey's EndReturning to our leading man, Clive became Stanhope. Or perhaps Stanhope became Clive. One can understand why Whale insisted that Clive be imported from England immediately, as no other actor would do.

This was rather unusual, that a stage actor unseasoned by cinema experience be brought thousands of miles for a single part only. Well, from the moment Clive enters the dugout set—his face half-hidden from the camera by his metal helmet, brushing briskly by, trying to drop his knapsack on his bunk, then pulling the strap off where he caught it on his shoulder with a weary tug—his every movement rings utterly true. We never feel that he’s playing for the camera, which I consider a small miracle, since he had never acted for one before.

Drunk parts are notoriously hard and perhaps Clive wasn’t faking drunk. Whatever Clive’s consumption of whisky was during production, though, Stanhope’s state of inebriation varies through so many shadings of prickly, dreamy, and cheerily garrulous that we’re watching a person shot through a prism—all the emotions that usually coexist in diluted form come through in vivid contrast. He portrays a man fractured and fragmented into pieces, pieces that some central, guiding insight is trying like mad to hold together.

Journey's End

The thing that nurtures Stanhope, his perspicacity, his ability to understand the point of staying strong in the midst of pointlessness, is also the thing that makes him need to numb himself out with alcohol. Like a plant which, when its growth upwards is blocked off, twists around but keeps on growing, Stanhope’s passion for life has been stunted by war into the desire to die like a man—the only option left. Part child and part old soul, Clive’s Stanhope shines with the feverish glow of the actor’s own incandescent torment.

I consider Stanhope the flip side of Clive’s Frankenstein. Both are individuals attuned to some higher significance. Stanhope delivers a marvelous speech about giddy stars and mortality that almost certainly inspired the famous monologue from Frankenstein (which was not in the shooting script, incidentally). We recognize in Stanhope, as in Frankenstein, a brutal hubris that holds everyone to a high standard—but himself to an almost impossible standard.

Journey's EndPerhaps most importantly, Whale shows both men (Stanhope and Frankenstein) to be rather childlike. Remember how Frankenstein, seeing Elizabeth, takes a few steps and collapses in his laboratory when his father comes for him? That moment echoes a scene in Journey’s End when, consumed by worries and heavily inebriated, Stanhope falls into his bunk and partially out of frame. His head and shoulders are off-screen as the fatherly Sergeant Osborne puts a blanket on him. It’s as if he disappeared for a moment, regressed into a place where he’s no longer trapped in the trenches, but he then calls pathetically, “Tuck me up!” In both films, Whale and Clive deliver moving depictions of men returning to helpless boyhood on the brink of exhaustion.

In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Osborne reads a letter from Raleigh, who happens to be the brother of Stanhope’s fiancée. Stanhope fears that Raleigh will unmask him as a drunkard and ruin his reputation with the girl he loves, but instead, as Osborne reads the letter, Stanhope hears nothing but kind words for his spirit and leadership. The play of emotions on Clive’s face is, as usual, extraordinary. We spot relief, yes, but also anguish, sadness, an attempt to gather his courage, as though he were facing down German machine guns. I have to commend Clive on this unique interpretation, but a very genuine one, as I believe that praise is the most humbling thing in this world. Praise frightens Stanhope more than criticism, because being a fine fellow is an ideal he has to live up to. Heroism is his curse.

Journey's End

Clive exuded a borderline ludicrous modesty in his interviews, claiming that anyone could have done his parts well, that it was the writing or the directing that did most of the work. This quote, from a 1932 issue of Picture Show magazine, characterizes his attitude towards fame and his obvious talent:

“It took me ten years to learn my job on the provincial stage—of course, I’m still learning now; but I’m afraid it will take me a lot longer to learn anything really worthwhile about films. The technical side is so interesting, and if ever I do master this part of making pictures I would like to produce pictures and give up acting altogether. 

“You see, I’m little more than a puppet really as far as film work is concerned. The director does all the brain work. He is the man who makes the picture.”  

I think that praise frightened this self-deprecating man as much as it scared Stanhope. Well, that’s too bad. I want to praise how he ruffles a dying friend’s hair, while looking away from the body in horror. I want to praise how disobligingly nasty and snappish he acts at times in the film, yet still makes us care for him. I want to praise him for “the little bit of beauty” he bequeathed to us with his performance.

Watch Journey’s End and I think you will too.

Journey's End

(Note: I refuse to post screenshots of this film because the print on YouTube, as well as the one on my DVD, look like they’ve been dropped in the mud at the Battle of Ypres. You can watch the full movie by clicking here, although it’s a crime against humanity that someone has not restored this magnificent film about the tragedy of war. Since no one has, I’ve decided to include a lot of publicity stills and materials in this post which I gleaned from the fantastic Tumblrs of missanthropicprinciple, sullivanstrvls, and, of course, colincliveforever. Do give them a look. They post terrific movie-related images and reflections and they have my gratitude.)

(My) Top 10 Shots in Casablanca

posterSo many people have written mind-blowing thematic analyses of Casablanca that I decided to go another route. This movie invites you into it—and invites you to take souvenirs from it: favorite lines, cherished scenes, fragments of tunes and soundtrack music, and, of course, images.

Casablanca encourages you to turn it into your own personal collection of memories and does so more successfully than any other Hollywood film. So here’s my collection of its most meaningful, mythical, and tantalizing shots.

10. Casablanca Noir

If you were to show me this shot and say, “What’s it from?” it would take me more than a minute to realize that it’s from The Greatest Hollywood Movie of All Time (according to some people, though I don’t like those kinds of judgements). Here, Ilsa is watching Victor as he risks his life by going out to the Free France meeting after curfew. The low-key lighting, the venetian blinds, and the obscured face all scream NOIR.  The image clearly plays with our genre-recognition abilities. This noirish quality, largely thanks to expressionist-influenced director Michael Curtiz and director of photography Arthur Edeson (also the DoP for Frankenstein and The Maltese Falcon) consistently add a palpable ominousness to what could’ve been a frothy, unbelievable quip-fest.

9. In the Shadows

Now, this isn’t a shot that slaps you across the face with its importance. It occurs very early in the film when Captain Renault warns Rick not to help Lazlo. The shot doesn’t last particularly long. However, I think this moody shadow silhouette of Rick serves a key function of insisting on his dark side… the dark side that we’re about to see when he coldly watches the Nazis nab Ugarte. This film only works if we believe that Bogie (who, leading up to Casablanca, had played some pretty vicious guys) might actually let Victor Lazlo die because of a grudge against Ilsa. That ugliness needs to lurk in him to counterbalance the sentimentality. And this shot knows it.

8. The Airfield Two-Shot

We all know the famous two-shot of Rick and Ilsa saying goodbye, but there’s a marvelous swooping crane-in movement on the pair which we would also do well to recall with fondness. It adds to the shock, tension, and pathos of Rick’s noble switcheroo as Ilsa copes with the fact that she’s going, not staying.

7. The Nazis are Coming

How brave was it, in 1942, to include a shot like this? Raw, grainy, obviously the real deal, and totally terrifying. Not only does this footage of a genuine Panzer division ripping through the French countryside lend psychological weight and menace to Conrad Veidt’s sinister Major Strasser, but it’s also the scariest shot in the film, for my money, because it reaches beyond the diegesis to frighten us. For the people watching this in 1942, it might have felt like a coming attraction. And not a pleasant one. As Strasser asks Rick, can you imagine the Nazis in New York? I bet Casablanca‘s audiences could, in their nightmares.

6. The Weeping Letter

How many times have we seen letters in movies as a short-hand for plot revelations? And how often does it feel flat and lame? Well, apparently, just add (rain)water and the ink bleeds and weeps into instant devastation. The words cry the tears that tough-guy Bogie can’t and infuse the scene with an ineffable feeling of loss and things falling apart.

5. Trouble in Paradise

Ilsa tries to enjoy her last moments with Rick, but this tight framing tells us that some mysterious inner struggle is killing her. It’s pure agony and irony—since Rick blithely has no idea. The Paris dream is about to come crashing down.

(Note: Nick Ray would later copy this tight framing for the nightclub scene in In A Lonely Place, again, with Bogie, but it’s much more effective here, I’d argue.)

4. The Penetrating Searchlight

The beam scans the night sky as peaceful harps sing on the soundtrack, telling us what really happened between Rick and Ilsa. As Rick later admits to Laslzo, “She pretended she was still in love with me… and I let her pretend…” One of the most alluring, evocative ellipses of all time. Thanks, Joseph Breen and your blue-pencil brigade, for being a real pain and burning this remarkable hole in the narrative!

3. La Belle Aurore

One shot encompasses all of the frames above. We get a tilt up from the shadow. Rick’s at the bar. A dolly movement follows him over to the piano. He pours some champagne as Sam plays the then-untainted “As Time Goes By.” Instant nostalgia.

Do you ever have a memory where you see yourself? Like you’re watching a movie of your past in your mind? Then you think, “Wait, I can’t see myself in real life. I must be embellishing this…” This lyrical long take captures that sensation of a romanticized remembrance, colored and enhanced by longing. Nothing could ever be this perfect and beautiful and romantic. But, then again, it’s broadcast to you from the mind of a drunk, lonely saloon owner. Of course it will look pure, friendly, intimate, and untouchable—the antithesis of his own saloon.

2. The Last Shot

This crane shot contains the paradox of Casablanca. How can I be a good person, one who cares for others and, if necessary, makes sacrifices for them, and still be an individual instead of another senseless follower? Won’t my drama get lost in the drama of a world in crisis? As the shot rises, Rick and Louis look small, but their voices stay more or less the same. No matter how immersed they are in the tide of history, the force of their personalities, their desires, and the uniqueness of their goodwill gestures maintains their integrity as characters.

Integrity has many forms and many representatives, including venal bureaucrats and sad-eyed bar owners—idealized Lazlo isn’t the only option. You don’t have to lead the Resistance to stand out in a sea of change, we realize, as Rick and Louis walk down the runway mist which shimmers around them like a starry firmament.

1. Ilsa x 2

It really is true. No matter how many times you watch Casablanca you discover some clever detail that you hadn’t noticed before. Just before this shot, Victor shows up at Rick’s and Ilsa is hiding in Rick’s room. Now, as much as I admire Ilsa’s spirit and decency, I confess that, as a character, she annoys me personally. It took this image to set her free in my mind. Because here she’s doubled, split, divided.

This image translates the forked path of destiny, so central to Casablanca, a movie about not just one choice, but many choices. It’s a tale of possibilities and “what-ifs,” and therein lies the key to its beauty and resonance.

Casablanca is a story that doesn’t know its own ending. In my opinion, that is why it is such a great story.

Now, I know that the claims that the cast were kept in the dark as to the dénouement practically until they filmed it (because the screenwriters were scrambling to wrap it up) have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, even the characters persistently talk about this up-in-the-air conclusion. “Does it have a wild finish?” asks the nasty, inebriated Rick. “It’s still a story without an ending,” he later observes to Ilsa. In that scene, when she comes for the letters of transit, they finally unburden themselves of their misunderstandings by figuring out the exact chronology of their own story.

Without the slightest bit of “meta” cynicism, Casablanca manages to unravel the complications of storytelling—not in an artistic sense, but in a human one. The fact that Warner Brothers produced it during the war means that, of course, the entire world had to agree with Rick: “It’s still a story without an ending.” The epic of World War II wasn’t over yet. But, then again, when is anything really over? Even Casablanca’s ending is a beginning and the characters’ relationships open all kinds of room for our imaginations to fill in the time before the beginning of film. Still, on an even more universal level, Casablanca touches the viewers by reminding us of all of the loose ends in our own lives.

Casablanca endures because it dwells in these big little questions. What’s going to happen to me? Will we always be together? What will the future bring? How are we to make sense of all the encounters and losses that life sets, like landmines, in our path? Nobody knows the way it’s going to be.

Those twin visions of Ilsa peering at us suggest that every reality is teetering on the brink of not one, but several futures, several possible endings. And we don’t know which until it happens.

Honorable Mentions: 

Because, really, I’m a little screenshot-happy. What movie blogger wouldn’t be?

Waiting in Casablanca

Every time I think about this film, this long sweep over the huddled masses, gazing upward towards the plane, sticks out in my memory. The fatigued faces and the hope in their eyes reminds me of the American immigrant experience and, within the story, suggests the stakes of getting the Hell out of Casablanca. This shot also tells us of a multitude of stories that we won’t have time to hear in this film, but which are just as valid, poignant, and personal. Casablanca is not an egocentric film. It realizes that for every story told, there are millions more worth listening to.

Everybody Goes to Rick’s

In those first shots of the nightclub a whole era of between-the-wars escapism comes alive. The textures, the smoke haze, the silky gowns, the pierced, lacy screens, as though to filter out the harsh light of truth—it’s all there, inviting and numbing.

O.K. Rick

One of the best character introductions of all time. Champagne cocktail = sophisticated, drinker. Cigarette = cool. Chessboard = thinker. Alone = lonely. Shadowy background = noirish badass with a knack for decorating. Any questions?

The Foursome

When Rick sees Ilsa for the first time in Casablanca, we get a few very overwrought close-ups. If we had to linger in their reunion, the scene would descend into bathos. Fortunately, Lazlo and Renault arrive—and the tension is palpable as the four of them crowd this shot with their worries and surprise. It’s gonna be a bumpy night.

Face-Off

Rick and Lazlo bump into each other in the doorway of the Blue Parrot… as the shadow of a belly dancer’s arm undulates over them as a reminder of the love versus lust aspect of the plot.

Shoot Me

Umm… did I miss something? Did my DVD cut to Double Indemnity? In all seriousness, this indelible shot drives home the risk of losing one’s humanity to war—even far from the battlefield. If Ilsa shot Rick, she would be just as bad as Major Strasser.

Okay, maybe not quite, but you see my point. According to the logic of this film, you can’t fight for principles by abandoning all principles. Ilsa can’t bring herself to shoot Rick, which is why she does triumph. She’s still human. She’s still filled with love for Rick, love that reminds him of his own humanity, of that time before his insides got kicked out. However, she comes mighty close to pulling that trigger—which allows Curtiz to show us that war is indeed Hell. Divided loyalties turn almost every relationship into a noirish collision course.

Vol de Nuit

Escape and loss, relief and regret—inscribed on the image. It will haunt my dreams. I’m sure that it’s haunted dreams for 70 years. And will do so for many more as time goes by.

Insanely Real: Renfield, Dracula, and World War I

If you don’t like disturbing images and ideas, I advise you not to read this blog post. Seriously.

I realize that, in writing this, I am echoing about a century of horror movie taglines that warned away the “faint of heart” and promised near-fatal excitement. In this case, I am writing about real horrors along with fictional ones. And they are unforgettable, irredeemably awful. Some of you may have read my post on Ulmer’s The Black Cat and how that film processes some of the trauma of World War I. Now, I’d like to write about a movie that takes on the WWI legacy in a much more subtle and, I would argue, poignant, way: Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula.

“Wait a minute, there, sister,” I hear you saying. “Dracula is a Victorian novel so how can it be about a modern total war? The answer revolves around the characterization of the “madman” Renfield. I admit that so-called “lunatics” have permeated popular conceptions of macabre from even before the era of the Gothic novel, but World War I triggered an unprecedented incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, known at the time as neurasthenia or war neurosis (van der Hart et al. 37). “Madness,” once a relatively rare thing, became the subject of mass experience as thousands of young, otherwise healthy men returned from battle acting in ways very removed from acceptable social norms.

And Renfield, as Browning visually portrays him, and as Frye performs him, resembles the shell-shocked veterans of the Great War much more than he does Stoker’s version of the blood-obsessed asylum inmate.

Renfield seems to disappear as he steps into the web at Castle Dracula.

Moments after his arrival at Castle Dracula, Renfield gets caught in a spider’s web and flails his way out. Dracula gently scolds him with a conspiratorial smile, “The blood is the life, Mister Renfield…” This ironic foreshadowing really works, instead of being corny, because it’s quite sad, in retrospect. Renfield goes on to eat spiders and rue his own thirst for blood. Even as a vampire, a predator, he’s still caught in the web, at the bottom of the food chain.

In fact, as he trips into the web, the spider-silk covers him like a shroud and gives him an indistinct, ghostly aspect. It’s as though he dematerialized into the web, as though he’d already been consumed and digested. Browning found a clever way to visually suggest that Renfield’s a pawn in the game and he will suffer horribly. And he does so in a manner very reminiscent of some of the men who returned from WWI trenches.

First, in terms of casting and physical description, the movie makes some major departures from the 19th century source text. The most visually impacting one centers on Renfield’s age. Bram Stoker describes Dracula’s unwilling lackey as a white-haired man of 59, elderly by Victorian standards, yet prone to grotesquely childlike outbursts. Dr. Seward paints this portrait of his patient:

Something seemed to affect his imagination, for he put his fingers to his ears and shut his eyes, screwing them up tightly just as a small boy does when his face is being soaped. There was something pathetic in it that touched me. It also gave me a lesson, for it seemed that before me was a child, only a child, though the features were worn, and the stubble on the jaws was white.

He’s an older gentleman and the disturbing factor is that he does not behave appropriately for his age. Similarly, the first film adaptation of the Dracula story, Murnau’s Nosferatu, depicts Knock, the Renfield character, as middle-aged and paunchy, with wild white locks.

Browning’s Renfield couldn’t contrast more with these grizzled Renfields! Dwight Frye’s screen incarnation strikes the audience with a façade of outward normalcy and borderline matinee idol good looks.

At a youthful 31, Frye, a Broadway star, cut a dapper figure in the film’s early scenes as he travels through the rustic village with his smart suit, hat, and a walking stick in hand. It’s actually a pretty brave choice, adaptation-wise, to make the first character we identify with and come to like descend into utter insanity!

Renfield’s handsome, affable characterization in the first scenes renders his degradation even more stark and disquieting later on. This change, the choice to depict Renfield as young, doesn’t really offer any new advantages in terms of plot. There’s little logical justification, especially given that Renfield has no love interest in the book or in the film. However, emotionally, the sight of a man in his prime succumbing to insanity offers a much more unsettling worldview—and one more congruent with the impact of the Great War.

We might expect senility from a white-haired inmate, but there’s something particularly sad and morbid about a fine specimen of a young man who’s almost totally lost touch with reality. (However, I mean no offense to all of my senior citizen friends who are sharper and stronger than I am at 21!)

Another significant discrepancy between the gothic novel and Tod Browning’s film makes Renfield the protagonist of the first scenes set in the Carpathian Mountains. Stoker casts Johnathan Harker, Mina’s fiancé, as the hapless character who first discovers Dracula’s undead wickedness. We, the readers, are aligned with Harker from the first.

However, in the motion picture, the spectator’s emotional investment in Renfield drives the tension of the meeting between the estate agent and the vampire. I think it’s also interesting that the movie does not spare its likable young man from a fate worse than death. (This sacrifice of the key character who leads us into the story actually foreshadows, in my mind, Hitchcock’s brave, shocking decision to kill off Marion Crane so early in Psycho.)

Whereas the Johnathan Harker of the book eventually escapes from Dracula’s castle, the cinematic Renfield almost immediately falls prey to the forces of evil and is damned simply for carrying out his duty. Just doing his job, he’s doomed to forever lose a part of his humanity and transform into a cackling monster in the eyes of others. Doesn’t this smack of the injustice and tragedy of war here?

There’s something of the between-the-wars cynicism about this plot choice. Bram Stoker suggested that good people will always end up okay—or at the very least, their souls will be saved. No such luck for Renfield. Therefore, as a somewhat average young man who travels to a foreign country and loses his mind and his dignity as a result of his experiences, Renfield closely resembles the thousands of “shell shock” victims of World War I.

The cinematography of Dracula intensifies the sense of disorientation and trauma with respect to Renfield. The first time we see him in the asylum, Browning orchestrates a striking long take, which trails from the clinic gates up to Renfield’s cell. In the Seward Santarium, the zoophagous (animal-eating) madman announces himself by his offstage shouts, amidst a chorus of the wild shrieks and giggles of the other inmates.

The camera, like the eye of a curious visitor, pans and rises in a crane shot towards Renfield’s window, coldly prying to the inside of a world without privacy.

A cut takes us to an unconventionally blurry long shot in the cell, with only the heads and shoulders of Renfield and of his keeper Martin, struggling over Renfield’s fly.

This shot radically departs from the regular, crisp proscenium space frequently defined by Browning; instead, the images convey a sense of unbalanced naturalism, much like the raw documentary quality of the footage taken of WWI shell shock victims—and there was significant documentation.

3

Private Eaglefield, one of many WWI veterans who suffered from a form of “war neurosis.” He was treated at the Seale Hayne War Hospital.

Like this clip below. Yes, it’s totally and completely authentic. Even though this editing of footage taken from the Seale Hayne War Hospital does try to put a positive spin on shell shock recovery, it’s not light viewing. The staring, wide eyes of one patient, Private Eaglefield, also above, stand out for me as particularly haunting. My heart goes out to these men. Watch it AT YOUR OWN RISK.

 

In Frye’s performance, the insanity also physically presents itself through jerky gestures, a sallow complexion, exaggerated facial expressions, and braying laughter. All of these “symptoms” recall somatoform disorders and various psychological conditions recorded among WWI veterans in shock, as well as among modern sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Yet, even beyond Frye’s heart-rending portrayal, Browning manipulates light and shadow in the sterile sanatorium room to conjure up the kind of unthinkable angst that we see at work in these documents of real veteran anguish.

For instance, as Renfield sits on his bed at night, weeping at his torment, the window bars cast strangely angled shadows over the walls and partially obscure his face.

Here, the jagged shadows not only stress Renfield’s physical entrapment, but also act as a visual representation of the mental, moral maze that troubles him.

The lurid, crooked look of this scene harkens back to The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, another aesthetic product of WWI. However, unlike the extreme abstraction of CaligariDracula takes place in plausible settings. By casting disquieting shadows from a pretty believable sanatorium room, Browning disturbingly melds reality and the harrowing textures of madness.

I’d also point out that of the first times we see Renfield in his “lunatic” state, he’s in a trench-like space: the hold of the wrecked ship, from which he is the sole survivor.

Likewise, I consider it important that Renfield emerges as a deranged, yet lucid and sympathetic figure.

He’s not just a standard movie maniac: his “fits” arise from his profound spiritual and moral fears. Indeed, the bitter contradictions of Renfield’s existence parallel the psychological conditions that drove many WWI soldiers to crippling despair. Both find themselves forced to kill or to become complicit in killing in order to live, according to the will of an unassailable authority.

Renfield, like any soldier, must make a kind of doomed bargain. Consequently, he’s forced to abandon his ethics (his intrinsic goodness and his desire to do no harm) in order to maintain a half-life of slavery and regret. We sense the constant pressure he’s under: if he plays an accomplice to Dracula, he must contend with crippling guilt. If he lets his humanity win, Dracula will kill him. Damned if he does, dead if he doesn’t.

Browning’s camera carefully suggests this awful double-bind. When he enters a scene, Reinfield’s movements often provide a motive for destabilizing camera activity. For instance, when Renfield attempts to warn Van Helsing of Dracula’s plans, the Master, in bat form, flies towards the inmate. The camera implacably tracks in, emphasizing Renfield’s trapped situation. Renfield frantically declares his allegiance to Dracula to avoid punishment and we sense his dark, rankling pain and terror.

Therefore, as a young man tragically struck down by madness, physically trapped, and mentally torn between obligation and conscience, the Renfield of the 1931 version Dracula constitutes a modern creation quite separate from Stoker’s novel. Frye’s Renfield is, I’d argue, a legacy of World War I.

Although one might assume that by the onset of the Great Depression, the prevalence of the “shell shock” phenomenon would have subsided, both in their effects on veterans and in the minds of the public, war neuroses continued to linger on the edges of the society. Stunningly, even in 1942, over a decade after the release of Dracula and over two decades after the Treaty of Versailles, the majority of men living in American veterans’ homes had been afflicted with some kind of “neuropsychiatric” trauma as a result of their service in WWI.

Renfield (bottom center), dwarfed by Dracula’s enormous castle. 

These statistics not only demonstrate the widespread mental cost of the conflict on direct witnesses, but also suggest the extent to which questions of insanity, psychological disorders, and institutionalization intruded into the consciousness of American civilians. I suspect that a fair number of viewers would have thought of a shell shock victim they knew, while watching Dracula.

Whether knowingly or unintentionally, Dracula, acted as an outlet for exploring the incidence of shellshock that continued to threaten and challenge the public.

The pathos that Frye and Browning brought to Renfield deserves to be recognized, for the character’s suffering mirrors the real agony of those many soldiers who attended the ultimate horror show of all time. Like Renfield, they witnessed something so unprecedented that it broke many minds to pieces—and left them all scarred in some form. It’s not a spectacle any of us wants to see, but it is one that we all ought to remember.


Sources and Resources:

Mank, Gregory, James Coughlin, and Dwight D. Frye. Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh. Fredericksburg: Sheridan Books, 1997.

Prawer, Siegbert. Caligari’s Children. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Skal, David. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004.

Universal Horror. Dir. Brownlow, Kevin. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Forest Ackerman, Turhan Bey, and Fay Wray. 1998. Universal, 2006.

Van der Hart, Onno, Annemieke van Dijke, et al. “Somatoform Dissociation in Traumatized World War I Combat Soldiers: A Neglected Clinical Heritage”. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. Vol. I (4), 2000.