July 20, 2010

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“Do you miss it – directing?

-I miss it only when I see things on the screen that make me want to vomit.”

Peter Bogdanovich interviewing Joseph H. Lewis, Who the Devil Made It

I should let this magical quote stand on its own, but I’m a writer, so I’ll write.  Last week, TCM devoted a night to the films of Joseph H. Lewis, including some rare items surrounding his acknowledged masterpiece, Gun Crazy (1950). The tastiest morsel was So Dark the Night (1946) (made soon after the modest success of the equally awesome, but better known, My Name is Julia Ross (1945)). A rural psychological thriller, it’s an extreme example of Lewis’ idiosyncratic visual sense (the son of a NYC optometrist, he grew up with lenses). As he went on to tell Bogdanovich:  “What interested me most was telling the story through the eyes of a camera. I didn’t like words – wherever I could, I cut words out, and told it silently through the camera.”

So Dark the Night is structured around his silent, highly expressive storytelling (major spoilers ahead!). Famed Paris detective Henri Cassin (Steven Geray) takes a break from sleuthing to soak in the rustic charms of the country town of St. Margot. He’s welcomed as a celebrity by the Michaud family, who operate the inn he’s vacationing at. Daughter Nanette (Micheline Cheirel), with dreams of city life, begins flapping her eyelashes in his general direction. Lewis first frames her as a pair of hands fidgeting with a sheet on a laundry line, who then pulls down to reveal her eyes and arched brows. Then she scoots to the right, her beaming mug filling half the frame (with a limited budget for sets, Lewis is big on close-ups). Cassin was also bifurcated upon introduction, shot from the legs down as he strolls around an idyllic urban street. His full body isn’t shown until he kneels to chat with a shoeshine boy. Both are visually split, a motif that continues throughout, and which pays off thematically in the bravura twist ending.

But back to the flirtation. Cassin returns her interested gaze in a medium shot, Nanette reciprocates, and then Lewis cuts to a montage of the detective’s chrome car. There are close-ups of the bulbous headlights, the erect front grille, the sloped handle, and the ornate hubcap – a burst of pure visual metaphor that is shocking in the context of a Hollywood thriller. Cassin is reduced by Nanette into images of luxury, industry, sex…as well as escape.

The sequence continues with an extraordinary tracking shot, following Cassin as he traverses Nanette’s gaze and crosses into the inn itself. Jean-Pierre Coursodon rhapsodizes about this shot in his (out of print) AMERICAN DIRECTORS. He translated this bit himself in the comments section of

“The camera moves across the courtyard, reaches the corner of the house, and continues tracking inside the inn’s main room without a cut, as though it had moved in right through an invisible wall. By removing the fourth wall — in deliberate disregard of realism — Lewis suggests that, together with the protagonist, , we are entering a stage upon which a drama will soon be enacted…”

In this one scene, Lewis sets up the central romance, undercuts said romance with images of division and materialism, and displays a self-reflexive theatricality that foreshadows the action to come. This, my dear readers, is masterful filmmaking.

Soon the plot machinations do their work, and Cassin has two corpses on his hands in a seemingly unsolvable case. Through it all, Nanette is repeatedly composed inside the inn’s window frame, and Cassin is seen cut-up behind his bed’s headboard. There is also some balletic action with push-ins and pull-outs, with the camera repeatedly pulling away from Cassin, and moving forward to Nanette’s boyfriend, who’s eager to quash the detective’s amorous dreams. Not to mention his ominous use of downward tilts, which reveal a third dead body and a knocked out guard in succession (which rhyme with Cassin’s initial bow down to the street urchin).

All of it effortlessly builds up to the moment when Cassin solves the case – and implicates himself as the only possible suspect, despite lacking any memory of the crime. He is, of course, schizophrenic, hence the dense visual patterns that sliced him up. The extraodinary final images explode the cataract of split compositions that Lewis had been creating throughout, as Cassin is shot by the police through the pane of glass that previously showed Nanette whole. He staggers up to the pane, and in the reflection sees a flashback of himself as he existed before the murders. With a fireplace poker he smashes the whole edifice down, and with it the motifs Lewis had been building the whole film. Coursodon reads even more into it:

“the climactic scene in which the the protagonist eradicates both his reflection and the recalled image of his former self by smashing the window in a gesture of revulsion [recalls] Oedipus’ blinding of himself after finding out the truth.”

This mythical interpretation of Cassin’s final act gibes with Coursodon’s reading of the tracking shot as announcing a theatrical space.  Cassin’s extreme rationality solves the case, but destroys his life. His final words: “I caught him, I killed him” are a kind of perverse triumph of the mind over its own physical limitations. And no-one got more delight, or more success, out of creatively overcoming the limitations of low budgets than the self-described “artist without a diploma”, Mr. Joseph H. Lewis.

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