May 3, 2011

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In a bit of home video serendipity, the films Fritz Lang made in Hollywood and Germany from 1956 – 1959 were all recently released on DVD. The Warner Archive put out re-mastered versions of his last two Hollywood films While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), while the UK Masters of Cinema label produced a luminous edition of his two-part Indian epic, The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) and The Indian Tomb (1959). All four films snare their main characters in webs of malevolent fate. The first two pin their characters inside geometrically arranged compositions, granted the illusion of motion in a world constantly boxing them in. This is garishly illustrated in the Indian Epic, as seen above, with elaborate imagery of imprisonment emerging from the set design. They use strikingly different methods to pursue similar ideas of fate and desire, from threadbare pulp to embroidered imperialist myth.

After the financial failure of the astonishing Moonfleet (1954), which had his highest Hollywood budget at $1.9 million,  Lang was finding it difficult to attract studios’ attention. So when producer Bert Friedlob offered him a modest two-picture deal with distribution through RKO, he accepted. The two titles were prepared simultaneously, according to Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, and the director split his time between the screenplays – working with Casey Robinson on While the City Sleeps and Douglas Morrow on Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Both were shot in SuperScope, and the Warner Archive is releasing them in a 2:1 aspect ratio, which looks just about right to me.

Both plots contain what Tom Gunning called “a double goal, in which the main action the characters undertake is given a double motivation by an authority figure.” For While the City Sleeps, the main plot follows a serial killer, in which the sexually repressed mama’s boy Robert Manners (John Drew Barrymore) is tracked down by the investigative reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews). The double goal is given by the petty new newspaper owner Walter Kyne (Vincent Price), who dangles a new executive manager position to whomever can crack the case. The reporters’ betrayals and insane drive to scoop the story often overshadow the killer plot, and seem almost more inhuman.

In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the Dana Andrews character Tom Garrett is on trial for murder. The shadow story is that his former news editor Austin Spencer hatched a plan to manufacture circumstantial evidence for the trail, in order to get a conviction. Once convicted, Spencer would reveal the ruse, proving that innocent people could be condemned to death without a smoking gun.  As Gunning writes, in his indispensable study The Films of Fritz Lang, “in both cases suspenseful stories of crime and punishment are framed within journalistic investigations.” Both films interrogate their own premises through these creator figures that, like Lang, initiate stories they soon discover they don’t have control of.

Walter Kyne, played with an oily buffoonery by Vincent Price, inherits the company after his father’s untimely demise. Clearly a pampered, narcisstic creature, he promptly chooses to use the newspaper as his own private penny dreadful theater, siccing the reporters against each other in his perverted “contest”. Lang sets out the space of the office as entirely open and visible – everyone can see each other’s performances at all times. In an early sequence the manager of the wire service, Mark Loving (George Sanders) is seen whispering into his secretary’s ear. They are framed in a glass window as if on television, and Mobley is watching them from across the room. He calls her to break it up. Everyone is the center of their own panopticon, everyone in the office having the all-seeing powers of a previous Lang mastermind like Dr. Mabuse.

As the reporters race around to save their future inside these all-public spaces, the killer Manners still stalks the streets. Mobley lures him into town with a baiting television broadcast – the televisual as another kind of all-seeing eye boring into even the psycho’s shabby apartment. Let out into the open, Manners stalks Mobley, and stumbles into another space of hyper-visibility, the bar down the street. Stumbling downstairs, he finds the ace investigative reporter and TV personality canoodling with the woman’s advice columnist Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino). Even the killer cannot escape this public theater that Kyne has introduced.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt flattens the theatrical world of While the City Sleeps into strips of men standing next to walls. Where there was depth in the newspaper office, here there is nothing but static two and three-shots, everything pushed close to the foreground of the frame. It is so pared down it amounts to the characters simply standing and telling the story to the camera, as in the modernist distancing of Manoel de Oliveira’s Francisca, in which his characters stare at the camera and read the dialogue from Agustina Bessa-Luís’s 1979 novel Fanny Owen. Jacques Rivette saw something similar in his review of the film for Cahiers du Cinema in 1957:

The first point that strikes the unsuspecting spectator, a few minutes into the film, is the diagrammatic, or rather expository aspect instantly assumed by the unfolding of the images: as though what we were watching were less the mise en scene of a script than simply the reading of the script, presented to us just as it is, without embellishment.

[…] No concession is made here to the everyday, to detail: no remarks about the weather, the cut of a dress, the graciousness of a gesture; if one does become aware of a brand of make-up, it is for purposes of plot. We are plunged into a world of necessity…

This world of necessity was partly brought about by the low budgets Lang was working with, but he turned that to his thematic advantage, the spartan set decoration and limited set-ups illustrating the mechanics of the crime thriller itself. The editor and writer are shown planting evidence and documenting the planting of this evidence, authoring their own crime movie in the middle of a crime movie. Eventually they get caught in the machinery of their construction, and the brutal ending shows a man lost inside of his own story.

Where Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is spartan, the “Indian Epic” is overstuffed, a lavish spectacle that is beloved (and screened) at the same level as It’s a Wonderful Life in Germany, according to this article in Rouge (Lang’s is the third version of the film. He was slated to direct the first version in 1921, scripted by his future beau Thea Von Harbou, but producer Joe May took the reins instead to great success. Tom Gunning has written an exemplary essay that includes all this and more in the Masters of Cinema set). A German architect named Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid) is contracted to expand the made-up fortress city of Eschnapur in India. He soon falls in love with the religious dancer Seetha (Debra Paget), whom the Crown Prince Chandra (Walter Reyer) is madly in lust with. This love triangle pulsates for over three hours in various permutations of escape and capture.

As a representation of India, the movies are ridiculous, a hodgepodge of sparkly costumes and wild misrepresentations of religious ceremonies. But as a lesson in how visual style can convey inner tensions, it’s rather wonderful. It begins in the set design of Willy Schatz, who helped create the never-ending web imagery that will snare every character in turn. In one telling sequence, Seetha has been corralled by the Prince into one of his chambers. She is kneeling in front of a gold cage, the imagery more than obvious. But the next cut is to the Prince leering through one of the web-like grates in the wall, looking more imprisoned than Seetha, who is situated outside the cage. But the Prince is tied by heredity to this intricately designed fortress-mansion, and is doomed to love a woman who will never love him back.

These set patterns weave their way throughout the film, with geometric shapes filling the space behind the Prince’s head during Berger’s arrival, a real cobweb that hides a fleeing Berger and Seetha, and the high-angle shots which turn regular courtyards into clashes of giant rectangles. The fortress contains prisons within prisons, until Berger is stashed below the surface of the mansion, in a deep well in a network of catacombs located beneath the mansion. The space envelops everybody, rendering them mute and impotent against their implacable fate. The happy ending involves another escape, but since the film is based on a cyclical rhythm of freedom and capture, perhaps Lang just elided their eventual return to this venus fly trap of cities, which wraps the characters in its vise-grip jaws, never letting them go.


September 14, 2010


Before I start this week’s blather, I wanted to acknowledge the passing of the great Claude Chabrol at the age of 80. Dave Kehr’s NY Times obituary is here, the AP’s is here, and David Hudson has an exhaustive collection of links at MUBI. His filmography is massive (near 70 titles), and I’ve barely made a dent, but from what I’ve seen his impish deconstruction of bourgeois morality is a joy to watch. I saw La Ceremonie for the first time this year (Jonathan Rosenbaum re-posted his review of the film today), and its perfectly controlled, distanced cinematography masks a wholly degraded moral universe. He unveils hypocrisy with every cut, making films you peer underneath with trepidation. And through it all he’s a supremely funny guy – just check out his bumptiously perverse turn in Sam Fuller’s Thieves After Dark. Now it’s time to watch more…

Next Monday, September 20th, TCM is airing a 24-hour marathon of restorations performed by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. I’d recommend the entire block, from The Exiles through Killer of Sheep, but today I’m focusing on Fritz Lang’s 1948 curiosity Secret Beyond the Door. An unmitigated disaster at the box office, it led to the dissolution of his production company (Diana Productions), which he had established with Joan Bennett and Walter Wanger. Their short-lived success on Scarlet Street ended in back-biting and recriminations after Secret tanked. And yet it is one of Lang’s most beautiful films, shot by Stanley Cortez in sharply angled shadows.

Lang was against hiring Cortez, as Patrick McGilligan writes in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. He wanted to work with Milton Krasner again, who shot Scarlet Street, but the scriptwriting process dragged on, and Krasner took another job. Cortez was under contract to Wanger, and having already shot the atmospheric interiors of The Magnificent Ambersons, seemed to be an inspired choice for this very architectural film. But Lang clashed with him immediately, as Welles did on Ambersons, complaining about his slowness in setting up shots.  Regardless of their personal relationship, the results on-screen are mesmerizing. It is a film of shadows in corridors, with Joan Bennett etched into narrow enclosures, endlessly searching for masked entrances and exits. The film is made up of these portals, which open into Bennett’s psyche (displayed in repeated shots of mirrors) and her neurotic husband Mark’s (symbolized by a locked door).

As Tom Gunning details in his essential study, The Films of Fritz LangSecret arrived in the middle of a series of Gothic women’s dramas kicked off by Hitchock’s Rebecca (1940). The introduction of Freudian elements was also common. Gunning: “Using Freudian themes as new plot enigmas and as an excuse for dream sequences with Expressionistic or surrealistic visual elements were aspects the popular women’s film and the new art house fare shared in such films as John Brahms’ The Locket of 1946, the British The Seventh Veil of 1947; or most influential of all, Hitchcock’s 1943 SpellboundSecret is firmly in this tradition.”

The script by Sylvia Richards (adapted from a serial in Redbook by Rufus T. King) tells the dream-like tale of Celia(Joan Bennett), who falls in love with the quixotic architect Mark Lamphere. They quickly marry after an intense flirtation in Mexico, and Celia soon discovers that Mark was previously hitched, and has an erudite, distant son named David. David accuses Mark of killing his mother, and Celia soon suspects that she could be next.

It is heavily influenced by Rebecca and Spellbound, and fails to match those films on a narrative level. The motivations of the supporting characters in Mark’s imposing household are never clearly mapped out, and the psychoanalytical interrogation of Mark is reduced to, as Gunning says, “simply a matter of clearing up false impressions.” Reveal the repressed memory, and Mark will be healed. This is pop-psychoanalysis, but if one is able to separate the images from the overwrought plot mechanics, it is hypnotic, troubling work. The visuals tell the story of Bennett gaining control over her own consciousness, as Gunning convincingly argues. This is traced to the use of voice-over, one of the major bones of contention in post-production work on the film.

Lang originally recorded Bennett’s voice-over with a different actress, intending to convey the idea that one’s unconscious is a completely different person. As relationships broke down after shooting ended, Wanger and Bennett (who were married at the time), decided to re-record the track with Bennett’s voice, making Lang’s film more conventional (this idea of representing a woman with two different actresses was later pulled off brilliantly in Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).

In any case, the voice-over is used repeatedly in the first 3/4 of the film, with Bennett intensely questioning Mark’s true feelings, as well as her own. It is a tentative, insecure and deeply neurotic voice. The disconnect she feels is visualized by Cortez and Lang through a series of shots in which Mark’s back is turned during conversations. It is his gestural defense against the intrusion that Celia’s love continually presents, a bulwark against female intrusion.

Her self-doubting voice-over stops, however,  when she finally breaks into Room No. 7, the locked door Mark would not allow anyone to enter (entering the Bluebeard fable as another major influence). Mark is a collector of “felicitous rooms”, in which he reconstructs the boudoirs of murders, using as many original elements as possible. He believes that there is something about the structure of these rooms, and their things, that pre-determined the murders, in all of which men kill women. For Mark, architecture is a bloody destiny, an attitude Lang is clearly sympathetic to (i.e., his obsessive mapping of imprisoning city blocks in M). Celia is initially attracted to this death-drive of his, as they first meet watching a bloody duel and exchange erotic gazes. That their dual psychological issues could be solved like a whodunit is silly, but the power of the images often transcends the flimsiness of the material. As Gunning wrote, “One might describe Secret Beyond the Door as the ruin of a great film, or the ruin of a great filmmaker. Through its collapse, structures are revealed that are more astonishing than the more structurally sound edifices of lesser filmmakers.”


August 11, 2009


On March 19th, 1953, Gloria Grahame was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful (1953). Production on Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) began two days earlier, according to TCMDB. Little did she know during this string of dizzying successes that a couple of French cineastes were busy defining her image in perpetuity. In 1955, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir americain was published, a landmark study of a particular strain in American filmmaking that previous French critics had coined “film noir”. The term wouldn’t break into common parlance in the U.S. until the 1970s, but it would come to define Gloria Grahame’s career.

Borde and Chaumeton declared  her the ideal femme fatale, one who intimated “cold calculation and sensuality” in her performances (for more on this book’s impact, check out James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts). She wielded her sly, cheshire-cat grin, nasal sing-song voice and girlish vanity as canny masks for her character’s various vices and insecurities. Her exuberant energy, almost anarchic at times, threatens to overwhelm the subtlety of her characterizations, and her unselfconscious sexuality made even the most sophisticated writer adopt the violent romanticism of a noir protagonist: Francois Truffaut wrote, “…as is the case of most of the Cahiers writers, the beautiful eyes of Gloria Grahame make you die of love….”, while academic Tom Gunning, in his magisterial Films of Fritz Lang, can’t help but add an aside that Grahame’s ability to make a fur coat swish “is one of the few arguments against animal rights activists.”

Along with Crossfire (1947) and In a Lonely Place (1950), The Big Heat is the defining film noir role of her career, and she delivers an astonishing performance. The Big Heat was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post. The script was written by Sydney Boehm before Lang was officially hired on to the project in mid-February of 1953. Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan notes that Boehm was a police reporter on the New York Evening Journal, and that “his specialty was crime…”. The script he delivered was a spare, unflinching tale of corruption, that which kills the wife of Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford), and leads to his vigilante-like quest to take down Mike Lagana’s (Alexander Scourby) crime syndicate. Gloria Grahame plays Debby Marsh, the mistress to Lagana’s right-hand man, Vince Stone (a lip-trembling Lee Marvin).It’s a perfect scenario for Lang’s continued emphasis on systemic evils and unchangeable destiny (think Mabuse or You Only Live Once), and it results in one of his darkest, richest films (read the Gunning for an in-depth investigation of its formal and thematic strategies).

Lang’s perfectionist tendencies on set were notoriously difficult on actors, and there are very strong indications that he and Grahame did not get along. McGilligan says vaguely that there was “friction”, and in an interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg about the film, Lang says, “…and there’s a whole story about Gloria Grahame and the picture I’d rather not discuss.” Which says all that needs to be said. Grahame was reputedly a “spitfire”, and Lang probably spat back. Regardless of their working relationship, their mutual genius is up there on the screen, and Grahame’s Debby Marsh is a marvelous creation, a girlish exterior hiding a sardonic sense of humor as well as a weary cynicism. When Bannion self-righteously asks her where her money comes from, Marsh replies, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – believe me, rich is better.” This depressing realist comes out later in the film.

Graham enters the story lolling on the couch, answering the phone for Stone with mock sincerity, telling him “His Highness” Lagana is on the line, before strolling over to the mirror to check on her makeup. She exudes teenage rebelliousness and vanity, except her wit has more sting than your normal brat. Her burlesque of Stone’s relationship with Lagana reaches an absurd pitch when she starts singing a little ditty comparing Lagana to a lion tamer as she shuffles off to mix cocktails, indicating how “whipped” Stone really is, despite all his bravado. Grahame’s perky subversiveness gives Marsh select moments of independence, even if Stone doesn’t always pay attention to her jokes: “When Vince talks business I get my legs waxed”. She takes refuge from her life in humor and her physical appearance, which is the only way she can gain power in this sexist society. It is only after Bannion stands up to Stone that Marsh dallies with escaping her kept lifestyle.

After following the scarily stoic Bannion to his hotel room, Marsh opens up about her transcendent unhappiness. Grahame’s sexual invitation, as she composes herself on the bed, all shaded eyes and perfect posture, is duly swatted away by the detective. It is this flirtatious crime that leads to the Marsh’s famous scarring – a close-up of a bubbling coffee pot and an off-screen scream is all it takes for that scene of improbable violence to be inflicted by Lee Marvin. As Gunning notes, after this scarring Marsh avoids mirrors and acts as Bannion’s id, committing the murder he’s unable to. Meeting up with the scheming widow who is extorting from Lagana, and who holds the evidence to the syndicate’s downfall, Grahame greets her with the wonderfully sarcastic line, “We’re sisters under the mink”, as they face each other in matching furs. Marsh’s decadence is now ironic, another punchline, but this time in service of her redemption – and she goes on to return the coffee (see right).

McGilligan notes that the box office returns were “average” and the reviews “fair”, but Columbia Pictures were satisfied enough with the result to sanction a re-teaming of Ford and Grahame in Human Desire the next year, an adaptation of Emile Zola’s La Bete Humaine (filmed by Jean Renoir in 1938 – Lang had already remade Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) as Scarlett Street (1945)). The Zola novel would have been rich material for Lang, with the central character a mentally unstable “sex killer” in a world self-destructing around him. This being 1953 Hollywood, however, this subject would never be approved for production. So, as Lang told Peter Bogdanovich:

“In an American movie, you cannot make the hero a sex killer. Impossible. So Glenn Ford has to play it, you know, like a Li’l Abner coming back from Korea-100 percent red-blooded American with very natural sex feelings-if such a thing exists.”

This project was totally a contract job, but Lang had held out hope that he could land Peter Lorre as the lead, and perhaps coax a darker performance out of the material. Unfortunately, Lorre declined, and Glenn Ford stepped in to an impossible task – to portray a straight-laced aw-shucks American in a story of sexual obsession and death. His performance is incongruous and jarring. Lang’s visual mastery is in full force, though, with a wordless opening consisting of the cold geometry of train tracks, indicating the web of fate he’ll soon be caught in. It’s a film to savor for it’s purely plastic virtues, as producer Jerry Wald drove the final stake into its narrative conception:

…one day he called us [Lang and Alfred Hayes] in and said, “You are both wrong.” I said, “What have we done this time, Jerry?” He said, “Look. This is called La Bete Humaine, the human beast. But everybody is bad in your picture. ” “Naturally, because Zola wanted to show that in every human being is a beast.” He said, “You both don’t understand it. The woman is the human beast.” What can you do against the producer?

Glenn Ford plays Jeff Warren, a clean-cut soldier returning from the Korean War. He’s seduced by Gloria Grahame’s Vicki, who is chained to her drunken, murderous husband Carl Buckley  (Broderick Crawford), who’s eager to pin a death on her. Vicki attempts to seduce Warren so he’ll knock off Buckley and end her virtual imprisonment.

Gloria Grahame does not add the electricity of her turn in The Big Heat, but opts for a more reserved and maudlin tone, emphasizing Vicki’s opacity and unreadability, perhaps in an attempt to undercut Wald’s misogynist reading of Zola’s book. She is an enigma to Warren and to the audience, her character’s perversity kept in check until the final reels, where her proof of love, and proof of sexual attraction, is to kill.

I don’t like to emphasize the ghoulish backstory of Grahame’s life, but at this point in her career  her obsession with plastic surgery started to affect her performances. Her upper lip, the subject of multiple rumored procedures, looks almost paralyzed, and it alters her speech. She still receives a grand introduction, though, lazing about the premises, and then showing off her new stockings to a preoccupied Crawford. Despite her physical incapacity and the limits of the material, Grahame delivers moments of subtle beauty, including her final, incantatory pitch for true love (which she equals with Crawford’s death). Even when Lang and Grahame are working with subpar material, their intelligence finds it’s way on-screen. It was received rapturously by Cahiers (which Lang was always surprised by), and it inspired one of Andrew Sarris’ finest pieces of writing:

Where Renoir’s The Human Beast is the tragedy of a doomed man caught up in the flow of life, Lang’s remake, Human Desire, is the nightmare of an innocent man enmeshed in the tangled strands of fate. What we remember in Renoir are the faces of Gabin, Simon, and Ledoux. What we remember in Lang are the geometrical patterns of trains, tracks and fateful camera angles. If Renoir is humanism, Lang is determinism. if Renor is concerned with the plight of his characters, Lang is obsessed with the structure of the trap.

In any case, viva Gloria Grahame, quintessential noir actress and so much more, an artist of whirring energy and sensuality, who was able to transform her girlish charm into characters dangerous, wounded, and majestically alive.