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.”


April 27, 2010


While the TCM Classic Film Festival was wrapping up out in L.A., I was pursuing my own personal Jean Renoir festival back in NYC. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is currently exhibiting a must-see retrospective that will hopefully tour a city near you. My personal highlight of the series so far is The Woman on the Beach, his last production in Hollywood, and by far his strangest, a somnabulist’s vision of a violent love triangle.  Its peculiar, almost abstracted plot was aided by extensive re-shoots after a disastrous preview screening, which trimmed out the exposition, leaving only the trio of lovers’ impulsive, and occasionally inexplicable actions.  Renoir had already pushed the visuals  in an oneiric direction, foggy, emptied-out landscapes of hollowed-out hulls and vertiginous cliffs. He even challenged his sound man to record the dialogue at an unusually low level, to emphasize the characters’ loneliness.

The pared-down result of the studio interference then, actually reinforces Renoir’s stylistic choices, and quite possibly made it a better film. This is exactly what Janet Bergstrom argues in her superb production history: “Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the Beach”, which she published in the Film History journal in 1999. It is my main source for this post.

The story concerns a shell-shocked Navy vet, Scott (Robert Ryan), whose recurring nightmares of being torpedoed keep him in a constant state of anxiety. Attempting to banish these neuroses, he quickly proposes to his girlfriend Eve (Nan Leslie). After her skittish response, in which she is clearly shaken by his unhinged intensity, Scott begins a flirtation with Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett), who has been scarred by violence in her own manner. During a fight with her husband Tod (Charles Bickford), a painter, she accidently severed his optic nerve, blinding him for life. Bonding over their mutual traumas, they engage in a furtive affair, while Scott still manages a combative friendship with Tod. Ultimately driven to the brink of madness by their insecurities, Scott and Tod come into conflict…

Renoir recognized the strangeness of his conception of this film, describing it as “the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between Nosferatu and Caligari.” And emphasizing that its “subject was the opposite of everything I had been working toward in the cinema up to that point.” He went on:

The Woman on the Beach was a perfect theme for treating the drama of isolation. Its simplicity made all kinds of development possible. The actions of the three principal characters were wholly stripped of colourful detai; they took place in empty landscapes and in a perfectly abstract style…In all my previous films I had tried to depict the bonds uniting the individual to his environment…now I was embarked on a study of persons whose sole idea was to close the door on that absolutely concrete phenomenon which we call life.”

Renoir closes this door when he uses a dream sequence to introduce Robert Ryan. He begins as a nightmare. With the strains of “Home on the Range” ironically cooing in the background, Ryan imagines himself on a ship – followed by a massive explosion. He sinks to what looks like the bottom of an aquarium, where Eve is waiting for him in an evening gown with open arms. Right before he embraces her, there is another explosion. His war experiences are explicitly blocking him from a life with Eve, and dooming him to one of apparitions and hallucinations. He is like the character of Cesar from Caligari, motoring through his inexplicable deeds without a will of his own.

So when he begins to obsess that Tod is lying about his blindness, or insist upon a fishing trip in a rainstorm, he is operating solely on his unconscious drives – the neuroses engendered from battle. Peggy is on a similar path, wracked with guilt over stealing her lovers’ sight, and destroying his successful career as a painter. She is filled with hate for herself and with Tod, which can exhibit itself in improbably nurturing ways. As always with Renoir, “everyone has their reasons”, and it’s impossible to pin any of the characters down as the villain. All show flashes of sympathy and rage – Peggy snuggling on the couch with Tod, reminiscing about their youthful days in NYC, or Scott snapping from protective lover to vengeful cuckold. All three actors are fascinating to watch, and Renoir carefully balances their power relations in his fluid compositions [the most explicit is the interior boat shot above, where Scott and Peggy embrace inside while Tod is isolated in a separate plane outside the porthole].

Ryan is earnest and bereft, all-too-aware of his crumbling psyche and his inability to heal it. He has a seaman’s bearing that bends under the weight of the Butler household’s demands. Bickford is prickly and condescending as Tod, a bellowing ironist with an uneasy gait, his vast array of ascots unable to hold back the bile he irresistibly spews, mainly at his wife, who he delights in harming. Bennett is enigmatic and cold, her love of Tod turned to hate, but who still recognizes its original provenance. She shares her husband’s sarcasm and cynicism, but stays in the marriage because of an unshakable nostalgia and loyalty. With her melancholy eyes mixing pity and desperation, she casts the most elusive portrait of the three. Bennet was the one who demanded Renoir direct the film, after producer Val Lewton recommended Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise, among others. She remained steadfast.

The film was first finished on July 1946, and a preview screening took place on August 2. The reaction was so negative that major revisions took place. The second version of the film was not released until June 8, 1947. Early in the pre-production process, the Production Code Adminstration (PCA) demanded the removal of any explicit reference to a “sex affair between Peggy and Scott and to omit any of the passionate kisses indicated in the present story.” Renoir reluctantly obliged. As Bergstrom notes:

“when ‘human desire’, as Lang would call it in his 1953 remake of La Bete Humaine, could not be acknowledged as the dominant theme, Scott’s neurosis because of his war experiences had to carry much more weight in his abrupt turn from the stability of his life with Eve toward his unsettling, moth-to-the-flame meetings with Peggy and Tod.”

Along with this repression of the sexual theme, Renoir dropped some boilerplate sub-plots that turned Peggy into a generic femme fatale.

Following some re-editing,  RKO solicited suggestions from other directors. John Huston “recommended that the film tell one story and that Scott’s neurosis should be eliminated.” Mark Robson advised “going back to Renoir’s original version because the film as it now exists is too confusing and choppy to make much sense.” Neither suggestion was agreeable to the studio, so RKO hired writer Frank Davis to re-work some scenes, beginning on September 23, 1946. Renoir greeted him with hope: “I have found my ideal collaborator.”

With Davis, a great deal of footage was re-shot. Renoir tells Pierre Lestringuez that it was nearly half the film. Nine years later he told Rivette and Truffaut that it was a third of the film, “essentially the scenes between Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan.” For unknown reasons, they also re-cast the role of Eve, replacing Virginia Huston with Nan Leslie, necessitating re-shoots for all of those scenes as well. It was a laborious and inevitably annoying process, but one with curiously positive results. As Bergstrom writes, and I agree, the film becomes almost Langian in its determinism and sparseness, rare for Renoir, but an appropriate reflection of his alienation from the studio system at this time. What was originally going to be a routine melodrama of sex and death becomes something more mysterious, where a trio of damaged lovers work out their unconscious drives on-screen, turning it into a  bewitching kind of trance film.

The Woman on the Beach is available in a Region 2 DVD from the French company Editions Montparnasse. Glenn Kenny reviews the disc here.


March 10, 2009

me-and-my-gal-1932-foxMy heart flutters as I begin my first week here at Movie Morlocks. I’ll need time to settle into my new Tuesday digs before I can work out any cinephilic kinks, so please forgive my youthful enthusiasms and wild hyperbole. I’ll settle down eventually, but not quite yet.

Let’s get the introduction out of the way. By general life expectancy standards, I’m young, so the current economic crisis hasn’t destroyed my non-existent wealth. Any previous possibility of easy living was scuttled by my decision to attend NYU to study cinema. Bad move! Now destitute, my only solace is the moving image and the multifarious pleasures it brings. That’s what I’ll be writing about here, hopefully in a lucid and engaging manner.

Speaking of economic devastation, Film Forum in NYC has recently concluded a wonderful series of Depression-era films entitled “Breadlines & Champagne.” An eclectic mix of social-realist dramas, high-society screwball comedies, and gangster operatics, it was a revelatory peek into the incredible richness and diversity of the films from that early sound, pre-code period. I received the greatest kick from Raoul Walsh’s unclassifiable 1932 experimental gangster- romantic comedy, Me and My Gal.

I initially sought it out because it was a particular favorite of Manny Farber, the brilliant painter and film critic who passed away last year. He has an essay on Raoul Walsh in his invaluable collection, Negative Space, in which he names Me and My Gal as his favorite Walsh film:

“The movie has a double nature, looking exactly like 1931 just after the invention of sound, and one that has queer passages that pop out of the storyline, foreshadowing the technical effects of 60′s films. These quirky inclusions, the unconscious oddities of a director with an unquestioning belief in genre who keeps breaking out of its boundaries, seem timeless and suggest a five-cent movie with mysterious depth.”

It is this “breaking out” that makes Gal so remarkable, a mash-up of styles and attitudes that never condescends to its material but wrings every possible variation out of it. The plot follows Spencer Tracy’s police officer, Danny Dolan, on the beat at New York’s Pier 13, as he woos waitress Helen Riley (Joan Bennett) while searching for escaped mobster Duke Castenega (George Walsh, Raoul’s brother). Duke is holed up with Helen’s sister Kate, and Dolan attempts to bring him in without destroying the family. It’s a fairly routine plot, lifted from a segment of the 1920 Fox film While New York Sleeps. The project went through a variety of hands before it landed with Walsh, having been previously attached to William K. Howard, Alfred Werker, and Marcel Varnel. According to the AFI reference book “Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films 1911 – 1960″, Walsh shot the film in a scant nineteen days, and he doesn’t even mention it in his rakish autobiography, Each Man In His Time.

Perhaps it’s the speed of the schedule that led to its inventive, magpie spirit. Plenty of material needed to be created on the spot (there was obviously little pre-production time), and the film is flooded with ideas (some borrowed, some new) – ideas for pratfalls, camera movements, parodies. The movie contains direct addresses to the camera (by a tight J. Farrell MacDonald), self-reflexive voice-overs, and endless bits of comic business, from Will Stanton’s drunk act to the stinging bon mots flung from Bennett to Tracy.

This was cinematographer Arthur Miller’s first job at Fox, which would eventually lead to his magnificent work with John Ford. In an interview with Leonard Maltin, he discusses a trick shot composed during a robbery sequence:

I had the camera on a rubber-tire dolly, and just hit it. Now, this wasn’t original, because I had seen the earthquake picture over at the Chinese theater, and I saw what effect it gave. That’s what they did all through it; you’d hear the rumble first, everything would start to shimmy, and then it would hit. They rolled their dolly.

It’s this kind of innovative spirit, repurposing industrial tricks on a smaller, what Manny Farber would call a “termite” level, that animates this consistently surprising film. Another techniqe Walsh borrows is the interior monologue, which was used extensively in Robert Z. Leonard’s 1932 adaptation of Eugene O’ Neill’s Strange Interlude, in which the majority of the drama was enacted in voice-over. A curiosity and a flop, it made for rich parodic material. The scene that elicited the biggest laughs at the screening I attended (big, roiling guffaws), was a priceless ironic take on this technique. Dolan is on his first date with Helen, and they end up alone at her apartment, after she winks away her eager-to-please dad (MacDonald). Dolan mentions a film he’s seen, “Strange Inner Tube”, and caddishly lays his head on her lap. They slide down next to each other on the couch when the voice-overs start, each reflecting on their seduction techniques while uttering only banalities to each other. Eventually Dolan psyches himself up to go for the lips, and dives in for a kiss. He receives a smack in return, and their combative courting process proceeds apace.

It’s a wonderfully funny sequence, playfully mocking the staid “prestige” pictures that would receive the big studio push this cinematic mutt would not. What truly makes it sing, though, are the performances from Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett. Bennett is saucily obstinate, pursing her bow-tie lips before unleashing a cataract of insults. As for Tracy, well, he’s sublime, as is the rest of the cast, who spout a symphony of lower East Side argot that Walsh orchestrates with speed and brio. That’s one of the film’s major pleasures – it’s sense of place, which is another aspect Farber loved about it. He gets the last word:

It is only fleetingly a gangster film, not quite outrightly comic: it is really a portrait of a neighborhood, the feeling of human bonds in a guileless community, a lyrical approximation of Lower East Side and its uneducated, spirited stevedore-clerk-shopkeeper cast. There is psychological rightness in the scale relationships of actors to locale, and this, coupled with liberated acting, make an exhilarating poetry about a brash-cocky-exuberant provincial. Walsh, in this lunatically original, festive dance, is nothing less than a poet of the American immigrant.