June 30, 2015


When I have an empty afternoon to kill, I go to the movies.  This past Saturday my hours were filled to bursting with the “Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond” series at MoMA, which runs through August 5th. The way the schedule fell, my matinees were made up of MGM’s frothy swashbuckler Scaramouche (1952) and the kindly circus folk of 20th Century Fox’s Chad Hanna (1940), with the prime evening slot held by the dark, violent Universal-International Western, Apache Drums (1952). This is a series after my own heart, a 60+ feature cavalcade of movies classic and obscure from 1922 – 1955, all exhibited on film (a rarer and rarer pleasure). My random sampling spanned two decades, three genres, and a variety of approaches to Technicolor. Scaramouche is all gleaming candy colors — you are almost invited to go up and lick the screen. Chad Hanna and Apache Drums are more subdued in their palettes, both making use of darkness and chiaroscuro to capture folds in upstate New York circus tents and candlelight in a Southwestern church under siege, respectively.


Even in 1952, Scaramouche was something of a throwback. It is an adaptation of Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel, which had been adapted into a 1923 feature by Rex Ingram. Sabatini also provided the source material for Captain Blood (1924 and 1935), and it is the elegant ease of Errol Flynn’s ’35 swashbuckling that the film is trying to channel. It is resoundingly successful at doing so, a buoyant identity-swapping tale set in 18th century France, in which gentleman lover Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) gets on the wrong side of Queen Marie Antoinette (Nina Foch) because his pal Philippe is spreading pseudonymous pamphlets advocating revolution (Richard Anderson). Moreau is a dashing man on the run, and hides out with a Parisian commedia dell’arte troupe along with his sometime girlfriend Lenore (Eleanor Parker). Moreau also has his eyes on Aline (Janet Leigh, garbed in Easter egg pastels), who is set to marry the Queen’s cousin Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), a master swordsman and sadist who Moreau is hell-bent on extracting revenge from.


It all moves swiftly under George Sidney’s direction and Charles Rosher’s camera, who mount a number of rousing fight sequences. The capper is a near-7-minute bout inside of a crowded theater. Ferrer and Granger start on a balcony and parry down the lobby staircases and into the still-crowded seats, until they tumble through backstage matte paintings. The fight choreography is superb, and has been built up throughout. Ferrer is the more nimble, more experienced swordsman, and he uses his speed and intelligence to evade Granger’s clumsy lunges. Granger is built like a circus strongman, a double-barreled chest tottering over two spindly legs, while Ferrer moves like a dancer, the sword an extension of himself. All the seats and curtains are deep red, while Granger and Ferrer are costumed by Gile Steele in white and black. Ferrer is white hair/black vest/black pants, while Granger has black hair (with saucy ponytail) with white cape and white pants (with black trim). They are inverses of each other in a carpet of red.

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Granger spends the whole movie reining in his aggressiveness until the final duel in the middle of the stage, where he declines to deliver the fatal blow, gaining power in their relationship for the first time. The whole cast sparkles, especially the ferocious Eleanor Parker (a blonde in a gorgeous red wig, dressed in “hot” colors to contrast with Leigh’s cool pastels), who battles Granger up and down the commedia dell’arte stage. There are some wonderful pratfalls in the extended theatre sequences, which taught me the lesson that 18th century French comedy was closer to the Three Stooges than I ever imagined.


Chad Hanna (1940) is more expressly about a performing troupe, this time a traveling circus in upstate New York in the mid-to-late 1800s. It was adapted from the Walter D. Edmonds novel of the same name, and followed the fluctuating fortunes of the troupe as two runaways, Chad Hanna (Henry Fonda) and Caroline Tridd (Linda Darnell), find their way in the world of ballyhoo. This would be the third Edmonds adaptation that Fonda would star in, following The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935, based on the novel Rome Haul) and John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). It’s a strange little coming-of-age tale with lots of local color, as Fonda is supported by Guy Kibbee, Dorothy Lamour and John Carradine. I savor upstate New York town names like Canastota, the backwater town that Chad and Caroline join the circus to get away from. The film follows their tumble into love (and jealousies over Chad’s attraction to Dorothy Lamour’s bareback rider), battles against competing circus thugs, and the joys of owning an elephant. Shot in a nostalgic golden hue by Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan, faces are plucked out and framed like portraits in cameo necklaces, especially in the luminous close-ups of Darnell and Lamour. But Palmer and Rennahan also provide pockets of darkness. Where Scaramouche is entirely visible, Chad Hanna keeps some things hidden.

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Apache Drums (1951) is a troubling Western that is shot like a horror movie, where American nightmares emerge from the dark. It is the final film produced by Val Lewton, and exhibits his talent for wrenching scares on the cheap, along with his collaborators, director Hugo Fregonese and DP Charles P. Boyle. At the beginning an off-screen narrator states:  “The hunger wolf chews on our strengths. Soon the warriors will be too weak to fight. Then the white man will thrust us away from the earth, and only the empty sky will know the voices of the Mescalero.” Then the scene shifts to the New Mexico town of “Spanish Boot”, where strapping blonde mayor Joe Madden (Willard Parker) is cleaning out the disreputable elements. This means buying out the dance hall and giving card sharp Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) an ultimatum to get lost. But Leeds is a stubborn sort and in love with local waitress Sally (Coleen Gray). For the Whites in town the Apache tribe that lives outside their county lines is only a rumor, a spectre. But they are dying out there, starving to death, and in their desperation have started attacking stagecoaches running in and out of Spanish Boot, and are working their way towards the town itself. Much like Lewton’s monster movies  (The Leopard Man for one), the Apache are kept mostly offscreen, shown only as hands banging drums or arrows hitting burlap. This dehumanizes them, turns them into monsters. In the siege finale, with the villagers cowering inside a church, all the lights out except for a few candles, the Apache, in their war pain, appear out of the gloom like The Leopard Man or The Cat People. They are robbed of their individuality to become ghosts of a lost civilization. The final siege is oneiric, upsetting and unbearably suspenseful. Taking place almost entirely in the dark, with low-light outlining the square openings near the roof, the Apaches clamber through in waves, shot down by the dwindling villagers, made up of Leeds, Madden, a racist Reverend (Arthur Shields) and a sympathetic Lieutenant (James Griffith). It is a sequence of undeniable racism that acknowledges that racism, unspooling like America’s fever dream, trying to snuff out the unending army of its victims.


March 9, 2010

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In the flurry of interviews Martin Scorsese granted running up to the release of Shutter Island, he rattled off a long list of movies he screened for his cast, including Laura, Out of the Past, Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim. The first two were studied by DiCaprio and Ruffalo to look good in a rumpled suit (thanks to Dana Andrews and Robert Mitchum), while the last three, of course, were churned out by Val Lewton’s miraculous horror unit at RKO, a remarkable run of terror keyed off of the suggestion of violence rather than the blood and guts themselves. But the main wellspring of Scorsese’s recent box-office champ are two later Lewtons, which he also mentions: Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) [Spoilers abound below].

the-isle-of-the-dead-1886.jpg!LargeThe screengrab above is from an early shot of Isle of the Dead, a dead-ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio’s opening journey towards a ghostly island of his own in Shutter Island (the model for both of which is Arnold Böcklin’s series of “Isle of the Dead” paintings, the 1886 version is seen to the left). Greek General Pherides (Boris Karloff) and reporter Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) row over to a cemetery to lay flowers on the grave of Pherides’ wife. They discover an empty coffin, and stumble upon the bizarre household presided over by Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.), an archaeologist who ordered peasants to go grave robbing. Now repentant, he lives on the island and offers shelter for any lonely wanderers. Then one of the guests dies of the plague, and Pherides and Davis are stuck quarantined inside, along with superstitious maid Kyra (Helen Thimig), consumptive wife Mary (Katherine Emery), her young nurse Thea (Ellen Drew) and stuffy husband Aubyn (Alan Napier).

Karloff’s Pherides is a clear influence on DiCaprio’s Det. Teddy Daniels. Both are violent men of authority who are driven to paranoia and madness, linked to romances past. As the days of confinement continue, Pherides falls under the spell of Madame Kyra, who accuses Thea of being a “vorvolaka”, an evil spirit who sucks the life out of her victims. Her evidence is Thea’s employer Mary, who has been slowly dying for years. Karloff’s eyes begin to bug out as Pherides clings to this fantasy as the true solution to their predicament – kill Thea and the “plague” will dissipate. Daniels is also imprisoned, but in an insane asylum, as he attempts to solve the mystery of a missing inmate during a biblical thunderstorm. DiCaprio plays it queasy and sweaty, while Karloff goes for a more operatic insanity, but they are both dangerous obsessives driven to insanity by the horror in their own souls.

Why I think Isle of the Dead is a scarier film, if not necessarily a more coherent one, is a result of Lewton’s visual understatement, with the aid of director Mark Robson and DP Jack MacKenzie. The film contains ultra low-key lighting, and when the supposed “vorvolaka” does appear, in a harrowing sequence of live burial, fleeting tulle garments, and tridents shoved into chests – it’s conveyed through terrifying glimpses.

It’s miraculous the film has the power it does, considering the difficulties during production. Karloff required spinal surgery after eight days of shooting, shutting down the production for months. In the interim, Lewton knocked off the delightful Body Snatcher, and when the shoot picked up again, the script was scrapped and re-made somewhat on the fly. No one on the production was happy with the finished product (future Lewton-ites aside), until perhaps the notices came rolling in, when James Agee called it “one of the best horror movies ever made.” It also affected a young Scorsese, who in an oft-recalled anecdote, remembers running out of the theater as a kid in sheer terror before the end, too scared to continue.

In any case Karloff and Lewton were a good match, as Karloff’s intro to the short story collection Tales of Terror attests:

The mightiest weapon of the terror tale is the power of suggestion – the skill to take the reader by means of that power into an atmosphere where even the incredible seems credible.

That could have been the Lewton team’s motto, and the two were to work again for the last time on Bedlam one year later. This film has an even closer relationship with Shutter Island, as it focuses on torturous treatment in an insane asylum, and the lead character’s incarceration. Lewton modeled the film off of plate 8 of William Hogarth’s series of paintings and engravings, “The Rake’s Progress”, which depicted subject Tom Rakewell’s final degradation at Bethlehem Hospital (aka Bedlam). Almost too slavish to Hogarth’s engraving, Lewton and director Mark Robson dissolve in and out of stills of the artwork before each new sequence, adding a static element to Lewton’s usually sinuous works. It’s a weird film in any context, though, with lead Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) a whitewashed reference to the Restoration England actress (and probable prostitute) Nell Gwyn. In this film, Nell is merely a kind of jester for the rich Lord Mortimer (Billy House), and tags along at the “loony” show George Sims (Karloff) mounts for the Lord’s pleasure. Sims runs the “Bedlam” insane asylum, allowing the inmates to rot in a barnyard atmosphere of scattered hay and the constant threat of death. Nell’s conscience is pricked by the earnest young Quaker Hannay (Richard Fraser), who sees a spark of pity in her.

The closest analogue to Karloff’s sadistic Sims in Shutter Island is probably Max Von Sydow’s malevlolent-seeming Dr. Naehring, who is intimated to have a Nazi past and moves with the same stiff bearing as Karloff’s schemer. The inmate population is the same however, a menagerie of terrifying grotesques, erudite madmen, and flailing arms in dimly lit, humid hallways. While Bedlam’s tone varies rather wildly from Restoration comedy to moralist grandstanding to atmospheric horror, it is never safe – and there are some agelessly wonderful bits, including the loony lawyer inmate who dreams of projecting his flip book onto a screen, only “It’s because of these pictures that I’m here.” That is, the cinema made him to madness. A truth Mr. Scorsese, Val Lewton and myself can certainly relate to.