All posts by Scott T. Rivers

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Hitchcock and Grant: Darkness Behind the Charm

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Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant brought out each other’s best attributes in their four collaborations from 1941 to 1959. Hitchcock was the only director who exposed the dark, brooding side of Grant’s suave image, with a sexual tension that somehow evaded the censors. Grant’s presence, in turn, lent a sophistication and elegance rarely seen in Hitchcock’s other works.

Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959) explored Hitchcock’s themes of concealment, degradation and emotional manipulation. By expanding Grant’s acting range, Hitchcock revealed a dark romanticism behind the charm — screwball humor on the edge of a precipice.

Undoubtedly, both men benefited from their partnership. However, imagine if neither had made Notorious and North by Northwest. Hitchcock’s reputation would have endured regardless, but for Grant, those films were essential. In fact, it was Hitchcock who lured Grant from an early retirement to make To Catch a Thief and, in the process, helped revive the screen actor’s career.

Hitchcock and Grant shared a common bond that became more evident with each successive film. They were lonely, insecure men who came from lower middle-class English backgrounds. Furthermore, both were somewhat fearful of women, perfectionistic in their working methods, and enthusiastic about black humor. These character traits helped provide the foundation of their professional relationship.

The element of danger in Cary Grant first emerged in Suspicion. Cut from the same stylistic cloth as Rebecca, Hitchcock referred to Suspicion as the “second English picture I made in Hollywood.” However, Hitchcock began shooting with an unfinished script, resulting in a troubled production and an uncertain dramatic tone.

Suspicion: A missed opportunity.

Suspicion: A missed opportunity.

In this disappointing adaptation of Francis Iles’ novel Before the Fact, Hitchcock cast Grant against type as Johnnie — a reckless, irresponsible playboy who later marries the shy Lina (played by an ineffectual Joan Fontaine, who somehow won an Academy Award for her performance). Only after their marriage does the naive Lina discover that Johnnie is a habitual liar and spendthrift with no money of his own. Because of mounting circumstantial evidence, Lina suspects that her husband is a murderer.

At this point, the film deteriorates into an endless charade as Lina’s belief in Johnnie fluctuates between guilt and innocence. Lina’s psychological tug of war becomes ludicrous once it is revealed that Johnnie never was a murderer — thereby negating everything that has come before.

If Hitchcock and Grant had their way, Suspicion would have evolved into a disturbing thriller rather than a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, RKO had other ideas and altered the framework of Suspicion with the same callous insensitivity that marred Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.

When interviewed by François Truffaut in 1962, Hitchcock expressed dissatisfaction with Suspicion and revealed his original ending: “Cary Grant [was] to bring [Joan Fontaine] a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and [she] has just finished a letter: ‘Dear Mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer.’ Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says, ‘Will you mail this letter to Mother for me, dear?’ She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops in the letter.”

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The illuminated glass of milk.

Seen today, Suspicion is the weakest Hitchcock-Grant collaboration even without RKO’s interference. Grant’s portrayal lacks the polish and depth that would become evident in his remaining work with Hitchcock. Furthermore, there is an absence of sexual chemistry between the Grant and Fontaine characters. Hitchcock also sensed this lack of rapport and, in future films, made certain that Grant was paired with more romantically compatible costars.

The most intriguing development in Suspicion is Hitchcock’s expansion of Grant’s screen persona. During the film’s first half, Grant plays his scenes in a screwball-comedy manner that often is grating. However, in the second half, Hitchcock slows the tempo of Grant’s performance, thus revealing Johnnie’s sinister undertones. Johnnie emerges as a seductive and sociopathic menace not unlike Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt or Bruno in Strangers on a Train. If Grant (and the studios) had been more daring, he could have played the Joseph Cotten and Robert Walker roles.

Suspicion should be viewed as a blueprint for a more rewarding collaboration: Notorious. Apart from being one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, the film represents Grant’s strongest dramatic performance. His portrayal of Devlin remains so emotionally cold that it leaves no room for his traditional humor. Ben Hecht’s detailed screenplay also includes a self-revelatory comment by Devlin: “I’ve always been scared of women. I’ll get over it.”

Notorious: Grant's finest dramatic performance.

Notorious: Grant’s finest dramatic performance.

In Hitchcock’s cruelest and most disturbing romance, Devlin emerges as an unsympathetic sadist. The counterspy seduces and manipulates Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), an alcoholic nymphomaniac, into helping the U.S. government obtain secrets by marrying the Nazi spy Sebastian (Claude Rains), who actually loves her more than Devlin does.

With the casting of Bergman and Rains, the love triangle in Notorious is similar to Casablanca. However, in Hitchcock’s world, there is no stirring display of patriotism or sentimentality. One feels sorrow for Sebastian when Devlin cruelly locks the car door and drives off with Alicia, leaving Sebastian to face certain death at the hands of his fellow Nazis. Ironically, the humanity of Sebastian makes him a far more sympathetic character than Devlin, who cares little about people, except for the secrets and sexual gratification he can extract from them.

Though Devlin saves Alicia from a poisonous fate, it doesn’t redeem his mean-spirited treatment of her. Even when Devlin tells Alicia that he was “a fat-headed guy full of pain,” it isn’t entirely convincing. Herein lies the brilliance of Hitchcock, who finally strips Grant of his protective charm.

A cruel romance.

A cruel romance.

Notorious should have been the start of a new dramatic phase in Grant’s career. Instead, he played it safe by starring in a succession of comedies from 1947 to 1953. With the exception of his intelligent performances in Richard Brooks’ Crisis and Joseph Mankiewicz’s People Will Talk, Grant avoided serious roles during that period. Much was lost in the process.

Hitchcock’s fortunes waned after the release of Notorious. The filmmaker would not have another major critical and commercial success until Strangers on a Train in 1951. By the time Hitchcock re-established his cinematic artistry, Grant had retired in 1953 after a string of box-office disappointments.

The retirement lasted two years. In the end, it was Hitchcock who convinced Cary Grant to return to filmmaking. The master of suspense gave the actor a script he couldn’t refuse . . . and some Hitchcockian words of encouragement: “There isn’t a thing wrong with you, old man, that a first-rate screenplay won’t cure.  You’d be perfectly splendid in the part. One last thing: Grace Kelly has agreed to play the girl and a good part of the picture will be shot on the Riviera.”

Grant signed on the dotted line and began work on To Catch a Thief (only his second Technicolor feature — the first being 1946′s Night and Day). Hitchcock considered the film a “lightweight story,” yet it remains an important work from one of his most prolific periods. The director’s renewed energy is evident in the vividness of Robert Burks’ cinematography and imaginative use of the newly developed VistaVision process.  Though not terribly suspenseful, To Catch a Thief ranks among Hitchcock’s most stylish and elegant achievements.

Grant in his second Technicolor feature.

Grant in his second Technicolor feature.

Of course, the film’s soufflé-like quality would have collapsed without Grant’s flawless performance. As retired cat burglar John Robie, Grant revitalizes his screen presence. He is not playing Robie so much as he is playing Cary Grant — a suave, debonair man who looks good and knows it. This relaxed self-confidence is exactly what Hitchcock wanted.

The Hitchcock-Grant films utilize sex as a form of seduction and manipulation. To Catch a Thief is notable for the bold eroticism of Francie (played by a stunningly cool Grace Kelly) and her aggressive carnal desire for Robie. The offbeat nature of their romance adds to the lasciviousness, especially when Francie suddenly kisses Robie in the hotel corridor — her libido churning away. As in Notorious, Hitchcock effectively films Grant from behind in this brief encounter, making him the center of attention by focusing on the magnetism the viewer cannot see. When Grant turns to the camera, the look of bemused satisfaction on his face remains priceless.

Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto credited To Catch a Thief for its “classic Freudian notion of sex as larcenous” — a theme the director further developed in Psycho and Marnie. Most apparent is Hitchcock’s equation of jewelry to women’s bosoms, especially during Robie’s foray at the gambling tables and the now-classic “fireworks” sequence. When Francie invites Robie to her hotel suite, he knows what she is after and vice versa: “Look — hold them. Diamonds! The only thing in the world you can’t resist.”

Sex as larceny in To Catch a Thief.

Sex as larceny.

For Hitchcock, the fireworks scene in To Catch a Thief represented the cinematic equivalent of sexual rapture. “Sex on the screen should be suspenseful,” he told Truffaut. “If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense. Sex should not be advertised.”

Hitchcock’s fascination with the paradox between the inner fire and cool surface reached its apex in North by Northwest — his last collaboration with Grant.  In this legendary cross-country chase-thriller, both men were at their artistic zenith.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman crafted a story that he called “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” — incorporating various ideas and set pieces that Hitchcock never could fit into his previous films. Most important, the role of complacent ad executive Roger Thornhill was written specifically for Grant, who could combine fear and desperation with a light comedic touch. Without Grant, it’s unlikely Hitchcock would have made North by Northwest.

Once again, Hitchcock uses Grant’s charm in a dark and manipulative fashion. However, it is Thornhill who falls victim to a series of unpredictable, nasty surprises. North by Northwest emerges as Hitchcock’s belated revenge on the Grant persona.

The surreal Mount Rushmore climax.

Interestingly, the film has been described as an unofficial sequel to Notorious with its psychosexual relationships and espionage sacrifices. Unlike previous Hitchcock-Grant efforts, North by Northwest evolves into a travelogue of the absurd. Thornhill is mistaken for a man who doesn’t exist and spends most of the film trying to track down the elusive “George Kaplan.”

Nowhere is this surrealism more evident than during the Mount Rushmore climax, with its mind-boggling urgency leading to Thornhill’s moment of truth. The final seconds not only are a moral redemption for Thornhill in his rescue of double agent Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) but also one of sexual fulfillment — emphasized in the suggestive closing shot. It is fitting that the final Hitchcock-Grant thriller ends happily.

With so much written about the Mount Rushmore and crop-duster chases, the auction sequence tends to get lost in the shuffle. This beautifully written set piece is tailor-made for Grant’s unique talents.

The auction scene works on several levels. First, there are elements of sexual blackmail and enslavement — another parallel to Notorious — emphasized in the tension between Thornhill, Eve and Van Damm (James Mason), with Eve emerging as the object of value. Also evident is the surprisingly mature love-hate relationship between Thornhill and Eve, who plays conflicting roles throughout the film. (Saint deserves recognition as Grant’s finest Hitchcockian costar — sophisticated and sensual, yet ice-cold and dangerous. Unlike Francie in To Catch a Thief, Eve is more subtle in her sexual desire.)

“I’ll bet you paid plenty for this little piece of sculpture. She’s worth every dollar.”

After Eve and Van Damm depart from the auction, Thornhill again must use his ingenuity and performing skills to extricate himself from yet another predicament (not unlike Robert Donat’s improvised political speech in The 39 Steps). When Thornhill begins his outlandish bidding, the scene turns into a rare display of “screwball suspense” — nonconformist humor with a menacing undercurrent that captures the essence of Hitchcock’s tongue-in-cheek thriller.

In retrospect, it was easy to see why North by Northwest became Cary Grant’s last film with Hitchcock. At 55, Grant managed to look younger than James Stewart in Vertigo, but knew his days as a leading man were coming to an end. By the time he made Stanley Donen’s pseudo-Hitchcock thriller Charade in 1963, Grant was unable to disguise his age — nearing 60, he looked too old as a romantic hero. When Grant turned down the lead in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, it was because he no longer could play “Cary Grant.” Unwilling to make the transition to character roles, Grant retired for good in 1966.

Though directors such as Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks helped unearth the full range of Grant’s comic talents, it was Hitchcock who discovered the darkness that lurked within the actor’s seemingly carefree and debonair persona. Only with Hitchcock could Grant afford to take risks. Hitchcock, in turn, transformed the elegant film star into a complex screen legend. From a director-actor standpoint, they were a perfect match.

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The Vision of Buster Keaton

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The inimitable Buster Keaton has been acknowledged by some cinema historians as the master of silent-film comedy — surpassing Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.  When examining his creativity throughout the 1920s, Keaton was a groundbreaking filmmaker whose somber but determined vision produced an enduring body of work.

Keaton’s stoic persona defied mainstream cinema as he transcended silent comedy by venturing into more dramatic territory.  This progression is evident when viewing three Keaton-directed features in chronological order:  Seven Chances (1925), Battling Butler (1926) and The General (1926).  Each film is distinctive in its comedic tone and cinematic style, while showcasing Keaton’s evolution as an artist.

Seven Chances is an example of Keaton placing his own personal and stylistic imprint on material not specifically tailored for him.  In fact, the premise seems ideal for Harold Lloyd:  on a certain day, a stockbroker belatedly discovers he will inherit $7 million if he marries by 7 p.m. that evening, yet only has a few hours remaining.  Under Keaton’s direction, what could have been a traditional thrill comedy emerges as a surrealistic nightmare brought to life.  It also reveals the epic scope of his filmmaking.

Like many of his features, Seven Chances maintains a natural tempo that enhances the humor of its individual scenes, particularly during the various proposals and rejections that Keaton encounters on his way to the altar.  In the words of Keaton biographer Rudi Blesh, the film begins “slower than other comedians and ends twice as fast.”

This deliberate, methodic pacing builds to one of the great climaxes in movie history, with hundreds of potential brides — and an avalanche of boulders — chasing Buster through the Southern California landscape.  Filmed entirely on location and utilizing expansive long shots, this 20-minute sequence is propelled by Keaton’s stunning athleticism and remarkable editing precision.

Ruthless romance in Seven Chances.

In a 1965 interview with British film critic John Gillett, Keaton described how he shot the spectacular chase: “When I’ve got a gag that spreads out, I hate to jump a camera into close-ups.  So I do everything in the world I can to hold it in that long-shot and keep the action rolling.  . . . Close-ups are too jarring on the screen and can stop an audience from laughing.”

Keaton seamlessly fuses his deadpan expressiveness with an expert command of the film medium.  In Seven Chances, he transforms a stage farce into a thought-provoking examination of ruthless romance in which deadly boulders are preferable to devouring women.  The film equates pain with redemption and reveals the seriousness of Keaton’s comic art.

The same can be said of Battling Butler, which was the closest Keaton ever came to making a dramatic film.  Though regarded by contemporary critics as one of his weaker efforts, Battling Butler was among Keaton’s personal favorites and made more money than any of his silent features.  The film also broke new ground in its directorial style and depth, thus paving the way for his masterpiece, The General.

Though a traditional Keaton comedy on the surface, Battling Butler has a subdued, gentle tone that eventually erupts into violent rage.  Buster plays foppish and pampered Alfred Butler, a millionaire’s son who falls in love with a country girl while camping in the mountains.  To gain acceptance from the girl’s family, he is willing to be mistaken for heavyweight boxer Battling Butler, who is training nearby.  The sadistic champ soon learns about the ruse and schemes to annihilate Alfred.

Rather than stage a humorous fight, director Keaton plays it straight with effective results.  Alfred receives a brutal beating in the champ’s dressing room as the girl watches.  The blows are painful.  Bloodied and humiliated, Alfred looks into the girl’s terrified eyes.  What follows is perhaps the most chilling of all Keaton transformations, as the weakling Alfred lashes out at the champ — knocking the boxer to the floor several times.  Alfred wins a personal victory and the girl’s love as he walks down the streets of New York wearing his top hat and boxing trunks.

A chilling Keaton transformation.

Despite the upbeat finish, Alfred’s abrupt change in personality lingers in the mind.  For the first time, Keaton “permitted comedy to give way to a greater urgency,” Walter Kerr observed in his 1975 critical study The Silent Clowns.  ”We have seen him be extraordinarily funny in a boxing ring earlier. Now, in the film’s closing reel, he suddenly seems no comedian at all.”

Keaton had the ability to step out of genre as an actor and filmmaker.  Battling Butler confirms this rare dramatic quality with its realistic fight sequence, which influenced Martin Scorsese when he directed Raging Bull (1980).  Like Keaton, Scorsese made certain his camera stayed in the ring. “The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies was Buster Keaton,” he told biographer Marion Meade in 1995.

Clyde Bruckman, one of Keaton’s co-writers, was so impressed by Battling Butler that he gave Keaton a copy of William Pittenger’s 1863 book The Great Locomotive Chase.  It became the inspiration for The General — Keaton’s greatest feature (with Bruckman credited as co-director) and a cinematic masterpiece.  More than 93 years since its initial release, the film endures as a truly unique work that continues to resonate through generations.

Historians and critics often overlook Keaton’s ambition as a filmmaker.  Though Chaplin shot most of The Gold Rush (1925) in the studio, 90 percent of The General was filmed on location in Oregon.  In his quest for perfection, Keaton told his crew, “It’s got to be so authentic it hurts.” The result, in many respects, is the definitive Civil War epic, with Dev Jennings and Bert Haines’ superb cinematography evoking the photographic naturalism of Mathew Brady.

An independent filmmaker during most of the 1920s, Keaton had all the Hollywood resources at his disposal to create a very personal work not unlike Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) — commercial considerations be damned.  In retrospect, The General reveals as much about Keaton as it does the historic subject matter.

Keaton’s masterpiece: The General.

Welles was a great admirer of Keaton and praised The General on the 1971 PBS series The Silent Years:  “I think it’s the Civil War movie. Nothing ever came near it, not only for beauty but for a feeling of authenticity. Yet this is a farce — a farce without Chaplinesque sentiment, but imbued with a real and very curious sort of dignity.  . . . It’s a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone With the Wind.”

The General represents the ultimate fusion of man and machine, with the Civil War serving as a seriocomic backdrop in this larger-than-life escapade.  The film is an inventive chase through history while showcasing Keaton’s mastery of props and characterization.  “Think slow, act fast” was his modus operandi.

A recurring Keaton theme is the triumph of the outsider who relies on his own devices.  As engineer Johnnie Gray, Keaton overcomes elaborate obstacles in a world where the illogical appears logical.  He has the determination to fight terrible battles and prove his mettle to a society that initially rejects him.  Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, the emotionally detached Keaton has no time to feel sorry for himself — he must keep going.  Life has become an endless chase.

Inevitably, the chase must end.  The final scenes in The General represent those few opportunities where the Keaton persona stands still and reflects upon his accomplishments.  Johnnie Gray finds love, redemption and a military rank, but only after a grueling journey.  It seems that all Keaton characters must pay an emotional and physical price before they achieve success.

To realize his cinematic vision, Buster Keaton created an enigmatic and inventive universe that knew no bounds.  Through the tragicomic wisdom of Seven Chances, Battling Butler and The General, viewers may envision themselves in these surrealistic battles — running and fighting for their lives.  Such is the timeless poetry of Keaton, whose films move beyond the realm of slapstick comedy to reveal an expansive, darker portrait of American individualism.

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The West of Fritz Lang

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“I love westerns [because] they are based on a simple and essential ethical code,” Fritz Lang said in a 1959 Cahiers du Cinema interview.  “The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world.”

Lang’s westerns are unique in cinema history.  The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952) offer rugged individualism that differs from the epic grandeur of John Ford and Howard Hawks, thereby paving the way for the 1950s psychological westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.  The Austrian-German director utilizes the genre to study the nature of revenge, corruption, redemption and loss — recurring themes throughout his 41-year career.

How did an influential filmmaker find a niche in westerns?  First of all, Lang was fascinated by the American West and understood its mythology. “The western is not only the history of this country, it is what the Saga of Nibelungen is for the European,” he explained in Peter Bogdanovich’s critical study Fritz Lang in America (1967). “The development of this country is unimaginable without the days of the Wild West.”

Lang also was intrigued by the American Indian culture and lived on a Navajo reservation for several weeks in 1935 while MGM kept him on hold and waited for his one-year contract with the studio to expire.  However, the director fought back and soon made Fury (1936), a disturbing study of mob rule and obsessive vengeance — social themes that would be explored in his westerns.

In 1940, Darryl Zanuck gave Lang the opportunity to make his first western for 20th Century-Fox, a sequel to director Henry King’s Jesse James (1939).  When asked why he allowed Lang to make a western, the producer responded, “Because he’ll see things we don’t.”

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Zanuck was correct in his assessment.  The Return of Frank James can be considered one of the first noir westerns. Lang’s attention to detail and atmosphere dominates this unusual tale of revenge.  The film has a look and feel unlike any western of the period as he elevates the genre to a higher visual and moral plane.

The Return of Frank James also marked a cinematic advance for Lang with its use of Technicolor and location photography, resulting in some magnificent shots of the High Sierras.  For a largely studio-bound filmmaker, this was literally a breath of fresh air.

Lang liked the Frank James script and had the freedom to make what few changes he deemed necessary.  However, due to the restrictive Production Code, the character of Frank James (reprised by Henry Fonda) was unable to seek retribution for his brother’s murder and, in fact, did not kill a single individual.  Instead, the men who killed Jesse — Bob and Charlie Ford — die by other means.

At its core, The Return of Frank James examines the struggle of the individual (Frank) versus the system (the railroad company).  Lang opens his film with the last scene from Jesse James (an interesting parallel to the director’s two-part Die Nibelungen saga) as the traitorous Ford brothers shoot Jesse in the back.  After a noirish montage of newspaper headlines trumpeting Jesse’s death, Frank is found enjoying a farmer’s life of peace and anonymity.  He is a man reluctant to seek revenge.  “There ain’t gonna be no trouble,” he assures his youthful friend Clem (Jackie Cooper).

Frank (Henry Fonda) watches the re-enactment of his brother’s murder.

However, this relative calm proves short-lived when Frank learns that the governor of Missouri has pardoned the Fords.  Twisting the blade further, the brothers receive the reward money.  Since it was the railroad’s money that “put Jesse in his grave,” Frank (in a subtle form of revenge) decides to rob the company in order to finance his Ford expedition, which takes him to Denver.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Frank attends a theatrical production in which the “heroic” Ford brothers re-enact Jesse’s murder.  Sitting in a darkened balcony, Frank watches the melodrama unfold and rises to let his presence be known.  When the cowardly Fords see Frank, they run in terror.

What follows is a picturesque chase through the Sierras — a spectacular action sequence that reveals Germanic atmosphere in Lang’s architectural rock formations and his use of dead trees in the foreground. The chase ends in a gunfight between Frank and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen), which results in Charlie falling to his death.  Lang’s omission of background music and dialogue strengthens the tension and excitement of this scene — nothing is heard but the sound of gunfire.

At the halfway mark, the story takes an unexpected turn when Frank abruptly ends his quest for Bob Ford (John Carradine) and returns to Liberty, Missouri, in order to save his servant Pinky (Ernest Whitman) who was framed for murder by the railroad company.  The film unexpectedly evolves into a bitter and sometimes comical courtroom battle which ends in Frank’s exoneration by Southern sympathizers.  The Civil War resentments between the Northern prosecution and the Southern defense are startling; at one point, Frank’s attorney (who works as a newspaper editor) calls the railroad detective “Yankee scum.”

French poster.

French poster.

Once Frank is acquitted, he is free to track down Bob Ford.  However, an off-camera gunfight occurs in which Clem dies after shooting Ford.  What follows is the film’s most noirish scene as Frank confronts the mortally-wounded Ford in a darkened barn.  From a psychological perspective, Lang’s ominous and foreboding interior settings reveal Ford’s dying moments as those of a trapped animal.  When Frank finds Ford’s body, he has the satisfaction of seeing his brother avenged:  “That’s the other one, Jesse.”

The Return of Frank James ends optimistically with Frank returning to his Missouri farm, though Lang offers a provocative image in the final shot.  Riding out of town, Frank passes a tattered “wanted” poster of the James brothers; the wind strips away the names of Frank and Jesse as the film fades out.

Lang’s attention to historic and human details also play an integral role in Western Union — a fictitious account of the telegraph line’s evolution in the 1860s. Generally acknowledged as the first epic-scale western in Technicolor, the 1941 Fox production is the most conventional of Lang’s Hollywood endeavors.  Regrettably, producer Zanuck decided that Lang should film Robert Carson’s exposition-heavy screenplay as written.  Had the director been allowed to make his proposed script changes, Western Union might have emerged as a darker, less formulaic western.

Despite the excessive comic relief and overemphasis on romance, Lang was able to incorporate some of his fatalistic vision into the proceedings, embodied by the character of Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) — a reformed outlaw hired as a scout for the telegraph company. Lang’s individual shadings add moments of realism to what could have been an overblown Cecil B. DeMille-type spectacle.

Robert Young, Fritz Lang and Randolph Scott during the filming of Western Union.

Fritz Lang directs Robert Young and Randolph Scott.

Once again, Lang shot on location — utilizing portions of Kanab, Utah, and Arizona’s House Rock Canyon.  Compared to The Return of Frank James, the landscape of Western Union is more expansive with its canyon ranges and jagged desert rocks.  However, the interiors remain appropriately Langian.

Western Union is a standout among Lang’s westerns for its emphasis on technological progress and the coming of civilization.  In one scene, Shaw tells outlaw leader Jack Slade (Barton MacLane), “You can’t fight a thing as big and important as the Western Union.”  Symbolically, the telegraph’s arrival marks the beginning of the West’s demise.

Lang depicts Indian culture in a mostly sympathetic light.  Shaw takes a more pacifist approach towards the Indians than his romantic rival, Richard Blake (Robert Young), a naive Easterner who prefers killing the “savages.”  There is a great moment when Shaw knocks out Blake after the city slicker unnecessarily shoots an inebriated Indian.

Later in the film, Shaw and telegraph boss Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) receive the tribal chief’s permission to extend their wire through Indian territory. However, in Lang’s work, nothing is what it seems. After “Indians” attack the telegraph crew, it turns out they are members of Slade’s gang in disguise.  The outlaws call themselves “guerrillas for the Confederacy” — opportunists who exploit the Civil War by justifying their criminal acts.

Foreboding darkness in epic-scale Technicolor.

In the film’s most impressive action scene, Slade and his gang ignite a devastating forest fire that encircles the company camp.  It is an elaborate, studio-created blaze that rivals the flood in Metropolis (1927).  Lang’s use of color provides a brilliant fusion of flames and shadow, which makes for a terrifying sequence.

For all its epic grandeur, the narrative force of Western Union lies in Shaw’s moral struggle. Predictably, Shaw finds himself in the middle of the Slade/Western Union conflict and, because of his past, does not fully side with the telegraph company.  Only after Creighton fires Shaw does the reformed outlaw reveal that Slade is his brother, thereby leading to the obligatory showdown between Shaw and Slade — a Cain and Abel parallel that leads to Shaw’s death and redemption.

As in The Return of Frank James, Lang’s directorial touches lend a naturalistic quality to the Shaw/Slade shootout. “There is one scene in which [Shaw] — who has had his hands burned in a forest fire and has them bandaged — goes to the traditional last fight,” Lang told Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang in America. “[Shaw] takes the bandages off his right hand, and stretches his fingers to see if they are usable for the draw. This is the kind of touch that makes people believe in things.”

Randolph Scott as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Randolph Scott’s breakthrough role as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Ironically, Western Union features the most expressionistic shot in Lang’s westerns.  In a stark composition, the viewer sees Shaw’s grave with telegraph poles standing sentinel in the background.  The inscription on the grave reveals that Shaw was buried as an employee of Western Union.  It is a tragic yet fitting conclusion.

Western Union was an influential film in its breakthrough casting of Randolph Scott.  As Vance Shaw, the actor revealed a darker edge that later would be explored in his collaborations with director Budd Boetticher.  Lang was the first filmmaker to recognize these brooding qualities in Scott (just as Alfred Hitchcock later would discover the same undertones in Cary Grant).

The commercial success of Western Union enabled Lang to return to the psychological thrillers that best suited him.  Another decade passed before he again directed a western — this time for RKO.  Rancho Notorious was Lang’s last western and, in many ways, his finest.  One of his bleakest works, the film also served as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, whose inimitable screen presence almost verged on self-parody.

Rancho Notorious is a perverse, stylized B-movie that distorts reality in its use of artificial backdrops and shadowy interiors.  Though largely a set-bound film, Lang reveals a painter’s eye in his moody, ominous shots of the sky and landscape.  (The exteriors may have been second-unit work, but the look is distinctively Langian.)  There also are expressionistic camera angles and grim close-ups that depict a claustrophobic, emotionally repressed environment.

A Langian dissolve.

Film scholar Jim Kitses observed in his influential 1969 book Horizons West that “strange and powerful works such as Rancho Notorious have been refused entry [into the genre] because they are somehow ‘not westerns.’  This impulse may well be informed by a fear that unless the form is defined precisely . . . it will disappear, wraith-like, from under our eyes.”

It is ironic that critical limitations were placed on the most expansive of film genres. With the exception of Western Union, none of Lang’s westerns are considered “traditional” works. Rancho Notorious defies rigid generalization and compares favorably to the artistry of director Anthony Mann. In Lang’s films, as well as those of Mann, fate deals the hero a nasty blow; however, with Lang, there is less emphasis on the hero’s struggle to resolve his own psychological malaise.

As in Mann’s work, there is a sense of loss that pervades Rancho Notorious, beginning with the murder of Vern Haskell’s (Arthur Kennedy) fiancée and his endless, obsessive quest for her killers.  The film’s flashback sequence emphasizes Altar Keane’s (Dietrich) faded glamour and social standing, though her mystique remains intact.  Finally, there is outlaw Frenchy Fairmont’s (Mel Ferrer) loss when Altar takes the bullet meant for him.

The criminal hideout of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).

Rancho Notorious incorporates elements of sadism and sexuality that became more prevalent in 1950s westerns.  There is the symbolic inference of rape when Vern’s fiancée reluctantly opens the safe while Kinch menaces her; after her murder, the doctor tells Vern that “she wasn’t spared anything.”  During the flashback sequence, we see Altar and the other dance-hall girls participating in a “horse race” with the saloon customers.  Later in the film, Frenchy and Vern engage in a shooting competition that suggests phallic symbolism.   When Vern equates Altar’s bedroom to a morgue before the final gunfight, the sexual expressiveness is complete.

Lang also wreaks vengeance on Hollywood’s Production Code by making revenge an integral part of the story, even though Vern does not kill the men responsible for his fiancée’s murder. “The revenge theme was so dominant that it could not be diverted, and was allowable because virtually everybody wound up dead,” film historian William K. Everson wrote in his 1992 book The Hollywood Western. “It was surely no coincidence that a ballad sung during the credits concluded with the emphasized words ‘hate, murder and revenge’ just as the credit ‘Directed by Fritz Lang’ flashed on screen.”

Social status plays an ironic role in this film.  At one point, it is noted that Altar prefers cowpunchers to cattle barons.  In fact, she forms a community of outlaws at the “Chuck-a-Luck” ranch not unlike the criminal organization in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse series.  Along with her dominance and self-assurance, Altar speaks the film’s most philosophical line: “Time is stronger than a rope.”

Spanish herald.

Spanish herald.

There are two communities in Rancho Notorious: “Chuck-a-Luck” and the corrupt town of “Gunsight.”  Despite the town’s emphasis on upholding the law, the sheriff is in cahoots with the disgraced politicians (“Give me an outlaw to these thieves anytime,” Vern says) and later is voted out of office in the “Citizens vs. Law and Order” election.  Nevertheless, evil dominates, especially when the law is not carried out to its full extent.

What makes Rancho Notorious a pessimistic western is Lang’s belief that man remains a lost individual resigned to his own fate.  In the final analysis, the West of Fritz Lang represents an emotional wasteland as Vern and Frenchy ride off in mourning to face an uncertain future. “We all get taken sooner or later.”

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Technicolor Popeye

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By the time animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer lost their studio to Paramount Pictures in May 1941, the best Popeye entries were behind them. Paramount renamed the operation Famous Studios in 1942 (retaining most of the key Fleischer personnel) and forged ahead with its breadwinning cartoon star. However, Max and Dave’s creative spark was sorely missed.

Though the wartime adventures brought Popeye a welcome relief from Disney-style conformity, what became evident during the Fleischer/Famous transition was the domestic blandness that surrounded Elzie Segar’s spinach-eating hero — resulting in mediocre fare such as Happy Birthdaze (1943). Fortunately, the long-running series would enjoy an upswing in quality when Famous switched from black-and-white to Technicolor.

After decades of faded TV prints (Paramount sold its color Popeye library to Associated Artists Productions — better known as a.a.p. — for syndication in 1957), the Famous one-reelers have been gloriously resurrected in Warner Archive’s long-overdue Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s, Volume 1. Remastered from the original 35mm Technicolor negatives, the uncut 1943-45 cartoons on this Blu-ray look absolutely stunning. The colors leap off the screen and there are no a.a.p. logos in sight.

Of course, these Famous shorts did not represent Popeye’s first foray into Technicolor. That distinction belonged to Fleischer’s elaborate two-reel specials:  the Oscar-nominated Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937) and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939).

We're on Our Way to Rio

We’re on Our Way to Rio

Famous evoked the lavishness of the Fleischer two-reelers with its third color Popeye release, We’re on Our Way to Rio (1944). A full-fledged musical extravaganza, this eight-minute gem finds Popeye and Bluto at a Brazilian nightclub, where they encounter an Olive Oyl-inspired dancer singing the infectious “Samba Lele.” Determined to win over the Latin dancer by eliminating the romantic competition, Bluto falsely promotes Popeye as a samba champion. Thanks to a spinach-fueled transformation, Popeye becomes a skillful dancer and gives Bluto a nicely choreographed thrashing.

Everything clicks in We’re on Our Way to Rio — highlighted by the vibrant animation of Jim Tyer, Ben Solomon and William Henning, with a strong assist from composer Winston Sharples. It should be noted that Isadore Sparber and Seymour Kneitel, the credited directors of the 1943-45 Popeye entries, were supervising producers while head animators such as Tyer, Dave Tendlar and Graham Place served as de facto directors.

One of the few Famous Popeyes to hold its own with Fleischer’s vintage 1933-38 output, We’re on Our Way to Rio would have been a stellar achievement for any animation studio. However, Paramount was more supportive of George Pal’s acclaimed “Puppetoon” series, which earned the stop-motion pioneer a special Oscar in 1944. Though many Famous cartoons were submitted for consideration, the studio never received a single Academy Award nomination in its 25-year history. None of this mattered to Paramount, whose only concern was the bottom line — making certain Famous avoided the financial woes that were a contributing factor to the demise of Fleischer Studios.

She-Sick Sailors

She-Sick Sailors

Despite Paramount’s “business as usual” indifference, Famous produced some of its best work during this period. Among the remaining 13 shorts in this Blu-ray collection, She-Sick Sailors (1944), Shape Ahoy (1945) and Mess Production (1945) come the closest to matching the excellence of We’re on Our Way to Rio.

She-Sick Sailors is the classic Superman parody in which a clean-shaven Bluto impersonates the Man of Steel to impress Olive . . . and viciously mows down Popeye with a machine gun! (Naturally, the bullets are lodged in his spinach can.)  Co-written by Felix the Cat creator and legendary animator Otto Messmer, the cartoon remains great fun. Sammy Timberg’s rousing Superman theme from the 1941-43 Fleischer/Famous series makes a welcome return.

Vigorously directed by Tyer, Shape Ahoy offers a rare opportunity to see Popeye and Bluto as bosom buddies until they discover castaway Olive on their “men’s only” island. The short boasts a vivid Technicolor palette, several funny moments and a “blow me down” surprise ending. Unfortunately, this rambunctious energy would later vanish from the Famous Popeye series.

Shape Ahoy

Shape Ahoy

In terms of overall artistry, Mess Production could be mistaken for a genuine Fleischer cartoon. Set in a wartime steel factory, Popeye and Bluto vie for the attention of co-worker Olive with unexpected (and dangerous) consequences. The detailed animation and industrial backgrounds are truly impressive — further enhanced by Sharples’ memorable score.

The Anvil Chorus Girl is a significant Popeye release. Apart from being the first Famous remake of an earlier Fleischer short (Shoein‘ Hosses), this 1944 outing marked Jackson Beck’s debut as the voice of Bluto, with Mae Questel returning as Olive Oyl after a six-year absence.  The inimitable Jack Mercer continued to voice Popeye — a job he began in 1935 with King of the Mardi Gras. A talented and indispensable trio, Mercer, Beck and Questel also worked on the King Features TV cartoons in the early 1960s.

As retreads go, The Anvil Chorus Girl was one of the better efforts and a solid cartoon in its own right. However, most Famous Popeye remakes were comparable to 1945′s For Better or Nurse — an energetic but less amusing rehash of the Fleischers’ Hospitaliky (1937). Even worse, the Famous version adds a dreadful “twist” ending that negates the entire short.

Puppet Love

Puppet Love

Far superior is Puppet Love (1944), an inventive change of pace from the usual Popeye formula. Written by Joe Stultz and directed by Tyer, the results are truly bizarre as Bluto creates a life-size Popeye marionette to make his rival look bad during a rendezvous with Olive. Not exactly kid-friendly (Popeye gets ready for the big date by painting his toenails!), the cartoon remains a particular favorite among animation historians.

Pitchin’ Woo at the Zoo (1944) and Tops in the Big Top (1945) add some new wrinkles to the Popeye-Olive-Bluto dynamic. Though both shorts are fitfully entertaining, the Famous artists take away some of the fun by making Bluto a more sadistic villain. This regrettable character development became part of the studio’s increasing reliance on mindless cruelty and violence.

The 4K restorations add new luster to inferior cartoons. Popeye’s first Technicolor one-reeler was the pleasant but unremarkable Her Honor the Mare (1943), which featured the return of his Disney-inspired nephews in one of their more tolerable outings. Two misguided entries — The Marry-Go-Round (1943) and Moving Aweigh (1944) — represent the final appearances of Popeye’s bespectacled sidekick Shorty, whose obnoxious presence was brought to a merciful end. In all three shorts, Popeye functions as an atypical comic foil, thereby weakening his heroic character.

Tops in the Big Top

Tops in the Big Top

Spinach Packin‘ Popeye (1944) boasts a great title card but emerges as a cost-saving “cheater” with a cop-out dream framework. For the first time, Famous used clips from the Sindbad and Ali Baba two-reelers without giving the Fleischers (and their artists) screen credit. A few years later, the studio began to recycle footage from its own cartoons — delivering an uninspired Popeye “cheater” on a near-annual basis.

By far the most notorious short is the blatantly racist Pop-Pie A La Mode (1945), which places the shipwrecked sailor at the mercy of hungry cannibals until the spinach arrives. Politically incorrect to the extreme, this cringeworthy effort wasn’t totally banned from television until the early 1990s. A beautiful transfer of a truly ugly cartoon.

The revitalized Popeye series maintained a high level of quality until Famous Studios fell into a formulaic rut in 1949. Apart from a rare winner such as How Green Is My Spinach (1950) and Tots of Fun (1952), the Famous product was no longer strong to the finish. Lower budgets resulted in more inferior remakes of classic Fleischer shorts. Nevertheless, Popeye remained a reliable moneymaker until 1957, when Paramount sold the Fleischer/Famous cartoons to a.a.p. — thus ending the immortal sailor’s 24-year movie career while becoming a TV phenomenon in the process.

Unlike the 1941-43 Popeye DVD set released in 2008, the Warner Blu-ray offers zero special features or commentary tracks. Though a bare-bones disc, the eye-popping restorations more than compensate for the lack of extras. Hopefully, Warner Archive will not wait 10 years to remaster the 1946-47 Famous Popeye cartoons.

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‘Yellow Submarine’ Turns 50

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Premiering at the London Pavilion on July 17, 1968, director George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine represented a landmark achievement in the history of animated feature films. Though influenced by the “Summer of Love” psychedelia of 1967, Yellow Submarine encompassed a rich tapestry of animation styles. Like the Beatles’ music, it has a timeless quality that defies categorization or emulation.

Yellow Submarine was a breakthrough effort. Not only did the film pave the way for more daring works such as Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1971) and Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976), but it also was the first full-length cartoon outside of Disney to become a resounding critical and commercial success. The popularity of Yellow Submarine was due, in part, to the Beatles’ association with the project. Nevertheless, it was the imagination of Dunning, art director Heinz Edelmann, producer/co-writer Al Brodax and numerous animators that propelled the film to remarkable visual heights.

The pre-credit sequence of Yellow Submarine establishes the film’s innovative style and serio-comic tone with its wistful, nostalgic depiction of Pepperland — utilizing vivid colors and offbeat character designs. This tranquil, distinctively British landscape is invaded by the grotesque Blue Meanies, who wish to rid the world of happiness, color and especially music. Interestingly, this plot element of Yellow Submarine was partly derived from the 1935 Ted Eshbaugh/Van Beuren short The Sunshine Makers in which cheerful dwarfs conquer grim-faced gremlins (who wear blue top hats much like the evil Apple Bonkers) with bottles of sunshine.

A pop culture history tour.

A magical pop-culture tour

In brief flashes, Yellow Submarine acknowledges its debt to the Golden Age of Animation, particularly the influential displays of psychedelia in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and The Three Caballeros (1944). Even the live-action cameo by the Beatles is somewhat reminiscent of Max Fleischer’s “Out of the Inkwell” series. Apart from animated cartoons, there are throwaway gags in the door-to-door sequence that evoke the art of René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. Nevertheless, the film’s visual and comedic style remains individualistic.

A classic example of Yellow Submarine‘s dazzling uniqueness is the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence — an inspired fusion of animation and music that captures the song’s haunting melancholia. Set in a decaying pop-art version of Liverpool, England, this segment combines stunning graphic design with imaginative utilization of rotoscoping, cutouts and still photography. In this prototypical music video, the film draws its strength as a visual complement to one of the Beatles’ finest recordings. On its own merits, the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence is a mini-masterpiece.

Yellow Submarine has the quality of a surreal children’s story akin to Lewis Carroll on acid. When Old Fred searches for help, he encounters a rather glum Ringo, who rounds up his mates in what appears to be a museum — resulting in a fascinating, free-wheeling tour of popular culture. The remaining three Beatles are lavishly introduced as pop icons not unlike Frankenstein, King Kong and The Phantom. In the minds of Dunning and Edelmann, the Fab Four have become museum pieces (or, perhaps more cynically, merchandised “action figures”). It is apparent that the animators had a great time creating this Carroll-inspired segment, which emerges as the visual equivalent to a Beatle non sequitur.

The film makes inventive use of still photographs when the submarine departs Liverpool at warp speed and passes various British locales, such as the White Cliffs of Dover, Oxford and London. Using more than 200 color photos and accompanied by an instrumental excerpt from “A Day in the Life,” this brief travelogue lasts no more than 30 seconds, yet the overall effect is enthralling.

The Sea of Holes.

The Sea of Holes

With John, Paul, George and Ringo finally on board, Yellow Submarine sacrifices its thin plot for a surreal, psychedelic odyssey in which the group encounters an endless array of time warps, bizarre creatures and, of course, the highly intellectual “Boob” known as Jeremy — certainly one of the most unusual characters in animation history. Though rather lengthy, this “modyssey” never fails to astonish with its wide spectrum of color and unique creations (once seen, the “vacuum monster” never can be forgotten).

The most imaginative “modyssey” segment is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which combines brightly colored, psychedelic artwork with the imaginative rotoscoping of early movie musicals. The abstract color effects are reminiscent of Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance (1935), while some of the rotoscoped dancing parallels Norman McLaren’s work in Pas de deux (1967). The “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sequence is a brilliant example of animation’s spellbinding power.

After reaching Pepperland and using their music to defeat the Blue Meanies (during the “Sgt. Pepper” number, “the one and only Billy Shears” turns out to be John instead of Ringo!), the Fab Four offer a pacifist gesture to the villains. The result is a lavish “Summer of Love” finale highlighted by impressive polarization effects set to George Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much.” Happily, Yellow Submarine concludes with a brief appearance by the Beatles in live action. The group’s playful cameo (filmed at the last minute) ends the proceedings with a nudge and a wink.

Original color model cel.

Original color model cel

Yellow Submarine has its faults. Running 90 minutes, the film is overlong (even more so with the 1999 restoration of the “Hey Bulldog” number) and would have benefited from Walt Disney’s strong sense of story structure. Though memorably introduced in the pre-credit sequence, the Blue Meanies are essentially forgotten until the Beatles reach Pepperland; the midsection could have used a cutaway scene that re-established the colorful antagonists, thereby giving the film more urgency in its pacing.

Not all the musical segments work. One number that should have been cut is the uninspired “Only a Northern Song,” a weak Harrison composition that gives the animators virtually nothing to expand upon in terms of visual ideas. The sequence relies mostly on oscilloscope effects and psychedelic-style illustrations of the Beatles that emerge as open-ended boxes.

Regrettably, the Beatles did not provide voices to their animated counterparts, which might have added more energy and humor to the overall film.  Instead, the producers hired Liverpool actors (John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, Peter Batten and Paul Angelis) who did a passable job emulating the group’s deadpan wit. However, with the noted exception of Ringo, there was a decided lack of individuality to the Beatle characterizations.

Despite these quibbles, one cannot dismiss Yellow Submarine‘s impact on contemporary animation. Like Fantasia, the film exposed viewers to a new and innovative vision of the medium while revealing limitless artistic potential. By daring to be different, Dunning and Edelmann succeeded in charting unexplored visual territory. A half-century after its release, Yellow Submarine endures as a seminal work of sight and sound.

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Chaplin

The Mutual Films: Chaplin’s Historic “Golden Dozen”

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A century ago this month, Charlie Chaplin signed a one-year contract with the Mutual Film Corporation for $670,000. In addition to becoming the highest-paid entertainer in the world, he produced 12 two-reel comedies that represent some of his finest work.

The Mutual series captured the essence of Chaplin’s seriocomic brilliance while revealing an artist at the peak of his powers — a phenomenal success that enabled him to maintain his creative freedom.  When viewing the 12 shorts in chronological order, his astonishing maturity as a filmmaker and performer becomes evident.

The Floorwalker (May 1916) and The Fireman (June 1916) already show a marked improvement upon Chaplin’s previous films.  The rough-edged quality of the Keystone and Essanay shorts have been replaced by a more polished style, especially in terms of set design and cinematography.  There also is a stronger sense of ensemble with the menacing debut of Eric Campbell, who became regarded as the quintessential Chaplin heavy.  The David and Goliath relationship between Chaplin and Campbell is established immediately in their knockabout ballets — sparking an antagonistic yet symbiotic rapport that evolves throughout the Mutual series.

Though Chaplin has found a solid foundation in production and casting, the humor remains deeply rooted in the Keystone slapstick tradition.  Still, The Floorwalker and The Fireman expand upon Chaplin’s playful anarchy toward society by exposing the corruption and fraud within (i.e., embezzlement in a department store, a fire chief’s arson scheme).

Eric Campbell and Chaplin in The Fireman (1916)

Eric Campbell and Charlie Chaplin in The Fireman.

Charlie, the outsider, emerges as an unlikely hero in both films and, ironically, saves the institutions from ruin. However, there is a sense of detachment in his actions. “The discovery that he could not be anyone because it was too easy to be everyone unleashed a number of things in Chaplin,” Walter Kerr noted in his critical study The Silent Clowns (1975). “It is marvelous that he can enter so wholeheartedly into the activity that briefly engages him, [yet] shattering to realize that his heart is not in it at all.”

At this stage in his career, Chaplin was giving his audiences what they wanted.  Considering his salary at that time, he wasn’t going to depart from traditional slapstick until the success of The Floorwalker and The Fireman was assured.  Once proven, he took some tremendous leaps.

Photographed mostly outdoors, The Vagabond (July 1916) veers toward straight drama in the D.W. Griffith tradition. Charlie plays a street musician who saves a girl (Edna Purviance) kidnapped and enslaved by sadistic gypsies.  His rescue of the girl features a skillful tracking shot of the gypsies’ unsuccessful pursuit, filmed from inside the moving caravan — a fine example of Chaplin’s inventiveness with the camera.

Having established camp along a country road, Charlie takes care of the girl in a paternal, unromantic fashion.  Eventually, the girl falls in love with a traveling artist who paints her portrait, which later is discovered by the girl’s wealthy mother at an exhibit.  The artist then helps the mother locate her daughter.  Charlie, realizing that the girl and artist are meant for each other, stays behind as the others drive off.  Instead of the traditional Chaplin ending, the girl orders the driver to turn back and she drags Charlie into the car; however, it is unlikely he will co-exist in this upscale environment.

Charlie serenades Edna Purviance in The Vagabond.

Charlie serenades Edna Purviance in The Vagabond.

Despite its ambiguous ending, the film’s stark cultural contrasts emerge as social themes that Chaplin will explore in later Mutual comedies and in features such as The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). Though he has not found the ideal balance of humor and drama, The Vagabond remains one of Chaplin’s most unusual works.

One A.M. (August 1916) marks yet another Chaplin experiment.  The film represents his only solo vehicle, a one-man display of pantomimic virtuosity.  Chaplin’s expert turn as a bon vivant (who struggles with numerous inanimate objects in his attempt to reach his bedroom) cannot be faulted, yet the claustrophobic setting and one-joke premise soon grows monotonous.

For all his comic gifts, Chaplin benefited enormously from his Mutual stock company and the talents of Campbell, Purviance, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Without this unique chemistry, Chaplin’s creativity as a performer and filmmaker was less effective. One A.M. revealed that his presence alone could not sustain a two-reel comedy.

The Count (September 1916) returns Chaplin to familiar territory — reviving the time-worn premise of Charlie invading high society by impersonating an individual of stature and wealth. However, Chaplin avoids the usual contrast between the rich and poor by elevating his character’s social position.  Instead of the Tramp, he plays a tailor who is mistaken for a count and becomes the hit of the party until the real count arrives. Chaplin effectively ridicules the pretentiousness of the upper class in ways that predate the anarchic irreverence of the Marx Brothers, notably the scene in which Charlie masters the art of eating watermelon at a lavish dinner.

Eric, Charlie and Edna in The Count (1916).

Eric, Charlie and Edna in The Count.

Unlike the previous Mutuals, The Count contains a tremendous amount of vitality and comic precision.  The escalating battles between Chaplin and Campbell culminate in a superbly timed ballet of physical violence, with enough kicking and acrobatic chasing for several two-reelers.  After more than two years and 38 short films, Chaplin firmly establishes a stylistic fusion of direction and performance that becomes a hallmark in the Mutual series.

In terms of sustained inventiveness, The Pawnshop (October 1916) ranks among the best Chaplin comedies, particularly in his utilization of props.  As a pawnbroker’s assistant, Charlie makes creative use of objects ranging from stale doughnuts to an alarm clock that requires a surgical procedure. If there is a rope on the floor, he walks across it as though he were a high-wire artist.  Chaplin’s performance has an effortless, balletic grace rarely seen in his later films.

Perhaps the most revealing moment in The Pawnshop is the final shot in which Charlie emerges from a trunk to capture a thief, then bows to the camera, hugs the pawnbroker’s daughter and delivers a swift back-kick to his rival — all in one remarkable take.  Apart from the flawless timing and choreography, the sequence is another example of Chaplin’s playful detachment in a heroic situation.

The Pawnshop (1916).

Charlie at work in The Pawnshop.

Unfortunately, Chaplin jettisoned much of this comic detachment after he left Mutual and gradually became a more self-conscious performer, as if he wanted to belong.  Perhaps that is why the best of his post-Mutual films are The Pilgrim (1923) and Modern Times (1936). In both instances, Chaplin eliminates some of his pathos and recaptures the exhilaration of playfulness.

This lack of pretentiousness emerges as an underlying thread throughout the Mutual period. A lighthearted satire on moviemaking, Behind the Screen (November 1916) represents another throwback to Chaplin’s days at Keystone. The film also includes one of the most notable references to homosexuality in early cinema.  When stagehand Campbell catches Charlie kissing Edna (disguised as a boy), his bullying character reacts in a stereotypical gay manner — a surprising transformation even by today’s standards.

Despite these intriguing elements, Behind the Screen is a routine effort. The Rink (December 1916), on the other hand, provides a bravura showcase for Chaplin’s versatility. Not only does the Little Fellow become a skater of remarkable agility, but he also mixes a cocktail with elaborate flourish. Chaplin’s engaging performance turns a serviceable farce into a hilarious ballet on wheels — nicely abetted by his colorful ensemble cast (with Austin and Bergman in dual roles). One of the best-known Mutual shorts, The Rink is a timeless slapstick gem. For uninitiated viewers, it remains the perfect introduction to Chaplin’s comic artistry.

The Rink: Chaos on wheels.

The Rink: Chaos on wheels.

By 1917, Chaplin had become more of a perfectionist in his working methods and began to miss contractual deadlines.  Exhibitors would have to wait longer for his final Mutual releases, yet the results were worth the extra time and expense.

Easy Street (February 1917), Chaplin’s first masterpiece, incorporates elements of social criticism that would become evident in his later features. The film is an effective depiction of urban poverty with its realistic sets and harshness of tone — established by the dramatic opening scene that finds Charlie in a destitute state.

In one of Chaplin’s satirical jabs at religion, Charlie is “reformed” by a young mission worker (Purviance), upon which he returns the collection box he has stolen.  Encouraged to do good, Charlie bravely joins a failing police force and receives the dangerous assignment of patrolling Easy Street, a gang battlefield ruled by the towering Bully (Campbell in kabuki-style makeup).  The ingenious tactics Charlie uses to conquer the Bully represent the finest screen moments between Chaplin and Campbell — highlights of an exquisitely paced short. (Don Fairservice’s 2001 book Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice offers valuable insights into Chaplin’s editing methods on Easy Street and his remaining three Mutual comedies.)

Charlie the cop conquers the Bully of Easy Street.

Charlie the cop conquers the Bully of Easy Street.

Surrounded by bleak atmosphere, Easy Street contrasts sharply with the fashionable delirium of The Cure (April 1917).  In this sanitarium satire, Chaplin plays an inebriated gentleman who wreaks havoc upon a health spa when his liquor supply is dumped into the spa waters. Superior to One A.M., the film is a delightful record of Chaplin’s mastery as a comic drunk, with a strong assist from Campbell as the gout-ridden patient. Ironically, The Cure would have made a great vehicle for W.C. Fields — a devout Chaplin hater.

A brilliant weaving of pathos and humor, The Immigrant (June 1917) represents the high-water mark of Chaplin’s Mutual period.  By chronicling the plight of two lonely, poverty-stricken immigrants (Charlie and Edna) who are romantically reunited in a cheap restaurant, this two-reel masterwork has a narrative seamlessness that Chaplin never duplicated.

Chaplin’s rapport with Purviance adds a poignancy and depth to The Immigrant not seen in their other collaborations.  The relationship between their characters reveals an emotional impact conveyed without title cards, such as the moment when Charlie discovers that Edna’s mother has died.  This unique chemistry, sensitively handled by Chaplin, gives the film its soul.

The Immigrant: "Arrival in the Land of Liberty."

The Immigrant:  “Arrival in the Land of Liberty.”

Social commentary comes into play during the ironic scene in which the immigrants are treated like cattle while their ship passes the Statue of Liberty — a portent of the political troubles that would lead to Chaplin’s exile from America in 1952. Nevertheless, The Immigrant remains his most humanistic and endearing film. A few years before his death, Chaplin offered his own assessment in the illustrated memoir My Life in Pictures (1974): “[The Immigrant] touched me more than any other film I made.”

The last Mutual comedy, The Adventurer (October 1917), proved to be the most popular of the series.  It also marked the final screen appearance of Eric Campbell, who was killed in a car crash two months after the film’s release.  The loss was immeasurable to Chaplin, who never again found a comic villain equal to Campbell’s talent and screen presence.

Fast and furious, The Adventurer is slapstick par excellence. Chaplin delivers a beautifully timed performance as an escaped convict whose heroic deeds get him invited to a wealthy family’s home.  Adapting to the lavish lifestyle, Charlie battles with Eric for the affections of Edna until the prison guards discover his whereabouts.  Shot partly on location in Malibu, the film includes two of Chaplin’s most inventive chase sequences — providing ideal bookends to the temporary refuge of high society.

In many ways, The Adventurer was Charlie Chaplin’s farewell to the art of the two-reeler.  After his Mutual contract ended in 1917, he produced longer and more expressive films; however, few of those later efforts would recapture the exuberance and self-assuredness of that glorious 18-month period. As a body of work, the Chaplin Mutuals represent an indispensable part of film history.

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The Noir Trilogy of Orson Welles

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“It’s a bright, guilty world.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the distinctive film noirs of Orson Welles. The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958) represent an explorative trilogy of betrayal, corruption and irrationality.

Welles, the iconoclastic filmmaker, creates disorienting worlds enveloped by foreboding shadows and uncertainty, with the camera occasionally functioning as a voyeuristic observer.  His characters range from emotionally shattered and trapped individuals (Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai) to men of power and potential greatness (Franz Kindler in The Stranger, Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil) who sell their souls to cover their tracks.

Though The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai are stylistically rooted in the 1940s noir tradition, Welles alternately distorts and transcends the genre — culminating in his masterpiece Touch of Evil.  Viewed chronologically, the noirish elements in The Stranger serve as a springboard for the surreal odyssey of The Lady from Shanghai which, in turn, foreshadows the nightmarish Touch of Evil.  What flows between these films is a bleak undercurrent of paranoia and despair.

Many critics, including Welles himself, have labeled The Stranger as his most impersonal and mainstream film.  However, Welles imbues a haunting noir atmosphere into this postwar thriller, which emerges as a telling portrait of small-town America:  Shadow of a Doubt meets Notorious.  Beneath the simplistic surface of the film’s Connecticut community lies, in the words of Allied War Crimes Inspector Wilson (played by Edward G. Robinson), an “obscenity [that] must be destroyed.”  That “obscenity” is Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler (Welles).

In the guise of history professor Charles Rankin, Kindler becomes a dictatorial and isolated character who gradually loses all rationality when he realizes that Wilson has learned his identity — not unlike Quinlan’s psychological unraveling when Vargas discovers the planted evidence in Touch of Evil.  Once exposed, the viewer follows Kindler’s unstoppable descent into madness and guilt.

Edward G. Robinson as Inspector Wilson.

Edward G. Robinson as Inspector Wilson.

A particular noir characteristic is Kindler’s bizarre obsession with clocks, which he calls a “hobby that amounts to a mania.”  The clock motif is integral to Welles’ film noirs because Kindler and Quinlan are doomed individuals whose time has run out.  In The Stranger‘s climactic scene, Kindler is impaled on the sword of the clock tower, then falls to his death — a sordid end that parallels Quinlan’s undignified collapse in the murky canal waters.  The deaths of Kindler and Quinlan are disturbing and lonely acts that Welles depicts with a poetic sense of tragedy.  Welles’ unorthodox villains have an oddly sympathetic quality which add to their irrationality.

Another noirish aspect of The Stranger is the perverse relationship between Kindler and his small-town bride, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young).  On their wedding night, Kindler is more concerned with taking care of loose ends — such as burying the body of Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a former Nazi colleague who the Allied War Crimes Commission set free in the hope of tracking down Kindler.  In a disturbing sequence, Kindler confesses to his wife that he has committed murder.  However, Mary chooses to protect him and keep his admission a secret, despite Kindler’s revealing comment to her:  “Murder can be a chain — one link following another until it circles your neck.” When Wilson confronts Mary with information about her husband’s past in the form of Holocaust footage, she literally runs from the truth and into the dead of night.

Robinson’s performance as Wilson parallels his portrayal of Barton Keyes two years earlier in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which makes his casting predictable. Perhaps The Stranger might have been more intriguing if producer Sam Spiegel allowed Welles to use Agnes Moorehead in the Wilson role — thereby resulting in an offbeat gender reversal.

The most noirish scenes in The Stranger are weighed heavily during the first half-hour.  In the memorable opening sequence, Wilson ominously pursues Meinike through South America as the escaped Nazi nervously reassures himself, “I am traveling for my health.”  The cinematography of Russell Metty (who later collaborated with Welles on Touch of Evil) develops a shadowy, menacing atmosphere that reflects Meinike’s uncertain frame of mind.  Welles and Metty evoke noir stylistics in the unlikeliest of settings, such as a school gymnasium where Meinike knocks out the unrelenting Wilson.

The atmospheric cinematography of Russell Metty.

The atmospheric cinematography of Russell Metty.

In the most chilling and visually accomplished scene, Kindler strangles Meinike in the woods during their “absolution,” an unsettling image underscored by Metty’s fluid, naturalistic photography.  Predating Touch of Evil‘s now-legendary opening shot, the Kindler-Meinike confrontation was filmed in a single four-minute take. Unfortunately, the film has too few of these Wellesian touches.

While The Stranger remains a conventional thriller, The Lady from Shanghai flaunts its cinematic iconoclasm from beginning to end.  Welles defies Hollywood tradition with a nightmarish charade.  Like Touch of Evil, he places the viewer in the middle of an evolving psychological hell.  Since Orson’s Irish sailor is as unconvincing as Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale, The Lady from Shanghai can be viewed as a distorted, fun-house parody of classic noir.  Modern-day critics who bemoan the film’s confused plotting and bizarre motivations never acknowledge its stream-of-consciousness framework established by Welles’ tongue-in-cheek narration as Michael O’Hara.  There is a method to this chaos.

Told from O’Hara’s point of view, the viewer never is sure whether the film is a strange dream or the barroom ramblings of a drunken sailor. The Stranger and Touch of Evil focus on the gradual loss of power and sanity, but The Lady from Shanghai plunges into madness from the introductory moment when O’Hara says, “Some people can smell danger.  Not me.”  Though O’Hara supposedly is a romantic hero, there are no heroes in Wellesian noir — only trapped individuals tainted by evil.  O’Hara is the biggest sucker of them all, thus making him fair game in the hands of the Bannisters and George Grisby.

With its abrupt shifts in tone and locale, The Lady from Shanghai is a noir of never-ending jolts.  Like Touch of Evil, viewers never know exactly where they are, but they have a better idea than O’Hara as they follow his descent into the abyss.  The film’s uncertain landscape is abetted by Welles’ evocative shooting off the Mexican coast and in the San Francisco Bay Area, which lends a bizarre travelogue quality to O’Hara’s disorienting voyage.

Everett Sloane and Rita Hayworth as the pitiful Bannisters.

Everett Sloane and Rita Hayworth as the pitiful Bannisters.

There is an undeniable sensuality in The Lady from Shanghai which cannot be found in Welles’ other film noirs.  Hayworth’s Elsa Bannister is a highly desirable woman.  When Elsa entices O’Hara with an exotic job opportunity (“Would you like to work for me?  I’d like it”), it proves a temptation difficult to resist. However, this obsession goes beyond the character of O’Hara — the shots of Elsa swimming and sunbathing have a voyeuristic quality as Charles Lawton Jr.’s camera hovers provocatively over her body.  The predatory point of view could well be that of Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), a powerful attorney who believes that all people can be bought.

Like many noir protagonists, O’Hara is a foolish man willing to do foolish things, thereby leading to some irrational decisions.  Grisby (Glenn Anders) convinces O’Hara to accept $5,000 in exchange for taking the rap in Grisby’s fraudulent murder.  O’Hara agrees to the deal and, of course, Bannister’s creepy associate ends up dead.  Until his unfortunate exit, the eccentric Grisby lends a morbid touch of black humor to the proceedings, especially the manner in which he says “target practice.”

As the prime suspect in Grisby’s murder, O’Hara is “defended” by none other than Arthur Bannister, who offers his client these words of encouragement:  “I want you to live as long as possible before you die, Michael.”  Playing against convention, Welles adds comic punctuation to the courtroom scenes by making the attorneys orate like game-show hosts, having the jury continually sneeze and cough, and casting Erskine Sanford as an ineffectual judge.  Evidently, Welles has a low opinion of the legal system.  Ironically, O’Hara manages to escape before the verdict is read.

The Lady from Shanghai‘s famous “hall of mirrors” shootout parallels The Stranger‘s clock-tower climax.   Like Kindler, the Bannisters’ future is all used up.  Utilizing elements of German expressionism, Welles takes noir tradition and smashes it. After the bullets are fired and the mirrors (or psyches) are shattered, the viewer is left with a certain detachment and ambivalence toward the fate of O’Hara and the pitiful Bannisters.  “One who follows his nature, keeps his original nature in the end,” O’Hara reminds Elsa as she breathes her last.

Elsa Bannister fires away in the "hall of mirrors."

Elsa fires away in the “hall of mirrors.”

Elsa’s act of betrayal towards O’Hara and its outcome have less of an emotional impact than the Mary/Kindler and Menzies/Quinlan relationships.  “I made a lot of mistakes,” the self-pitying Elsa tells O’Hara.  “You can fight, but what good is it?  We can’t win.”  And she dies alone.  There is a cruel irony when the dying Bannister condescendingly tells his wife, “You made a mistake, lover. You should have let me live.  You’re going to need a good lawyer.”  Like Quinlan and Kindler, he dies unrepentant.

What remains is a sordid, corruptible wasteland as O’Hara walks away from the woman of his nightmares.  “Everybody is somebody’s fool,” he surmises.  And in The Lady from Shanghai, it is the fool who survives.

The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai, for all of their visual bravura, remain wildly uneven works — flawed by studio interference (both films cry out for director’s cuts that never will be seen) and Welles’ eccentric miscasting in the pivotal roles of Kindler and O’Hara.  Yet they serve as stepping stones for his definitive noir statement: Touch of Evil.

Perhaps his most accomplished and assured film since Citizen Kane (1941), Welles paves the road upon which other contemporary noirs will follow.  More than 57 years after its release, Touch of Evil maintains a timeless quality.  Even a director as visually hyperbolic as David Lynch has yet to make a movie as unsettling as this one.

Best of all, Welles is superbly cast. There’s not a trace of “acting” in his complex portrayal of police captain Hank Quinlan, whose voice sounds as though it emerged from the bottom of a sewer.  Welles’ accomplishments as an actor always have been underrated in contrast to his filmmaking achievements, yet Touch of Evil reminds the viewer that he was a vital performer — not the hammy individual seen in The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai.  With the exception of Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966), Quinlan represents Welles’ most detailed character study.

Welles as corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan.

Welles as corrupt cop Hank Quinlan.

Mostly shot on location in Venice, California, Welles creates a border-town hellhole bathed in darkness and surrounded by a gallery of disturbing characters.  The result is somewhat akin to a carnival freak show.  Strangely enough, viewers are so mesmerized by Welles’ seamless nocturnal vision that the daytime scenes (particularly those at the seedy Mirador Motel) appear somewhat jarring, as though the viewer has stepped out of a windowless, smoke-filled bar into the blinding sun of a midafternoon.

The breathtaking, expansive opening shot (culminating in the time-bomb explosion that kills millionaire Linnekar) establishes the film’s ominous tone, which is solidified once Quinlan arrives at the scene.  A brief exchange between narcotics investigator Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and the cynical coroner (Joseph Cotten) provides a telling introduction to Quinlan — not only for Vargas, but for the viewer as well:

Vargas: “I’d like to meet [Quinlan].”

Coroner: “That’s what you think.”

Quinlan is an instinctively brilliant yet corrupt police captain mired in Shakespearean tragedy.  His monstrous, though sympathetic presence dominates the film (even when he is off-screen) and sets in motion a sleazy labyrinth of drugs, perversity, murder and lawlessness.  Touch of Evil proves to be an apt title, since every character (including Vargas) is tainted and corruptible.  There are no innocents in this decaying world.

Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) gets a nasty surprise.

Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) gets a nasty surprise.

Of all the Wellesian creations, Quinlan is the epitome of film noir.  Like Charles Foster Kane, he is a dictatorial individual plagued by regret, loneliness, immorality and loss (i.e., his wife’s murder).  For years, Quinlan has been an isolationist (he lives near the border yet refuses to learn Spanish) and a law unto himself; therefore, it is inevitable that Quinlan creates his own downfall in a confused, paranoic state of irrationality — predating Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up.  Welles’ distorted camera angles represent Quinlan’s tortured, inebriated frame of mind.  He is a man lost in his own excesses, hence the classic reference by bordello madam Tanya (Marlene Dietrich): “You’re a mess, honey.”

During the first Quinlan/Vargas confrontation, Vargas asks, “Who’s the boss: the cop or the law?”  In Wellesian noir, the law does not triumph — it remains hidden in the shadows. “Even though [Quinlan] doesn’t bring the guilty to justice, he assassinates them in the name of the law,” Welles told Peter Bogdanovich in the 1992 book This Is Orson Welles. “He wants to assume the right to judge, and no one has the right to judge except under the authority of law. . . . But what he stands for is detestable.”

Touch of Evil follows the paralleling descent of Quinlan and Vargas.  They are moral opposites who, by the film’s conclusion, have much in common.

Quinlan was an honest cop who became corrupt through the tragedy of his wife’s strangulation — not unlike Vargas’ loss of control after his wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), was drugged and framed for the murder of Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff).  When Vargas enters Grandi’s bar and says, “I’m no cop now,” it is apparent that he has gone over the edge and lost the rationality to enforce the law.  Quinlan’s obsession for vengeance now has become Vargas’ — in fact, Vargas resorts to Quinlan-style methods to hunt down his nemesis.  Utilizing a bugging device (another Nixonian trait) to record Quinlan’s confession, Vargas has become what he despises and knows it.

Partners in betrayal:  Menzies (Joseph Calleia) and Quinlan.

Partners in betrayal: Menzies (Joseph Calleia) and Quinlan.

When Quinlan loses his power, he rapidly deteriorates.  The descent begins when Vargas accuses Quinlan of planting the sticks of dynamite to frame Sanchez, thereby making Quinlan vulnerable for the first time.  In retaliation, Quinlan forms an unholy alliance with the slimy Grandi (a character of black comedy not unlike Grisby in The Lady from Shanghai) to kidnap and drug Susan — a short-lived partnership that Quinlan’s loyal partner, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), observes with disgust and heartbreak.  When Quinlan strangles Grandi, he succumbs to irrevocable madness.  This leads to the ultimate betrayal as Menzies resolves his moral dilemma by helping Vargas bring down Quinlan, but only after he discovers Quinlan’s cane near the body of Grandi.

“Quinlan is the god of Menzies,” Welles said in a 1958 Cahiers du Cinema interview.  “And, because Menzies worships him, the real theme of the scenario is treason, the terrible impulsion that Menzies has to betray his friend.”

However, Quinlan already has betrayed Menzies’ trust through his manipulative deceit and corruption.  “All these years, you’ve been playing me for a sucker,” Menzies angrily tells Quinlan.  It is ironic yet poetic destiny that Quinlan and Menzies end up killing each other.  For all his “famous intuition,” Quinlan’s disloyalty toward Menzies is the final act that does him in.

Touch of Evil can be considered a summary of the film noir themes Welles examined in The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai. In his noir trilogy, the guilty are doomed to a violent demise in a world where evil is permitted and justice is distorted.  As for humankind, they are best represented by the philosophical Tanya, who delivers Touch of Evil‘s closing line (“What does it matter what you say about people?”) and walks away into a bleak, uncertain future.  In the end, the viewer remains surrounded by darkness.



Snow

Welcome to Fleischer World

Heard

The arrival of sound in the late 1920s added a new dimension to animated films.  Many of the early live-action “talkies” did virtually nothing but talk; however, the cartoon successfully combined the aural and visual without excessive dialogue. The animators most aware of this quality during the 1930s were Max and Dave Fleischer.

Produced for mainstream audiences, the early Betty Boop and Screen Song cartoons were daring, somewhat experimental works. In many ways, Fleischer classics such as Minnie the Moocher (1932), Snow White (1933), I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You (1932), I Heard (1933) and I Ain’t Got Nobody (1932) represent the first music videos with their ingenious fusion of animation and bluesy jazz. The shorts also helped promote the records and upcoming appearances of the guest performers.

Like some of the jazz artists, the Fleischer animators were gritty New Yorkers whose free-wheeling existence was reflected in their cartoons. If Disney, Warner and MGM maintained a sunny optimism in the early 1930s, Fleischer Studios took viewers on a wild ride through the Depression-era psyche.

The Fleischers’ cultural insulation was a significant factor in their best work. By embracing a world of sex, violence, hot jazz and bad times, the studio developed an absurdist vision of nonconformity that was unique in animation. The transition to sound only fueled the Fleischers’ playful anarchy. Until the Hays Office reared its head in 1934, there were no established rules for the East Coast animators to follow.

Electrocuted ghosts in Minnie the Moocher (1932).

Electrocuted ghosts in Minnie the Moocher (1932).

Perhaps the first Fleischer cartoon to seamlessly fuse its bizarre imagery with a Jazz Age bravura was Minnie the Moocher. The pairing of Betty Boop and Cab Calloway resulted in some of animation’s finest moments. In this striking display of music and movement, the rotoscoped Calloway emerges as a ghostly walrus who confronts Betty and her canine pal Bimbo in a darkened cave — singing the classic title song with its references to prostitution, cocaine addiction and venereal disease. The black-and-gray images are stunning as the Calloway walrus performs amid unusual backgrounds ranging from decayed fingers to jagged skulls.

In his 1994 book Cartoons, author Giannalberto Bendazzi singled out Minnie the Moocher as “a masterpiece of American animation” while its “visions and the allusions to danger and sex demonstrate the power of a totentanz, a dance of death.” The film also can be seen as a metaphor for the fears and uncertainties of the Depression.

Minnie the Moocher provided the framework for the dazzling Boop-Calloway masterpiece Snow White. A few historians have compared Snow White to the Salvador Dali-Luis Buñuel short Un Chien Andalou (1929) for its surreal, unconnected imagery — accompanied by Calloway’s downbeat song “St. James Infirmary Blues.”

The painted backgrounds in Snow White are dark and treacherous, particularly the “mystery cave” with its sleazy taverns and skeletal remains.  As in Minnie the Moocher, Calloway’s movements are rotoscoped; however, this time around, he is a metamorphosed Ko-Ko the Clown who leads a funeral procession through the cave with Betty literally “on ice.” In the Calloway song, the ice coffin is equated to a “long white table” in the morgue as Ko-Ko/Calloway mourns the loss of his “baby.” During the song, the evil queen transforms Ko-Ko/Calloway into an elongated ghost who visualizes the “St. James” lyrics by morphing into a “$20 gold piece” and “a shot of booze.”

A rotoscoped Cab Calloway in Snow White (1933).

A rotoscoped Cab Calloway.

In both Calloway-Boop cartoons, the animated songs evoke grim atmosphere with a plethora of throwaway gags. The Fleischers’ stream of cartoon consciousness appears limitless. Rich in detail, Minnie the Moocher and Snow White demand repeated viewings.

Featuring Louis Armstrong in one of his first film appearances, I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You swings in the best sense of the word — not only in terms of Armstrong’s music, but also in the Fleischers’  visual style. In this fast-paced Betty Boop cartoon, every aspect is in rhythmic motion:  trees, volcanoes, footprints, porcupine needles, and cannibals who transform themselves into bushes.

When Betty, Bimbo and Ko-Ko are captured by the cannibals, the latter two escape — only to be pursued by a live-action Armstrong. In fact, Ko-Ko runs so fast that his clown suit must catch up with him. Armstrong continues to chase Ko-Ko while crooning the title song, which focuses on adultery and includes the suggestive lyric “You gave my wife a bottle of Coca-Cola so you could play on her Victrola.” Welcome to Fleischer World.

Betty Boop and Bimbo go underground in I Heard (1933).

Betty Boop and Bimbo go underground in I Heard (1933).

Unlike previous Boop rhapsodies, the jaunty tone of I Heard evolves into a darkly surreal climax. Accompanied by Don Redman and His Orchestra (who introduce the cartoon in a rare film appearance), Betty delivers an infectious rendition of “How’m I Doin’?” as the workers at the “Never Mine” enjoy a hearty lunch in her tavern. The Fleischers provide a steady flow of gags to match the rhythm of Redman’s music.

After the steam whistle finishes its lunch, Betty and the coal miners discover gossip and baseball-playing ghosts down below.  One ghost hits a bomb to Betty and Bimbo — resulting in a back-and-forth escapade that leads to a mine explosion. In the bizarre closing shot, the ghosts fall into ready-made graves opened by Bimbo, who literally gets the last laugh in his final screen appearance.  Betty’s amorous co-star became a casualty of the repressive Production Code, which brought down the curtain on the “Boop-oop-a-doop” jazz extravaganzas.

Largely unavailable on home video (though resurrected on YouTube), the Fleischer Screen Song cartoons of the 1930s utilized wrap-around animation to showcase a musical performer in live action, along with the famous Bouncing Ball to lead the chorus. In some instances, the overall short truly benefited from the strength of its guest artist.

The Mills Brothers with the “Famous Bouncing Ball.”

The Mills Brothers with the famous Bouncing Ball.

I Ain’t Got Nobody, one of the finest Screen Song efforts, marked the film debut of the Mills Brothers, who are introduced as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The off-the-wall “premise” centers on a hypnotic lion who has the ability to make inanimate objects (except for a grumpy statue) sing the Mills Brothers’ hit “Tiger Rag.”  In a classic display of Fleischer animation, the entire living room harmonizes in unison — followed by a lion rug scat-singing in Mills fashion.

This inventive use of music complemented the Fleischers’ distinctive surrealism, which mirrored the Depression era better than any animation studio. If Disney’s early work revealed a rural midwestern quality, the Fleischer landscape was a black-and-white urban jungle — an ideal environment for artists such as Calloway, Armstrong, Redman and the Mills Brothers. The Betty Boop and Screen Song cartoons remain valuable cinematic records of the musical talents who accompanied Max and Dave Fleischer in their symphony of visual madness.

Inkwell

Marx14

DVD Review: “A Night in Casablanca” (1946)

casa

Let’s dispense with one myth right away:  the Marx Brothers did not make A Night in Casablanca to pay off Chico’s gambling debts. Though Chico always needed the money, Groucho and Harpo were itching for a big-screen comeback to erase the memory of their underwhelming MGM farewell film, The Big Store (1941).

Enter David L. Loew and the profit potential of independent production, which was appealing enough to end the brothers’ self-imposed cinematic retirement. The Marxes and Loew joined forces to create Loma Vista Productions, with United Artists handling the distribution chores on their low-budget venture.

Released in May 1946 to mixed reviews but solid box office, A Night in Casablanca would prove a fitting finale to the team’s movie career.  Perhaps their best effort since A Night at the Opera (1935), this postwar escapade features the trio in splendid form while recapturing some of the rough-edged spontaneity of their early Paramount comedies.

Before its DVD debut in 2004, A Night in Casablanca had an elusive history on the videocassette market — briefly issued by Independent United Distributors in 1983, followed by a GoodTimes budget release in 1990.  Castle Hill Productions (the copyright owner) finally rectified matters by teaming with Warner Home Video to give the film a long-overdue remastered version in excellent quality.

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However, there is a comic irony associated with Warner Home Video’s involvement.  In 1945, Warner Bros. expressed concern over the storyline of A Night in Casablanca, fearing that the Marxian farce would emulate the studio’s legendary 1942 drama. Groucho fired off a letter to Warner that has since become a classic. In 1997, Groucho’s letter was read during the Library of Congress’ bicentennial celebration:

“Apparently, there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers.  . . . You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about Warner Brothers? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were.  . . . This all seems to add up to a pretty bitter tirade, but I assure you it’s not meant to.  I love Warners.  Some of my best friends are Warner Brothers.”

After Groucho explained the plot in a few bizarre follow-up letters, the Marxes heard no more from the Warner legal department. “It might have been better if we filmed the letters to Warner Brothers and left the picture we made in the can,” Groucho later remarked.

In truth, the Warner correspondence was a publicity stunt, which Groucho happily admitted in a private letter:  “I wish they would sue, but as it is, we’ve had reams in the paper.”  Nevertheless, the Marxes avoided a direct parody of the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic — except for the “round up all likely suspects” line (spoken by none other than Casablanca cast member Dan Seymour) and Harpo’s lively turn at the roulette wheel.

Groucho offers Harpo some brotherly advice: “Remember what happened in 1929?”

Groucho offers Harpo some brotherly advice: “Remember what happened in 1929?”

What makes A Night in Casablanca a standout among the later Marx efforts is the re-emergence of Harpo’s anarchistic brilliance, which was toned down after Duck Soup (1933).  Thanks to uncredited contributions from Frank Tashlin, Harpo dominates the proceedings from the start with the famous sight gag involving a collapsed building. After playing second fiddle to Groucho and Chico in the MGM films, the horn-honking pantomimist enjoys a long-overdue free reign.  In fact, Groucho and Chico do not appear until 10 minutes into the picture.

Directed by Archie Mayo — a Warner craftsman best known for The Petrified Forest (1936) and Black Legion (1937) — A Night in Casablanca dispenses with the MGM musical gloss and syrupy romance in favor of a more free-wheeling approach.  Set largely within the confines of the Hotel Casablanca, Groucho plays the iconoclastic manager and Chico is appropriately cast as a taxi-camel driver. Harpo initially appears as a disobedient valet to Heinrich Stubel (wonderfully played by character actor Sig Ruman — returning as a Marx foil for the first time since 1937′s A Day at the Races), an escaped Nazi who has stashed a valuable treasure in the hotel.

Amid this B-grade plot are several wild scenes and some memorable Groucho dialogue (“Never mind the staff. Assemble the guests. I’ll tell them what I expect of them”).  Placing the Marxes in a postwar setting may seem unusual, yet their shenanigans inside the Hotel Casablanca are a refreshing throwback to their first film, The Cocoanuts (1929).  In many ways, Groucho, Harpo and Chico have come full circle.

The frenetic (if somewhat belabored) climax finds the brothers on board a Nazi plane, with Harpo knocking out the pilot and taking over the controls with devilish glee. However, art historian and critic Erwin Panofsky found a deeper meaning to this sequence when A Night in Casablanca was first released:  “The disproportion between the smallness of [Harpo’s] effort and the magnitude of disaster is a magnificent and terrifying symbol of man’s behavior in the atomic age.” No doubt Chico would have responded to this social commentary by playing the “Beer Barrel Polka.”

Sig Ruman and Harpo Marx.

Sig Ruman and Harpo Marx.

Loew had little doubt that A Night in Casablanca would make money, but no one expected the picture to become one of 1946’s surprise hits.  Moviegoers and devoted fans welcomed back the Marxes with $2.7 million in worldwide ticket sales — resulting in the highest grosser of their career.

Despite renewed box-office success, the trio retired once again from the silver screen. “We decided we were coming down the stretch and that it was high time we quit while we were still partially alive,” Groucho wrote in his 1959 autobiography.  (For all intents and purposes, 1949’s Love Happy was a Harpo Marx vehicle, with Chico in support and Groucho as narrator and guest star. The three never share a single scene together.)

Though not without its faults, A Night in Casablanca is a better film than its critical reputation would suggest. And how do the Marx Brothers bid farewell as a full-fledged team?  They chase beautiful Lisette Verea through the streets of Casablanca — an appropriate finale for these anti-establishment pioneers.

Marlene featured

DVD Review: “Marlene” (1984)

Dietrich

I was an actress. I made films. Period. 

Marlene Dietrich (1901 – 1992) probably thought no one would be interested in a documentary about her life and art. Her entertainment career spanned 55 years — beginning with her German film roles in 1923 and ending in 1978 as she crooned the title song in the movie Just a Gigolo.

Perhaps she had no desire to reminisce about her work as an enigmatic actress and cabaret singer. In fact, she referred to most of her oeuvre as “kitsch.”  However, Dietrich doesn’t seem as derogatory as she made herself out to be in the late Maximilian Schell’s 1984 film Marlene (available on DVD from Kino Video). Then again, she did go out of her way to be difficult.

For starters, Dietrich refused to be filmed. “I’ve been photographed enough,” she explained. “I’ve been photographed to death.” This might have been an impossible obstacle for any documentary to overcome, but director Schell (who appeared with Dietrich in 1961′s Judgment at Nuremberg) used it to his advantage.

Schell recorded Dietrich’s conversations on audio tape in her Paris apartment during 1982. A year later, he reconstructed the apartment interior along with an adjoining editing room — an innovative and clever device, though a bit pretentious at times.  In some ways, Marlene is a documentary about the making of a documentary.

Director Maximilian Schell in the reconstruction of Marlene Dietrich's Paris apartment.

Director Maximilian Schell in the studio reconstruction of Marlene Dietrich’s Paris apartment.

By not seeing Dietrich as she looked in 1982, Schell draws the viewer into the legend displayed in memorable film clips, newsreel footage and television excerpts. Furthermore, the multilingual interviews between Dietrich and Schell emerge as a verbal duel. Schell’s questions are as combative as Dietrich’s responses. “I’m not contracted to be exciting,” she states at one point.

While Dietrich insults Schell throughout most of the interviews, we are treated to a generous coverage of her cinematic highlights: the star-making role of sexy showgirl Lola in director Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930); the “Hot Voodoo” number from Blonde Venus (1932); her visually stunning performance as Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress (1934); and her box-office comeback as Frenchy, the tough-talking saloon girl who throws everything but the bar at James Stewart in the classic western-comedy Destry Rides Again (1939).

Unfortunately, Schell hits a brick wall in his attempt to discuss the Dietrich-von Sternberg partnership, which ended in 1935 with The Devil Is a Woman (Marlene’s personal favorite).  “He was always deliberately making life difficult for me [in order] to make me learn something,” Dietrich said of the influential filmmaker. Otherwise, she cuts off Schell by telling him to read her 1979 memoir My Life.  The result is a missed opportunity.

What’s particularly fascinating about the Hollywood years is Dietrich’s growth as an actress.  In retrospect, she delivered some of her best performances toward the end of her movie career — notably the “dual” role in director Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), the extended cameo as a bordello gypsy in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), and her last major portrayal as the widow of a German general in Judgment at Nuremberg.

Dietrich’s beauty and eroticism also fill up the screen in her later television appearances, as she sings favorites such as “Falling in Love Again” and “Boys in the Backroom” in her inimitable, throaty style.  She can be mesmerizing and provocative when standing on a bare stage — entertaining American troops during World War II or performing in concerts across the globe.  The magnetism never dissipates.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Schell enhances the mystery of Marlene Dietrich by letting her work and personality speak for itself. Though hard-edged and contradictory, she reveals a sentimentality that is quite moving, as when talking about her hometown of Berlin.  The memories catch up with her and she begins to cry, admitting “I am a romantic, a dreamer.”

Nevertheless, Dietrich remains dismissive toward Schell’s work: “It will never sell in America.” Little did she expect that Marlene would receive a 1985 Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, along with awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

In a February 1987 Los Angeles Times interview, Schell said that Dietrich (whose contract included a share of profits) was keenly aware of the film’s international success and left the following message on his answering machine:  “Isn’t it wonderful that we had that fight?” Later that year, Dietrich published her final volume of memoirs, also titled Marlene — an ideal companion piece to the 96-minute documentary.

Schell’s intriguing film deserves a remastered and expanded DVD reissue.  The Kino edition (released in 2009) boasts decent video and audio quality, but lacks any special features apart from the obligatory photo gallery.

Marlene