All posts by Scott T. Rivers

Marlene featured

DVD Review: “Marlene” (1984)

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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

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Two Versions of Elvis Presley’s Best Film

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From an artistic standpoint, the realm of cinema was not particularly kind to Elvis Presley. Though he appeared in 33 films, only a handful did justice to his talents. Even the singer’s best efforts — King Creole (1958), Flaming Star (1960), Viva Las Vegas (1964) and the criminally underrated The Trouble With Girls (1969) — showed that he was capable of doing more, if only Hollywood had given him a chance.

In 1969, Elvis (who detested the fact that he became a box-office commodity relegated to a series of musical “travelogues”) bid adieu to the silver screen and resurrected his career as a live performer. Naturally, Hollywood came knocking once again by producing a concert film that would capture Presley in all his glory.

The result was Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970), directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Denis Sanders and shot by veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Despite some unnecessary interviews with star-struck fans and Las Vegas hotel employees, the MGM documentary showcased Presley’s talent and charisma better than any of his previous films.  At his finest, Elvis was a spontaneous and imaginative artist who thrived in the presence of a live audience.

Utilizing six Panavision cameras, Sanders shot a tremendous amount of Presley footage during his August 1970 engagement at the International Hotel — considerably more than what was seen in the finished product. This became apparent when 60,000 feet of camera negative, along with the original 16-track stereo masters, was discovered in the Turner Entertainment vaults in the late 1990s.

Elvis Presley and director Denis Sanders.

Elvis Presley and director Denis Sanders.

Filmmaker Rick Schmidlin, who oversaw the historic reconstructions of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), produced a recut and remixed version of the Presley documentary. Seven years after its 2000 theatrical premiere, the refurbished That’s the Way It Is was finally paired with the original 1970 documentary in a two-DVD set released by Warner Home Video.

No stranger to concert films having produced and edited The Doors Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1987), Schmidlin was excited by the opportunity to re-edit That’s the Way It Is.  “I wanted fans to see something on Elvis that was more personable,” he said in a 2001 interview. “What I wanted to do as a filmmaker was try to understand the character and psyche of who [Elvis] was as a performer and how he wanted to be represented — not how Hollywood wanted to represent him.”

Compared to the 1970 release, Schmidlin’s “special edition” is a more cinematic work. The interviews and Vegas hotel promotions have vanished, with the emphasis remaining on Presley and his music. As a result, the revamped That’s the Way It Is runs 97 minutes — 11 minutes shorter than the original — yet incorporates a treasure trove of never-before-seen material.

The 2000 version includes restored footage of Elvis in rehearsal: engaging run-throughs of “My Baby Left Me” and “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”; the “Little Sister/Get Back” medley; and a surprise rendition of “The Happy Yodeler.” Schmidlin’s reconstruction also features different concert performances of “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me Tender” and “Suspicious Minds.” Another unearthed moment occurs during the end credits when an excited Cary Grant meets Presley backstage after the opening-night show. (Grant praised Elvis as “the greatest entertainer since Jolson.”)

“This was a chancy film, because it wasn’t like Touch of Evil or Greed,” Schmidlin explained. “This was re-cutting a movie and performing major surgery — taking a dated documentary and re-examining it 30 years later. That had its difficulties. Both films act as bookends. One film tells one story, and the other film tells another — and they’re the same film. That’s a unique situation.”

British quad poster.

British quad poster.

Unlike his fictional movies, That’s the Way It Is captured the energy, humor and creativity of Presley that somehow eluded Hollywood.  It also revealed an artist at the peak of his powers. Interestingly, this aspect was not lost on Elvis, who knew his performances were being filmed for posterity. Having starred in 30 features, he understood the camera and knew how to work with cinematographers.

Schmidlin believed Elvis took charge of the direction whenever he was filmed:  “There wasn’t any apprehension. It was like, ‘Oh, great — they’re doing a movie without a script, and they’re doing it about me, so I can have fun in front of the camera.’ In some ways, Elvis has given himself his own great performance.”

The critical and commercial success of That’s the Way It Is encouraged MGM to produce Elvis on Tour (1972).  However, the Golden Globe-winning film revealed an artist in decline who already was tiring of the concert grind. As a result, the latter documentary paled in comparison to this revitalized portrait of Presley — a significant, influential force in 20th-century music and culture.

“He’s 35 years old, he’s in great shape, and he’s having fun,” Schmidlin said. “It’s the last time we look at Elvis in this condition and in this environment.  You get the fact that he’s a leader and you understand the magnetic personality that others have talked about. If I had an alternate title for the film, I would have called it Elvis on His Own Terms.”

Que Viva Mexico featured

Eisenstein’s Mexican Odyssey

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Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico! (1931-32) remains among the best-known “unfinished” films. In fact, so much has been written about this visually impressive yet disaster-ridden production that it has become a cinematic legend.

The influential Russian filmmaker never was allowed to edit or complete his passionate study of Mexico’s cultural history, yet the footage survived in the form of several abridged versions. In 1979, Eisenstein’s one-time colleague, Grigori Alexandrov, produced a 90-minute re-edit based on his first-hand recollections and the director’s notes.

Released on DVD by Kino Video, Alexandrov’s reconstruction of Que Viva Mexico! exists as a compromise — evocative and dazzling at times, yet an enigmatic blueprint for a more ambitious project. It is one of cinema’s tragedies that, for political as well as financial reasons, Eisenstein was prevented from fully realizing his Mexican odyssey.

Que Viva Mexico! evolved from Eisenstein’s stay in Hollywood during 1930, where his plans to work for Paramount collapsed due to creative differences with the studio bosses. Instead, the director of Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1928) sought non-studio financing for his Mexican epic. Eisenstein hoped to receive monetary assistance from Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, since they encouraged him to work in Hollywood. Despite their considerable wealth and public admiration for Eisenstein’s revolutionary films, Fairbanks and Chaplin refused to bankroll the independent production of a fellow artist.

Rather than contribute money, Chaplin suggested that his friend Upton Sinclair, the noted socialist author, might help Eisenstein in his cinematic quest. Sinclair was receptive to Que Viva Mexico! and provided the $25,000 budget. In the signed contract, Eisenstein promised Sinclair he would finish the project in four months. Sinclair maintained ownership of the negative and stipulated that his brother-in-law, Hunter Kimbrough, serve as the film’s production manager. These factors inevitably resulted in the dissolution of Eisenstein’s work, with added pressure from the Soviets, who demanded that their famed director return home.

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The 32-year-old Eisenstein departed for Mexico in December 1930. Accompanied by Alexandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse, he shot 250,000 feet of footage, mostly near Tetlapayac — a Spanish plantation located southeast of Mexico City. Eisenstein likened the structure of Que Viva Mexico! to “a sequence of short novellas.” The film encompassed ritualistic bullfighting, the Day of the Dead, the Mexican Revolution and the spiritual paradise of Tetlapayac.

Eisenstein’s work on Que Viva Mexico! took considerably longer than four months. With little knowledge of film production, Sinclair believed that Eisenstein was spending too much time and money as the final shooting budget more than doubled the original amount.

On the moralistic front, Sinclair was displeased to hear from Kimbrough about Eisenstein’s alleged homosexual indiscretions. Eisenstein, in turn, accused Kimbrough of squandering the film’s budget on liquor, gambling and prostitutes. The allegations of both men never were substantiated. To further complicate matters, Sinclair received word from the Soviet government that Eisenstein had deserted his country and no longer was in favor with the Stalin regime.

Despite these troubles, Eisenstein had completed most of Que Viva Mexico! by January 1932 — all he needed was an additional $8,000 for the Mexican Revolution sequence. Sinclair, claiming “near bankruptcy,” pulled the plug on Eisenstein’s epic, but promised to ship the negative and work print to Russia for the crucial editing.

His visa expired, Eisenstein was forced to return to the Soviet Union where he suffered the consequences of his insubordination. As a result, he would not complete another project until Alexander Nevsky in 1938. Before leaving the United States permanently in April 1932, the filmmaker viewed the Que Viva Mexico! rushes in a New York screening room. Sadly, he never would see the original footage again.

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Sinclair did not keep his promise to Eisenstein. Hoping to recoup his losses, the controversial writer handed over the director’s material to Hollywood producer Sol Lesser, who had the film edited by other hands and released as Thunder Over Mexico in March 1933. Ironically, Fairbanks and Chaplin would endorse this mutilation of Eisenstein’s work. Lesser cannibalized more of the director’s footage by creating two short films in 1934, Eisenstein in Mexico and Death Day.

Back in Moscow, Eisenstein could do nothing but decry the butchering of Que Viva Mexico!  by “someone’s grubby hands.” However, the pain ran deeper. “This whole affair has broken my heart to the point where I have become disgusted with cinema and have not made a film since,” Eisenstein wrote in 1934. The director completed only three more films before his death in 1948.

Though much has been lost, the surviving images from Que Viva Mexico! linger in the memory — notably the disturbing parade of skulls and death masks in the Day of the Dead sequence. Legendary filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel (Los Olvidados), John Huston (The Night of the Iguana) and Orson Welles (the unfinished It’s All True) would benefit from Eisenstein’s exotic, surreal vision. Regardless of the controversies surrounding its making and unmaking, there is much to admire for historians and cinephiles alike.

And the odyssey is far from over.

Since 2003, the Mexican Picture Partnership Ltd. has been working on a reconstruction and restoration of Que Viva Mexico! (utilizing previously unseen footage from the Upton Sinclair estate). When completed, the contemporary project will be 30 minutes longer than the Alexandrov version.  One eagerly awaits this ambitious re-examination of Sergei Eisenstein’s love affair with Mexico.

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DVD Review: “Strangler of the Swamp” (1946)

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If you were looking for independent cinema during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the closest remnant was an occasional “B” feature from a low-rent studio — notably Monogram Pictures or Producers Releasing Corporation (affectionately known as PRC).

Once in a while, a filmmaker of remarkable talent languished briefly on Hollywood’s Poverty Row and made the most of a meager budget. Perhaps the best-known “independent” directors from that period were Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar G. Ulmer, who transformed their ultra-cheap productions into cult classics such as Invisible Ghost (1941) and Detour (1945).

Largely overlooked was the contribution of German writer-director Frank Wisbar, the individual responsible for the finest low-budget horror film of the 1940s, Strangler of the Swamp. Produced by PRC, this little-known “B” movie was a 58-minute remake of Wisbar’s 1936 classic Fahrmann Maria. Amazingly, Wisbar duplicated the dark, misty atmosphere of his earlier film with a paltry $20,000 and a one-week shooting schedule.

Though ignored upon its 1946 release, Strangler of the Swamp managed to rise from the cinematic dead — thanks to a detailed chapter in historian William K. Everson’s 1974 book, Classics of the Horror Film. Since then, Wisbar’s thriller has maintained a loyal following and is available on DVD through Image Entertainment.

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Rather than create a traditional horror movie, Wisbar emphasized mood and expressionistic style in this gothic tale. The plot centered on a ghostly ferryman (played by Charles Middleton, best known as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials) who swore his vengeance upon the swampland villagers responsible for his wrongful hanging — including their descendants, one of whom must sacrifice their life to end the shadowy curse. This becomes a problem for young lovers Rosemary LaPlanche (the 1941 Miss America) and Blake Edwards (in one of his few screen roles before he switched to directing) as they confront the deadly legacy of the strangler’s wrath.

PRC’s shoddy production values work to Wisbar’s advantage. Except for a few brief exterior shots, Strangler of the Swamp exists in a claustrophobic, studio-bound world. The visuals remain appropriately eerie thanks to Wisbar’s inventive use of the primary set, which encompasses a deserted ferry and the murky swampland. “The twisted trees, the lack of sunlight or moonlight, the constant ground mist, all contrive to hide the boundaries of what must have been a very small set indeed,” Everson wrote in Classics of the Horror Film. “It is an example of how genuine feeling and style can be extracted from even the cheapest film if the director cares.” Little did PRC realize that Strangler of the Swamp would prove to be one of the studio’s finest hours.

The performances are surprisingly restrained, with Middleton making the most of his limited spectral presence. Though romantic leads appear to be a necessary evil in horror films, the portrayals of LaPlanche and Edwards have a darker, more humanistic quality than the traditional Hollywood product. Unfortunately, the romantic subplot is overlong and dissipates some of the tension that Wisbar built in the first half. However, the director regains his footing with an effective climax that incorporates some unexpected religious overtones.

Along with Strangler of the Swamp, Wisbar helmed another low-budget chiller during his brief stay at PRC: the less-successful Devil Bat’s Daughter (1946), a belated sequel to Bela Lugosi’s The Devil Bat (1941) which didn’t even feature the bloodsucking horror icon. He later formed his own production company and entered the realm of television before returning to his native Germany in 1956. Wisbar died in 1967 at age 68, his work mostly forgotten except for rare appraisals from cinema historians.

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Strangler of the Swamp is not the rediscovered masterpiece some have claimed, yet it remains a textbook example of Poverty Row filmmaking. In terms of mood and atmosphere, Wisbar’s imaginative vision evokes the subtle terror of RKO producer Val Lewton, who revolutionized the horror genre with “B” classics such as Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). The fact that Strangler of the Swamp was produced at a small fraction of Lewton’s $150,000 budget makes Wisbar’s accomplishment all the more remarkable.

Regrettably, the pictorial quality of Wisbar’s film has deteriorated since its initial release. With the negative presumably lost, Image has done its best to restore Strangler of the Swamp for DVD, but the overall print lacks the sharpness of a 35mm master. Still, horror buffs should be grateful that the movie exists after decades of obscurity.