Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1967

Monday, March 02, 2015

Young Jack in the Post-Poe Po-Mo Hellman Hole: THE TERROR, THE SHOOTING

The legendarily muddled Roger Corman Poe-ish Gothic horror THE TERROR (1963) famously came together spur of the moment when, supposedly, Corman still had two days on Karloff's shooting schedule on THE RAVEN (1963). Not wanting to waste them, Corman shot some stuff of Boris walking around in what remained of the castle sets for THE RAVEN, trusting a film could be built around it with minimal effort and cost. He was right about the minimal, but that's the film's shaggy dog-eared charm. Francis Ford Coppola went up to Big Sur to shoot some exteriors, and then later, Jack Hill as writer and Monte Hellman as director came along to reshape, rework, and reconfigure, shooting in and around Playa del Rey, Leo Carillo Beach, and what was then the AFI. So there's a lot of hands in the mix here, with the final product being enigmatic as intentionally as possible while hitting all the traditional bases.  The final product is more than the sum of its parts, but whose authorial voice is it that results when the 'more' is factored? Corman's usually wry, hip but never anachronistic Gothic "voice" isn't here, and Coppola's style isn't really noticeable any more than, say, Dennis Hopper's might be on THE TRIP), and Hill's balls-out stealth feminist drive-in moxy isn't there, but Hellman's vanishing point identity and existential narrative-dissolution is. And in the context of j subsequent enigmatic masterpieces, THE TERROR fits beautifully, perhaps even situating his two later acclaimed existential works THE SHOOTING (1966) and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971) within a more immediately graspable mythic context then they might have if seen solely as examples of their respectively associated genres, and vice versa.


The Hellman style wasn't yet a recognizable 'thing' in 1963, but after seeing his more well-known works you feel that innate "Hellman-ness" formed in THE TERROR's dreamy 'edge of forever' tide pools, the ambiguity of relationships and the fluidity of identity, especially where "the woman" is concerned. Hellman's female characters tend to control the action around them almost unconsciously, yet they themselves are often void of distinct personae except as surfers of the oceanic unconscious, archetypal currents billed in the credits as "the woman" or "the girl." This anima ambiguity perfectly fits the ghostly figure played by Sandra Knight in THE TERROR as she appears to lost Cavalry officer Lt. Andre Duvalier (a young Jack Nicholson) at various points along the shore or cliffs, sometimes luring him to a would-be doom, or to maybe sometimes in her other form as a falcon, or she was the falcon the whole time and asked the sky witch for human legs, or she's a ghost or a girl who thinks she's a ghost in the middle of an elaborate revenge. While you could lump that concept in with NIGHT TIDE, THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA, THE SEA WITCH, THE ASTOUNDING SHE-MONSTER, i.e. low budget horror films that use a girl and some waves (both super cheap, especially if one is your girlfriend) as a low budget Bergman art-horror hybrid, you'd be selling the talent of Jack "SPIDER BABY" Hill and Hellman short, who were coming in for the second half of a project begun by Corman as a straight Poe-ish Gothic, with Coppola adding an old witch and the idea that the ghost might just be a hypnotized daughter (Hill and Hellman rather than twisting further toward normalcy brought it farther out, into the suggested transmigration of souls, the transitory nature of the flesh, and the relentless corrosion of time's ocean tide whiplash.



Part of the weird effect THE TERROR has on fans such as myself, is that it never seems to tell the same story twice. In order to understand how and why, you just have to dial your focus out and consider the film's post-release history, the differing hands at the helm being just one aspect. THE TERROR fell into Public Domain a long time ago, and ever since has shown constantly, first on local TV in the pre-cable era, then on $5 video tapes, then nearly every 100 movies for $10 DVD horror collection on the market. And since there's no quality control, the film often appears edited for time, with out-of-order (or missing) reels, faded color, cheap VHS tracking issues (carried over onto cheap DVD burns), scenes cut and added from different prints of different quality, etc. If you're a classic horror fan you've seen THE TERROR dozens of times, maybe never even intentionally... and seldom all the way to the end, making it perhaps the benchmark for what fantasy and horror fans call dream (or nightmare) logic. Because it's so atmospheric, and fun--especially considering Nicholson is so young and sometimes confused--it's endlessly re-watchable even if you're not really watching. You can fall asleep to it real easily, and dream your way right in.

Young Jack with then-wife Sandra Knight - THE TERROR;
Middle Jack with Maria Schneider - THE PASSENGER
This has helped, of course in making the film 'great' in the sense that you can watch it a dozen times and never understand it or have any idea you've seen it before, and it never gets boring (or exciting - it's perfect), making it a great gateway drug to dream logic extremists like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. And if you're a filmmaker of any caliber it's a call to arms, because it's an example of how in our mind fills vaster voids than bigger-budgeted auteurs can etch, and absence of coherence is the same as just enough, and our unconscious savors the randomness our conscious minds resist. And I don't mean that with any disrespect. From the loftiest Kubrick enigmas to the accidental Brecht of your child babbling at you about a film they saw in school while you watch TV commercials with the sound muted, that's it, that's the end of sentence. For true artists find the third route, neither right nor left, but purple; not forwards nor backwards, but red, and balloon, and Jeff. And it is thus that man can become totally lost in between, where dreams cohere and dissolve above the sordidness of conscious ass-dragging desert, a cloud of slow-mo exploding books lapping into seahorses, and against all this might a Napoleonic officer be separated from his regiment and wind his way among the staggering primordial cliffs of Big Sur, California.

Karloff, making three movies at once just by standing there
And all that is my way of defending the loopy narrative of THE TERROR, which answers unasked questions with more questions. So it's the daughter of Isla being hypnotized into seducing her father to kill himself by posing as her own mother, whom he killed 20 years ago... did I get that right?... Or was Erick Ilsa's lover who posed as count after killing him in an effort to assuage his remorse? And she's the ghost because... he killed her too? As she and the count were having an affair? And the witch is the girl's mother who brought her spirit back to wreak revenge or is she Erick's mother? Is young Jack like one of those smitten lovers who winds up alone as his vampire lover vanishes in the waves at the end of a typical Jean Rollin vampire movie? Supposedly Sandra Knight's Helene isn't really 'Isla, the Ghost of the Baroness von Leppe' but Eirk's real daughter (or wife) whom he tried to kill and so an old witch keeps her around... hypnotizing her? But who is Karloff, then? The servant or the Baron? Substitute a dotty old handyman for the witch, and that's the plot of the similarly elegiac Monogram Lugosi film THE INVISIBLE GHOST, another Public Domain title we all saw constantly back in the 70s and which made no sense at all for kids too young for 'nightmare logic' --in other words, we didn't need our linear narrative preconceptions disrupted, we were still trying to form them!
One patriarch's madwoman in the attic is another man's ghost on the lawn
So, yeah, there's a lot of contradictions and cross-current enigmas, but that's when semiotically inquisitive post/modernists like Monte Hellman come alive. And the final cumulative impression of THE TERROR when you finally do see the whole film, after all these centuries, on remastered Blu-ray, sober as a judge, at a beauty contest, with a cracked AA chip he's trying to bet in a poker game, is a weird bittersweet reverie on death, memory and how film disintegrates when washed in a salt water flood tide lapping up against moldy stone.


Because in the end there is no right answer to what's really going on or who these people are, and that's the film's charm, that's Monte's modernist difference. Every thread doubles back on itself, refusing to pick a side, until the strange and haunting ending, where it's just yet another beautiful girl's youth and beauty slowly peeling away in the Big Sur tide to reveal the ancient foe, eternity's ancient ally, time's twisted waxwork skull as the soul flies free as a predatory bird in the Bergman dawn. When all is revealed as melting clay returning to the sandy foam of the Pacific, then the world will be seen as it really is, not meaningless but so packed to overflowing with meanings and counter-meanings and alternative deconstructions and author intents and last minute story changes that all meanings are there at once, exposed on the forked rocks. Ironic then that it had to be pulled from the sludge, cleaned up and digitized before we could savor its analog tactility.

from top: TERROR, SHOOTING, TERROR, SHOOTING, TERROR, SHOOTING
If "Monte Hellman's THE TERROR" still doesn't resonate with a profound metatextual dimension, consider its ambiguous 'collapse of identity' aspect as not accidental, but as creating an ancestry, a back story, for Hellman's acclaimed existential western THE SHOOTING (1966). It was Hellman's first western, and he filmed it back-to-back for Corman (but without Corman's influence or presence), with the more recognizably 'genre-specific' RIDE THE WHIRLWIND, out in the Utah desert. With colors recently remastered for the Criterion Blu-ray, under the eye of Hellman himself, the two films look better than they probably ever have, even on drive-in screens (where they were created to be, as a cowboy double feature). They were the first films Hellman had made in the States since working on THE TERROR (he made two films, also starring Jack Nicholson, in the Philippines--where life is cheap, and so is Corman--in the interim), THE SHOOTING especially echoes THE TERROR in the way the characters seem adrift somewhere between life and death, outside the normal confines of civilization and its conforming consensual notion of cause and effect. It starts in a recognizable location, but there's never any 'town' with a sheriff, nor bar fight, nor whore house; only alien primordial terrain, characters hoping their forward movement will mask their amnesia (i.e. like Karloff's character in THE TERROR, Warren Oates here may either be a twin or actually is his own brother, and one regularly wonders if even he knows the difference).


It's this terrain-based amnesia that makes THE TERROR and THE SHOOTING readable as parts one and two of a very strange textural existential genre meltdown Hellman trilogy (along with 1971's TWO-LANE BLACKTOP), a strange mirror to Antonioni's trilogy of BLOW-UP (1966), ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) and--also with Nicholson--THE PASSENGER (1975). In TERROR,  the plot twists are layered back on themselves, then unwound back to separate fibers as if time's moving diagonally backwards while moving up and down the shore, in and around the castle, as Young Jack continually tries to find the mysterious woman, demanding answers from Old Karloff when even the writers might not know. THE SHOOTINGs movement is out into the white blank of the desert, until its far too late to turn around (or reach civilization), all Warren Oates' common sense outvoted by a headstrong nameless "woman" and a smirky gunsel dumb enough to buy her damsel act; TWO-LANE BLACKTOP also has a nameless young girl (Laurie Bird) making trouble for some men otherwise involved in wandering the landscape, but this time in cars, no vengeance, just a race for pink slips. A marked step up in art house complexity from THE SHOOTING (which was itself a step up from TERROR), BLACKTOP manages to keep in almost constant motion along America's back roads and highways without going farther than a few inches inward or outward, or anywhere: Oates is now a GTO driver who sees each new hitchhiker as a chance to change his backstory; and the "Driver" and "Mechanic" have no backstory at all, it was slowing them down, so they tossed it overboard. When the dust finally settles on 70s cinema, it will be TWO-LANE BLACKTOP that wins the pink slip AFI road movie run, all else is vanity. (See Stillness in Motion: CALIFORNIA SPLIT / TWO-LANE BLACKTOP).

Mystery Woman thy nameless Hellman 

Sandra Knight as ?? ("Helene / Isla The Baroness Von Leppe")  - THE TERROR (1963)
Millie Perkins as ?? ("Woman") - THE SHOOTING (1966)
Laurie Bird as ?? ("the Girl") - TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)
The plot of SHOOTING involves Warren Oates as a tough as nails gold miner laboring at he and his brothers' claim in the middle of the Utah Nowhere. One of his brothers has rode on out of there like blazes after maybe running over a kid or something the night before Oates returns - it's never entirely clear. So when a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) shows up offering to pay royally for his service as a guide across the desert to a nearby town (where the brother may have went), Oates agrees to handle it, but is he the one who did the thing she's going to go avenge, whatever it is? Is he really going to let them shoot his brother? The vagueness of motivations is clearly intentional, which makes us wonder if the TERROR's was too. Which came first, a love of open-ended existential landscape wanderer identity-collapse (fueled maybe by Antonioni's 1962 film L'ECLISSE), or the need to situate Corman's low budget and off-the-cuff 'shoot first make sense later' raw material in some kind of framework? Did Julian Schnabel break a dish by accident, and decide to use it in a painting, or did he break the dish on purpose? Answer: chartreuse. 

"The Patients and the Doctors" (detail - c. Julian Schnabel)
By the end of Hellman's trilogy (I've dubbed it the "The End Trilogy"), we know for sure that he's finally reached the 'break with breaking' as TWO-LANE BLACKTOP runs into an abrupt and final apocalyptic projector jam celluloid burn, the ultimate fusion of experimental, narrative, pop culture, and metatextual Mecha-Medusa media formatting. But it's been a long road to that apotheosis along two fronts, the meta one being a result of the first two films enduring decades of public domain (or in SHOOTING's case, pirated) dupes, and BLACKTOP encountering legal troubles due to lapsed royalties on a Doors song heard for less than a minute on some guy's radio as the boys drive past the entrance to the drag strip.  In THE TERROR the decomposition and erosion of Helene's face (or rather, Corman's drizzling carmel syrup on her to save money on make-up effects) mirrors the billion year-old erosion of the stones the Utah desert and its scorching emptiness in THE SHOOTING, which mirrors the vacant highways of BLACKTOP, that's textually, but the metatextual mirror is the ever more blurry and washed-out duping, now recently replaced by gorgeous remastered Blu-ray. The vistas in THE SHOOTING are now staggering, dwarfing the people traveling through them while mirroring their actions or vice versa in the way the stars predict our fates (or vice versa).

THE SHOOTING: In nice remastered form
Average blurriness for PD dupe: THE SHOOTING (1966)
I remember seeing the shitty SHOOTING Madacy disc awhile ago and imagining how great it would look if ever seen in the proper formatting and with colors restored instead of the muddy muffled blur it was on that crappy disc (Madacy may you die a thousand deaths). But now that this has been done and I have both Blu-rays, I can't help but feel that they, too, miss something that those blurrier 4:3 crops had, the protective fog feel of the crumbling, outmoded non-digital reproduction, the protection from real life offered by the abstracting bath of video to video to video to video, that oceanic whip of disintegration, the law of the universe, until all is white as snow and wan and gone... but our imaginations fill in the fog.

From HD to PD: THE TERROR (1963)

If I had the artsy time, I would edit a 'dissolution edition' of THE TERROR into a cohesive 'unfinalized' cus, I'd make an edit that starts for the first half hour or so with the new widescreen HD remaster, then devolve to the widescreen new DVD, then the old shitty dupe full screen DVD, and so on down the ladder of quality and formatting... until it's as impossible to see as those old dupes of dupes that Max and I made in college, while drunk, from our two connected VCRs and then never watched, and eventually threw away. I think, then, it would all make sense, kind of like Bill Morrison's DECASIA, but in reverse:


What initially appears to simply be a surface effect that is not a feature of this world rapidly begins to suggest otherwise: that the decay we see twisting faces, burning bodies, and cutting holes in the world is not just the effect of time on nitrate film stock, but rather an inherent feature of the world itself rupturing the imaginary divide between then and now. The ravages of time apparent on this film are also the decay inherent in the world it depicts, and a part of the world that produced these images." - Michael Betancourt [Dread Mechanics: The Sublime Terror of Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) - Bright Lights 1/14/15)
In other words, it moves into Hellman existential country, the dissolving coherence of the image mirroring in nitrate clouds Hellman's vanishing point ambiguity. I'd add that the Blu-ray of DECASIA itself might be factored into this. Very old celluloid after all decays in very trippy ways which on Blu-ray are impossibly beautiful, abstract in ways no lifetime spent on After Effects or Final Cut could match. The compromise of the media formats of lesser quality in the century between the nitrate of the '10s and the Blu-ray of the other '10s aren't as aesthetically gratifying: streaky, not aesthetically pleasing or artsy in the DECASIA sense. In fact there's just such a video! VHS GeneraTion LOss! It has its own weird poetry...this is my generation!!


But even that wouldn't be complete,
the madness doesn't end there.
Clips from THE TERROR
would be used again, intertextually,
by Peter Bogdanovich.
It's what plays on the drive-in
during the Aurora-esque shooting spree of


And so, THE TERROR's exquisite cadaver
refracts further than its border.
There's no melting Knight can end
Post-Modernism's funhouse mirror runoff.
Only Orlok/Karloff coming down off the screen
to cane crazy Bobby can stall the carnage.
Even then, no end,
any more than an ever-forking 
hydra capillary river, which
Even dried to the bed or flooded to the hills,
never unspools in full


but permutes long past 
its original intentional
meaninglessness, its 1920s gallery opening
purpose. Its refraction's
Long since ceased to shock,
and still its taloned hawk truth
affixes anchor barnacles
to the Big $ur Prometheus.
Her Him groaning, sloshing up into his crevasses!
How twisted deep the hawk's talon shadows
between his glossy, mossy rocks,
his liver, like the liquor, is gone
but still post-modernism's waves lap dance on.

That means, too, it can still do its job,
and if you have the stereogram-staring patience,
the perfect meditation-intent-determination-entheogen
and-paranoia combination, on the perfect night
at the perfect showtime...

you can still free yourself with fire.
BLAM BLAM!
BLAM!

(you shoot into the light)

You are for.....given

Monday, February 23, 2015

10 Reasons DREAMCATCHER (2003)


Whenever it gets super snowy and chilly as it has recently I think of DREAMCATCHER, the unreasonably maligned gonzo sci fi disaster-masterpiece from the minds of Stephen King, William 'Adventures in the Screen Trade' Goldman and Lawrence 'Big Chill' Kasdan. Sure it's not great, maybe it's not even very good, but it's got a gonzo self-determination that transcends so many traditional horror and science fiction annoyances I can forgive it near about anything. Right now for example I'm watching half-watching THE GIVER, a hungerer after the teen dystopia market that may as well have been written by a computer. I wanted to see it to continue my teen dystopia thread from a few months ago and see what kind of magic Jeff Bridges could whip up, but it was so glaringly simplistic I felt cheap just for having it on. And so I exhumed this piece from my drafts folder instead, for there's no doubt that DREAMCATCHER is written by humans.... who freely aim not for the teens, or the adults, not the elderly but... ex-stoners in the middle of their fourth midlife crises? Wherever and why ever, I salute its far out gonzo glory. It may miss the ball a few times, but at least its swinging for the parking lot instead of the LCD dugout.


1. ESP altruism as children - The boys get their talents by first rescuing the 'special needs' human Duddy, and then using his and their powers to locate a missing girl. The dreamcatcher is visualized as a web that connects them and each develops a psychic special power - and remain connected by the threads of their psychic energy, which gives them a collective courage. I felt my heart soar when the littlest kid picks up a rock and says hell yeah I want to fight, even if the the guys way bigger than all of them torturing poor Duddy behind the woodshed. He picks up two rocks and is ready to go down swinging because he's sickened by the sight of their sadism and how it reflects on these guys - they even say no doubt the fastest one in their group is going to run home and tell his gossipy mom. No hesitation about ratting them out, never considering making it a playground thing rather than a genuine offense. I subscribe to the adage in Over the Edge that a kid who tells on another a kid is a dead kid, but assault of big on small kids is a different matter entirely.

Most these sorts of film, the Stand by Me and so forth are totally about growing up "normal" oddball kids, the one fat dork, the thin little nerd who be good on computers, the older hunk with a drunk single dad, the token black kid with no real personality other than being black, etc. - but these four dudes who we see in flashbacks to their formative elementary collective ESP Dead Zone moments, are a believable group of friends, genuine badasses who give each other extra strength, and they stick up for the little guy, even if they're even littler. This one little kid just picks up a rock to even things out, and is totally ready to jump in and fight guys twice his size. It's how sticking up for someone else can give you lion courage unavailable for ordinary self-defense, and it's world's away from most of the rote bullying we see in childhood movies. These scenes of childhood aren't rushed or slowed, not given DP-craftsmanship autumnal glows, et al. they don't need that shit because they're legitimately well done. I don't mind if the film is exploring very familiar Stephen King territory (the ESP or psychokinesis of The Shining, Carrie, FirestarterThe Dead Zone etc.), Howard Hawks did the same thing! Keep riffing on what works, keep exploring but using what you know how to do as a base.


2. Donnie Wahlberg as The magical mentally challenged-psychically savant Duddy - Unlike so many magic mentally challenged kids, this one is never seen as somehow backwards so much as 'sidewards,' i.e. once you 'speak' his language you realize he's a genius. And I know how these kids can trigger psychic awakenings because one happened to me with this kid, Victor. Learning how he thought, what he was trying to say, while I was still way out on a psychedelic acid awakening. I got what he was trying to say and he got all excited because most strangers couldn't understand his garbled syntaxes, but I could in my state. I would delight him by acting all normal and straight when other people were around but when it was just us too I'd play music and dance on the couch like a five year-old maniac. He'd be in paroxysms of happiness, and in return he cast some weird mystic spell on me - where I knew as long as I avoided negative thoughts and my first thought each morning was positive I would exist in this state of transcendent gratitude. Plus, Donnie W. really disappears into the role giving Duddy a comprehensiveness as a character that's worlds away from "Gotta watch Wopner" or "Life's a box of chocolates."


3. Gonzo goofball Resolve - the whole thing with Lewis inside his inner filing room shouting out the window as the alien who possessed him sets about eating people - some people might call that a way too literalistic drawback but I say hey, this film is going for distance (1), and it doesn't care if you think it's dumb. A lot of horror movies work better in an audience, but I can imagine seeing Dreamcatcher with the wrong crowd being a pretty miserable experience as all the exasperated sighs and confusion take hold. But without critics in the room, and no cash or drive time outlay, it's weirdness can stretch its legs.

4. Starts in the middle of a covert alien war, sparing us all the doubt on the part of the military's willingness to accept what's going on. And I dig the alien invasion in the snow motif, which recalls Hitler's big Battle of the Bulge campaign, i.e. wait until it's super snowy to catch them all unawares.


5. It's like reading a real Stephen King novel:  With twists and turns and each character doing their thing, and encountering a military presence in the midst of another skirmish, lots of snow and New England charm, all very Kingly. And rather than constant crosscutting it plays little mini-chapters between characters. It takes it's time and spreads itself over two hours and fifteen minutes, which since it's on streaming is just fine as it can be watched like a Stephen King novel... in chunks where you occasionally put it down, but it keeps you reading because you have no idea where it's going except deep into the blood-strewn snow of King's New England. Like most of his fiction it might be a little overdone and not have a strong ending, but more than any of his other filmed works, DREAMCATCHER really captures the internal monologue conversations, pop culture situated references, prosaic four letter New England cut-the-crap-itude, and pressure cooker fear generators so intrinsic to his enduring popularity.


6. The aliens can do just about anything and look like Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors on crystal meth when they're not in The Thing x Invasion of the Body Snatchers disguise. Plus they are not without a self-aware sense of humor: they can come right up your ass or down your throat like a combination tape worm / moray eel / ALIEN face hugger, and plant not just one little monster egg, but a writhing legion.

7. Lawrence Kasdan bringing wily, witty profane 'Big Chill'-ish dialogue and black humor to a zippy script. 

8. Duddy's mom: Rosemary Dunsmore creates a nice aura of loving gravity and courage around her son in her one big scene. Knowing her son is dying and that he might die by the end of the weekend, but she's aware that he's called upon in service of something higher even if she can't quite understand what that is."Okay, go save the world," she says as they mount their stolen military black Humvee. How rare is it that a mom can be so chill about sending her critically ill mentally challenged son off into the freezing cold to battle some abstract alien menace on what will certainly be a one way trip? Kasdan and King are fans of horror and know just when to have characters step up to the Hawksian heroics plate even if it flies in the face of Hollywood's treasured 'logic of the heart' and all its tedious inside-the-box moral inevitability. Mrs. Duddy knows this is a boy's movie, so don't bother trying for a BSAO, stand the fuck back and let the kids play through. It's the most heroic gesture in a movie full of them.

9. The great cast also includes: Jason MALLRATS Lee; Timothy THE CRAZIES Olyphant, Thomas "I just want my kids back" Jane; Donnie SIXTH SENSE Wahlberg; Damian HOMELAND Lewis; Tom THE RELIC Sizemore and frickin....

10. the Zu Warrior eyebrows of Morgan "Passin' Water" FreemanThere's usually a sense that either the military is good or bad depending on the political orientation of a film but here they are both good and bad and the natural likable gravitas of Morgan Freeman is cast against type as a man who's been dealing with these aliens for the last 25 years and is thinking globally to the detriment of the infected locals, all of whom he wants to kill off to be sure the disease doesn't spread. A less draconian superior is called in and so there's two military factions one good and one dubious, or too harsh for most. There's a great moment when the aliens are acting all childlike and innocent and Freeman's like doooon't trust them. He might be wrong but he's so very right, just like DREAMCATCHER itself!

Last but not least is the groovy snow blanket creating just the right mood of preternatural stillness and you have a flawed gonzo classic I enjoy a lot more than the critically acclaimed 'kids together experiencing weird small town events' King adaptations like STAND BY ME. It's got the loopy flashback-laden middle-of-the-action, slow built-to-nowhere structure of one of King's novels, weird and wondrous cast and a plot that, like other 'Ten Reason' entries THE THING (2011), GHOSTS OF MARS (2000), and DOOMSDAY (2008) ping-pong pinballs past so many classic genre film bumpers it becomes a whole new kind of beast/s


NOTES: 
1. "Going for Distance":  a common drunken Syracuse treehouse expression from 1987-91, i.e. to puke as far away from oneself as possible, while standing, head held high, rather than bent over a toilet like some common scrubwoman - but then also extending to mean not holding back in genral, burning up all your stashes and telling your old lady to go home and go to bed because you're staying up all night, all the next day, and forever, until -'poof' magically you wake up on some floor or couch somewhere. An example of going for distance might be Lennon and Nilsson's "Lost Weekend" 

Monday, February 16, 2015

William Powell's Retrograde Psychedelic Amnesia: CROSSROADS, I LOVE YOU AGAIN


Amnesia is always a great topic for the movies, furnishing a built-in self-reflexivity vis-à-vis the movie watching experience itself. We all start any movie an amnesiac (unless it's a sequel or based on a book we've read), instinctively sizing up clues as to what's what and who's where and why when. As far as narrative identity, we start the film lacking the whole backstory of each character, and we could wind up identifying with, rooting for, or against, nearly anyone until finally the good and bad pieces sort themselves out. In two very different and worthwhile amnesia movies, the comedy I LOVE YOU AGAIN (1940) and the noir mystery CROSSROADS (1942), William Powell plays an amnesiac bounder who suffered a radical personality change when was hit on the head, ten or so years before the film begins, and its left him a staid stalwart and sober citizen, the opposite of our beloved rogue Nick Charles. In LOVE, he receives a second bump on the head and returns to his past bounder self; in CROSSROADS, the bounder self awakens to find him. Either way, if split-self compartmentalization be the music of a sober AA paragon constantly re-telling tales of his wild and drunken past, split on.

I LOVE YOU AGAIN was the big break that launched the Powell amnesiac trend, a rollicking comedy that Powell aces in a complicated leading role opposite his perfect cinematic mate, Myrna Loy. The drab wartime fashions and broad gray palette the indicate that comedy, not art direction is the order of the day. CROSSROADS, on the other hand, is a Hitchcock by way of Sirk noir melodrama, all long Siodmak midnight blacks and murky Parisian novel plotting. In film, William Powell's conk on the head-amnesia brings an initial run of sobriety and loyal decency - and getting hit on the head again might mean a reversion to his criminal side. To give away more would spoil them, spoil the post-modern amnesiac cinema frisson, but just know that in LOVE he starts out as Larry Wilson, a small town tea-totaling bore on a cruise who gets conked on the head diving overboard to rescue a drunk Frank McHugh. When Larry wakes from his conk in his stateroom, it's not as old staid Larry but his original self, George Carey, a charming, quick-thinking grifter much more like the William Powell we love. Realizing his interim self, Larry, about whom he remembers nothing, might be rich, this George Carey--with eyes alight and body careening around the stateroom--makes plans to loot his bank account, assisted by Frank McHugh, who turns out to be a fellow con man and immediately has the good sense to latch on for the ride.

pre-conk - '85
Post-"conk" - '86

I love this early scene because Powell plays it like I used to feel during those early sophomore year psychedelic trips, wherein all my old worries and dull habits were wiped away (see my Larry self, at senior prom, left) with a single psychedelic 'blow' and I was alive to the joy that lay beyond all fear, pacing my dorm room like it was a new dawn, my old self a thing of the past, an old husk of a cocoon. It felt like the dawn of a new rising sun, regardless of the actual hour. Hendrix blaring, and a hitherto unknown part of myself emerging like a paisley butterfly from my cracked-open forehead, me terrifying the flaky joneser slowly drinking all my beer over in the corner on my groundscored couch; I even walked out of my dorm and left the building, with my door unlocked and wide open, music still playing on my turntable, all lights on in the dead of night, so free was I of all concern. Naturally, I wasn't robbed. I couldn't be harmed as long as I was so aligned with the Tao, though of course it lasted only a few weeks before the old Larry self came creeping back; I had forgotten all about those times, that total instant post-conk transformation, until I saw Powell exhibit that same aliveness in his turn from Larry the sober cheapskate to George, the fun drunk con artist.


Returning to Larry's home town, McHugh posing as Larry's doctor to explain why "Larry" must have lots of rest and be excused if he acts peculiarly, as in not recognizing Myrna Loy waving at him when he gets off the train. "He must have lots of alcohol!" Larry's ten years of sobriety he doesn't remember as Carey was surely good for his liver. Now he can get back to processing THIN MAN-level toxins. But will George's attraction to Loy get in the way of this noble plundering and deep elbow-bending? It's pretty funny when he meets her on the dock and can't tell who she is, the wife, girlfriend, random stranger, or does she just thinks he's hot, the way Kay Francis did in ONE WAY PASSAGE? It turns out she's in the process of divorcing him because his old self was so sexually inhibited and boring. She's unaware he's now this other character from before they were married. George is everything Larry wasn't, but he can't tell her he changed lest she wise up and deny him Larry's riches. Can he meld the two and become a less chicanerous but not boring whole self? Can he, in short, drink moderately?


In the end, if he's a much closer approximation to his savvy souse of the THIN MAN movies than a noble bore, he's the very man for her. But let's face it, having such a drunken rogue as a husband requires indulgence, tolerance, and her own level of booziness to not get mighty fed up. Once can only imagine what the nights are like when there's no murder to solve. If Nick's hollow leg is anything like mine, you can drink anyone under the table and still pass for sober when needed, but for just so many years and then - booom! You're done. Once that hollow leg is just filled it can never be emptied.

I Love You Again (1941)
It's interesting too because they're both getting older, so Loy's no-longer-patient wife is less able to embody those tolerance tropes. And you can tell their rapport is strained because they have such affection for each other as actors it hurts to see them hurt themselves hurting each other. It hurts her to be mean to him, to force him to re-examine his notion of himself as an adorable souse. Drinking men Loy's age slide into sobriety, moderation, or an alcoholic ward with Bim and his little turkeys in straw hats. They seldom get a second chance to detox their liver for ten years before they, as we say in AA, turn from cucumber to pickle, and there's no way to turn a pickle back into a cucumber. For an actress whose been granted-- or perhaps burdened--with excessive MGM-brand dignity to make her romance with either version of Powell believable, Loy's had to mellow, and so they seem like Nick and Nora Charles if Nick joined AA and got super boring and preachy for ten years and Nora was so sick of how unfun-Bobby he'd become she filed for divorce and started dating the local Bellamy, but when Nick relapses she loves him again and hence the title! His co-dependent stammering and soft-shoeing and trying to get her drunk make a weak wooing combo, but it all starts to work, as the magic of booze always does, until it finally doesn't, and takes off its loving mask to reveal the cold sadistic demon beneath. But who can't forgive a little torture when even if just for a moment the true bliss?

Love Crazy (same year; same dress? tries too hard)
This movie is awesome so it begs the question, why haven't I seen it sooner? I've drunk more bourbon watching THIN MAN than most people drink in their entire lifetime. But I got I LOVE YOU AGAIN confused with the far lamer LOVE CRAZY, another Myrna Loy-William Powell comedy of remarriage, which I watched back before I had read Stanley Cavell and knew what to look for and so disliked it, and still haven't been able to get into DOUBLE WEDDING, which I was so bummed out by LOVE CRAZY, I got confused and thought all non-THIN MAN Loy-Powells were as wartime watered-down as Garbo's TWO-FACED WOMAN (also 1941). I shouldn't have been so brittle, I could have been drinking to so much more! Shrooming, too. For LOVE YOU AGAIN's giddy stateroom awakening from stale Larry to foxy George is as about as succinct an encapsulation of dorm-at-dawn sophomore year peaking as I've seen in some time.

There's a bouncy script  and some great bits that just fly by: Frank McHugh staggering around the ship bar in the opening scene shortly before falling overboard, a patron at the bar notes McHugh appears intoxicated. "wha'd he say?" asks Frank McHugh -- "intoxicated," the bartender's drunk himself so it sounds like "he toxicated." "He did that?" McHugh asks appalled--- and you realize he heard 'he toxicated' which sounds brazenly gaseous. There's also some snazzy rousting of Herbert (Donald Douglas) Loy's dimwit new boyfriend  (i.e. 'the Bellamy') while she and Larry are in the midst of divorcing, and man, what good, dirty writers could do with the old trope about 'coming upstairs to look at my snapshots' or in this case, taxidermy ("I'll never stuff another squirrel as long as I live!") In some ways it's like the screwball version of BIGGER THAN LIFE!!

But the THIN MAN chemistry is like a faded rose on these two characters, and that adds a vibe of sadness --we've come to rely on Nick and Nora's sophisticated co-dependent chemistry to invigorate our ever-threatened conceptions of marriage. We loved how Nora would pretend to be sore at him for his constant drinking, how relieved we were in she smiled that wry pixie nose wrinkle half-smile to indicate she was just as pro-alcohol as he after prepping us for one of those drab buzzkill wife sermons so common to lesser romantic mysteries (such as in RKO's attempt at the THIN MAN formula, STAR OF MIDNIGHT --see "Without a Slur"). So it breaks our heart in this non-THIN coupling to see how that pixie glimmer has gone from her eyes. Alcohol is the spinach for this marriage's Popeye, and its absence has left their love near dead from iron deficiency, so it becomes intrinsic to George to inflate the old give-and-take back to life, to avoid being bumped on the head again, certainly, and most of all to strike it rich with a phony oil deal and to convince Myrna he's changed permanently before enough Larry creeps back he starts gets all small town noble.

But first many areas of small town life are milked for comedic goofiness, including a Boy Scouts award ceremony and a department store razzing (for his past Jack Benny-level cheapness). It's a firm reminder we did the right thing by moving out of the suburbs, how glad we are to be in a place where no one ever knows our name and an American is judged not on the color of his Elks Club tie or his ability to sublimate sexual desire into tiresome Norman Rockwell community-building, but on his wit, virility, and in-the-moment alacrity.


In LOVE, Powell the grifter wakes up from a nine year coma of being Powell the staid bore; in CROSSROADS (1942) that same (slightly cooler) bore's a diplomat in Paris who woke up with amnesia after a bad boat accident ten years earlier, and so can't account for much of his grifter gangster past -- but he's been his new self long enough he's married a gorgeous European gal (Hedy Lamar, never prettier), and become a trusted success. A letter arrives requesting money owed by his old shady self, a self he has no memory of, and the intrigue begins. Just as each personality didn't know anything about the life of the other in I LOVE YOU AGAIN, here we have the grifter emerge only in the court depositions of the old molls and jakes who come out of the woodwork to be cross-examined in what may be the coolest most intelligently written court scene ever (Parisian, naturellement). By jove, there's none of the excess legal jargon that clouds the pens of lesser hacks. Claire Trevor is the savvy showgirl grifter shadow to Lamar's playful Grace Kelly-esque younger wife; then there's Basil Rathbone leading nose-first into the proceedings, leaving us to wonder if blackmail's just another word for you owe me money but you don't remember. How convenient.


Right off the bat, CROSSROADS lets us know we're in strange country: a brazen student at his witty lecture seduces David (Powell) in a car it later turns out to be his wife, a fun jest that casts a weird glow over the rest of the film, like he could be playing the same game on the audience and his friends from the get-go, and a lawyer here is even smart enough to ask how long an actor might stay in character before he officially becomes that character, as in common law marriage or naturalization. At an hour or less (ala Lamar's ruse) it's just sparkling play amongst sophisticated people; at over an hour its theatrical acting; at over a month it's dissociative identity disorder (DID); at over five years it's retrograde amnesia. Longer than that, it's who the person really is; now the old, original self is the act.

Helping matters is the out-of-time feel of the figures from David's past (when he was Jean Pelletier). Lamar seems modern like a Velvet Underground version of Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW but the mysterious woman claiming to be Jean's old flame (Claire Trevor -left), wears her hair piled high like she just drifted in from the 19th century; and in her shadows lurks the aquiline silhouette of mighty Rathbone, stalwart heavy of Victorian mellers. The wet soundstage impression of a noir Paris muddies and blurs (maybe its TCM's print) like ink gouache across a....oh, man, but Heidi's pretty.

Also showing up is Sig Ruman as a bad doctor, Frank Bressart as a good one, and there's lots of great navigating the language and class barriers and Babel towers, like a blind man feeling for the bathroom in the dead of night. The script is maturely engaging and thought provoking without needing to rely on cheap thrills, soap or sentiment. David regularly makes smart decisions we normally don't see his brand of noir protagonist make.

The mature noir chain to LOVE YOU's bouncy Runyon pendant, CROSSROADS might not be as lively but it's got its own weird midnight beauty and might have my favorite Lamar performance. And to think I avoided both films for years because I got them mixed up with DOUBLE WEDDING and LOVE CRAZY, both of which I saw and was gravely underwhelmed by.

Hey, it's not my fault, it's the dumb titles and similar plots. Without the THIN MAN structure, the chemistry of Loy and Powell often overflowed and swamped lesser vehicles, especially if dragged under by frilly post-code censorship and daftly interchangeable, meaningless titles. LOVE CRAZY was made after I LOVE YOU AGAIN, with a similar comedic plot (acting insane to prevent a divorce). CROSSROADS followed, more serious, sans Loy, but with a similar amnesia formula, further adding to my split self confusion upon reading the blurb (i.e. mixing up LOVE YOU AGAIN with LOVE CRAZY, then CROSSROADS with I LOVE YOU AGAIN).

 So there you go the whole story of two films about assumed identities and fading marriages rekindled by lively alter-egos, and me, a viewer so confused by their bland titles that I waited to see them until this latter period in my film watching life. Don't make the same mistakes I did and let fuzzy blows to the head or drugs to the pineal fuzz your roll into the suicide split screen duplicate machine. Powell makes the jump with mere conks to the noggin. Can you do less? The screen shall split you whole if you don't mind first surrendering your individuality in the service of a grand war. Does that mean relapse, or just a feigned slur? Sometimes drunkenness isn't the same thing as not being sober. This is one of those times. It's called the movies.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Pre-Code Capsules: THE MAD GENIUS, UNION DEPOT, WATERLOO BRIDGE, THREE FACES EAST, DANGEROUS CORNER

THE MAD GENIUS

1931 - Dir Michael Curtiz
***1/2

TCM finally showed The Mad Genius (1931), a film I've wanted to see for so many years I all but gave up and figured it was a myth, but now... at long last, here it is, filling a gaping hole in my heart, providing the sordid pre-code Barrymore 'impresario-and-theatrical protege' cross strut between the same year's more cinematic and dreamy Svengali (here)and 1934's Twentieth Century. Indeed they all follow the same plot, one more than familiar to show biz types: a middle-aged but still dashing impresario (Barrymore in all three) seeing the potential in dopey young bumpkins and dragging it out of them while meddling in and/or dominating their love lives. In this case it's man-on-man action, with Barrymore as Tsarakov, the club footed son of a ballet dancer and a Russian duke (who doesn't claim him), tortured with genius and longing for dance. We first spy him doing puppet show ballets in the rain before the thighs of little Frankie Darro leaping away from his abusive Cossack father catch his eye. Tsarakov and his long-suffering assistant (Charles Butterworth) spirit young Darro off in their gigantic carriage to conclude Act One. It was originally a play and you can tell by the way the dialogue spells out the big ambitions, triumphs and chicanery rather than just illustrating them in little insert scenes, but who cares since Barrymore's doing the dialogue in his measured  yet over-the-top Russian accent, the expressionist sets are by Anton Grot (who also did Svengali's) and the dialogue is psychopoetically self-aware, in the best scathingly myopic Broadway tradition? 


The second act takes place ten years later and all pledged greatness has already come to pass, sparing us any boring training montages. Darro's grown into that perennially sulking leading man Donald Cook, now the greatest male ballet dancer of his time, and our once-bedraggled Tsarakov is drenched only in fur and ladies. Tsarakov keeps him supplied with women and champagne but is always on the look-out to stop him falling in love with some naive marriage-minded Debbie Reynolds-type, wisely so. And when Marian Marsh turns out to be just that type, craving the kind of wedlock and fealty which pleases the censors (invariably the type crept in, like a fungus harbinger of the code to come). Tsarakov must end it! For, as Lermontov well knew in The Red Shoes, putting romantic love ahead of art is death for a dancer. But as in that film the maestro gets his strings tangled trying to separate them and ends up tripping up, and then getting his boy back by reminding Marian Marsh of the third act of Camille and sending her off into the diamond circlet-proffering mitts of some louche lord.

Sure it's an age-old story but the censorship-as-nature's-tyranny parallels are nonetheless clear: these innocent lovers are the harbinger of the Nazis, of Joseph Breen's racist, sexist draconian code rubric, of goddamned Norman Rockwell-cheeked mailmen and freckled youngsters and blandly healthy age-appropriate lovers singing 'sweet' style-songs (you know, the half-pint Irving Berlin-on-Benadryl imitations for the Christians who thought Glen Miller was too black). Gone will be the debauched old givers of diamond bracelets and fame in the classical arts. in with husbands and fey pianist neighbors. Out with scimitar-brandishing demimondes and in with wives in bobbed hair making breakfast while the baby cries and the man heads off to menial labor, laundry on a line stretched across the window leading out onto a garret roof --all the crap that so appalls poor Humbert in the final act of Lolita.

Lolita sells out to biology's pedestrian fascist squalor
But though there's some of that in The Mad Genius, it's still too early in the pre-code era for it to swamp the decadent expressionistic corruption. Barrymore's outside the stuffy bourgeois costumed towers of MGM, so his Tsarakov doesn't mope when his star runs off, just gets royally blitzed on champagne and takes up with the newest chorus trollop (Carmel Myers, above). 

I'm a big fan of Marian Marsh due to her Sgt. Pepper era-predicting look in Svengali: the oversize gendarme coat, Dame Darcy bangs and long straight blonde hair, her sweet pixie face so perfect for hypnotizing... her Trilby is like the counterculture hippie bird 36 years early, with Svengali a Manson-level manipulating pied piper. Here that anachronistic hipness is gone. That great blonde straight hair cropped unflatteringly in the style of the time and she's got big gangly legs when she dances, like she's been studying the bowleg flapper wobble of Ruby Keeler instead of a swanky Ballets Russe pirouette. Carmel Myers reminds me of one of my own past Trilbies, though, so I'm a fan. Ah, the debauched libertine life has treated me well. The having kids and laundry lines thing pays dividends I'm sure, which we playas never care to imagine, and just as the shelf life of a dancer is very limited, and the life of a pre-revolutionary Russian dance impresario with a rolodex full of debauched libertine nobles, doomed to die on the altar of art; so too louche bachelors inevitably wind up lonesome old men shuffling to and fro from the Strand Bookstore, while family men bask in the alleged comfort of grandchildren.
 
But we're not talking real life here. These are the movies. 

And director Michael Curtiz knows we didn't come for sappy young love or Frankie Darro or regret, we came for Barrymore and blondes, and Curtiz is one of the best at zeroing in on what we want to see--in this case Anton Grot's trippy art direction (including a great pagan god stage show finale), pre-code luridity, and Barrymore's crazy eyes. For example we get Tsarakov's junkie stage manager/conductor Sergei (Luis Alberni) cracking up before the big show, trying to get Tsarakov to give him one of the hits of smack he keeps squirreled away, delivering a raving Dwight Frye-esque rant, expressionist Anton Grot mood pouring the pre-code horror all over him, on and on ranting about the incessant screaming of his frayed nerves playing the same music over and over, the thud of dancer's feet, etc. he's literally falling apart like Peter Lorre at the end of M. Tsarakov gives him a pretty strong lecture about the joys to be had once cold turkey is endured, but then we see Sergei shoot up in the shadows and suddenly he's striding out onstage ready to go on with rehearsal as calm as a cucumber! It got a huge laugh out of me, and probably out of the play's sophisticated audience. It's a very rare moment of joking about heroin addiction. Soon addicts like him would be as verboten as sleeping your way up the social ladder and getting away with murder.

Ach, these Philistines! They always get the girl in the end while the mad geniuses die crucified on the altar of their own grandiosity. So best make sure Anton Grot makes the altar for you, and that you let Barrymore loose upon his part like a hungry socialist wolf upon the neck of old world Europe. Let the moral majority suck up the banal happiness of the romantic age-race-gender 'appropriate' pair bond while they can. Ben Hecht cometh and Lily Garland is no Trilby, or my name isn't Oscar Jaffe

WATERLOO BRIDGE

1931 - Dir. James Whale
****

From a play by renowned Algonquin wit Robert E. Sherwood comes a startling, touching saga that has a great kinetic stream-of-rainy London nighttime momentum, atmosphere thick with James Whale's signature mix of midnight expressionism and cozy warmth. Roy (Douglass Montgomery) is an inexperienced Canadian soldier on his way to the front who runs into Myra (Mae Clarke) on her way down to the prostitution gutter, both while trying to help a dotty old Apple Annie-type down into the air raid shelter. Soaking wet, confused, cold, each noticing the other's kindness, they share some food in her cold water flat while the colorful landlady hovers outside waiting for Myra to convince Roy it's his own idea to pay her rent (though it's James Whale, the old lady isn't hovers around waiting for Myra to seduce this green recruit into paying her rent isn't Una O'Connor).  He's so excited to meet an American during an air raid and they get along so swimmingly that the whole first chunk of the movie flows almost in real time. and Mae Clarke especially has never been better, tackling Sherwood's complex creation without resorting to Vivian Leigh ostentation or Harlow harshness. Love blooms quickly, after all, in wartime: marriage and combat pay making sure he doesn't die a virgin and she doesn't end up a streetwalker.

It's hard to fathom, but there it is, an American struggling with the pressures of a class thing. "Some of us are lucky and some of us aren't," Roy says. "That's just the breaks?' He's Canadian, so why the hell would she want to get class-conscious with a man who will most likely die a virgin otherwise? It all makes her that much hard to bear when she starts acting noble, believing the bullshit patriarchal line about her own lack of worth on the open market. Clearly Whale doesn't believe it, nor Robert Sherwood --they love this girl and we do too, and we like the kid, too. The way Montgomery plays him is years away from the usual smirky adenoidal morons of the pre-code era so often embodied by, say, William Gargan or Charley Farrell. You can tell Whale really sussed out their attraction for them, and like most actors, they respond like plants finally getting properly watered. It's Mae Clarke's big show all the way, though, and we see how easily she might have become as iconic as Stanwyck or Harlow if the material stayed this good. Her voice crackling with alternating currents of tenderness and bitterness, body recoiling from the sordid ease with which she bilks the kid out of his bankroll, Clarke is totally stunning, and the Myra's shady past is alluded to without direct stating fits perfectly both Roy's genuine innocence and her jaded gifts with the female art of deception. It's interesting she played the 'good girl' for Whale in FRANKENSTEIN the same year. In a sense, she's the monster here, though she's the only who believes it. It was BABY FACE and RED-HEADED WOMAN a few years later that would declare the girl didn't have throw herself into the path of a dropped bomb to spare herself the shame of having to tell her lover she's no good, just no good that's all.The great fez-wearer Frederick Kerr (above left) is also carried over from FRANKENSTEIN (or was it the other way around?) for some welcome comic relief as a semi-deaf duffer in the country estate, Bette Davis is in the 'cool younger sister-in-law' mode, who likes Myra just fine. Director Whale and Sherwood were both veterans of the WWI trenches, so there's some savvy of the slow grinding death spiral of daily death-wading folded into the British fog.

---

UNION DEPOT

(1932) Dir Alfred E. Green
***1/2

The best thing about the early First National-Warner's stuff is, you just never know--up to a point--what's going to happen next, especially when the focus is on an array of things going on in a train station, a scene so crowded with extras so good at seeming like they're hustling for trains we can't tell if it's not real, not a documentary. We're treated to an array of comings and goings and bag checks, all centered around two genial vagrants on the make, one of whom (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) magically winds up with a drunken Frank McHugh's bag, which happens to have a suit in it that fits Fairbanks perfectly, and a wad of bills in the pocket, and the only reason he got that was because he had lifted a train conductor's coat, literally, via a stick through the men's room window. So a chain of events is underway and neither he nor we know where it's leading.

So now Fairbanks Jr. and his pal Guy Kibbee are doing pretty well, to the point Doug attracts a chippie, then shines her off while eating a nice steak dinner, which we really feel since he's been so hungry a few beats ago. Anyway, circumstance all coheres around a counterfeiting plot and a nice violin case MacGuffin, and there's a white knuckle finale train yard brawl, Fairbanks leaping down on his quarry from atop train cars, and men being continually judged on their clothes and wallet instead of what's in their heart and fist. There's also some pre-code slams, especially when Blondell goes with Fairbanks to a private room, ready to sleep with him for train fare even though it's her first such transaction. Her fluttering mix of fear, desperation, and feigned élan is like nothing you've ever seen before or since. She also has a pretend-blind stalker pawing his way along after her, and that plus the counterfeiter getting his wallet lifted make it nail-baiting enough I shouted curtly at my girl when she tried to talk about bacon preparation right at a key moment. And I love bacon.

DANGEROUS CORNER

(1934) Dir Phil Rosen
***

Melvyn Douglas stars as a bit of a rogue in a publishing concern that--and this would be considered uncool by the early code--is co-ed-owned and operated by a group of men and women, sharing duties equally, mixing business and pleasure and turning it all into a kind of cocktails and ritzy MAD MEN-style client seducing constant. The women don't have to choose between career and romance as it's all seamlessly interwoven, noted with some interest by their best-selling author client, an Agatha Christie-type who's visiting New York to sign a contract. A blown radio tube leads to conversation about a missing chunk of cash meant to be a retainer for a different author, but the cash disappeared awhile ago and they've been avoiding dealing with it. Eventually the truth comes out but maybe sleeping dogs should lie, and maybe they still can.

One wonders, though, in the end, what the point of it all is. Did playwright J.B. Priestley need to subtextually validate why he stayed in the closet or chose not to public with his mistress? Either way it's all very mature, the idea of women being totally men's equal in every facet of their shared business is marvelously progressive, and the romantic roundelay of everyone married to the wrong person all comes to the fore pretty fast. Luckily the cast is up for the challenge and then there are numerous twists and the ending is a gotcha of the sort I normally don't approve of, but which works here as a kind of suggestion that killing yourself might just involve 'skipping' into alternate dimensions, gradually becoming immortal by living several variants of your own life all at the same time, and death just shrinking the number of available dimensional planes down farther and farther, until one's next lives have already begun so you can let the last one of the old ones go, i.e. quantum suicide.

THREE FACES EAST

(1930) Dir. Roy Del Ruth
***

With her weird Betty Boop-shaped head, Joan's sister Constance Bennett has always had a rare who-gives-a-fuck ease with sex and cinematic luxury, suggesting a girl who actually lived in the manner and custom of tony Art Deco decadence before, during, and after her stint as a star, rather than just playing the parts. She's ideally cast here as a WWI German spy whose handler is Erich Von Stroheim, posing as a butler in a British lord's mansion in order to monitor the dispatches to the front. Bennett is sent in to pose as the wartime fiancee of the lord's killed-in-action soldier son, to open the safe and get news of how many American soldiers are coming into the war to lift France and England's sagging spirits. The result are some tense and sexy scenes of her snooping around the mansion in the dead of night, and it all looks pretty sparkling for a 1930 film. Both Bennett and von Stroheim have perfect prep school diction, so they're perfectly matched to the primitive sound equipment, and as the spy master who falls hard for Constance, we don't blame von Stroheim one bit, nor does he lose our high esteem as a result of his groveling. Who could resist her in all those fine glistening silks, bosom and hips heaving in the studio moonlight as Englanders in pajamas stir into action at the strange noises she's made opening the safe (like a female Raffles). And best of all, there's no mention made at the end or elsewhere about the daffy young officer who professes his love for her; he's forgotten as soon as the mission is complete. Damn right. Director Del Ruth wisely focuses instead on the tragic arias of Erich von Stroheim--in a role perhaps heralding his eventual iconic bit as Norma Desmond's butler in SUNSET BOULEVARD--and the Hurell-like shimmer of Bennet's magnificent legs as she peels off her silk stockings after a hard night spying.