1930s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Erotic, French cinema, Mystery, Romance, Short Films, Thriller

Night at the Crossroads (1932) / A Day in the Country (1936)

La Nuit de Carrefour / Partie de Campagne

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Jean Renoir

By Roderick Heath

Sometimes a famous name can be a boost or a burden. Or just a name. As the son of one of the most lauded Impressionist painters, Jean Renoir’s attraction to cinema gave the young art form an aura of matured sophistication, but might well have also lifted a few eyebrows in sceptical intrigue. If Jean ever seemed oppressed or dogged by the challenge of proving himself an artist in his own right, he never showed it in his films, which evinced only sublime freedom of form and spirit. In spite of his father’s schooling of all things visual and Jean’s initial interest in sculpture, Renoir was deeply attracted to the theatre, and film offered him a chance to blend two separate artistic realms and better refine a new one. Although today enshrined as one of the quintessential cinema masters, Renoir was too restless, droll, and politically tinted an artist to always be readily accepted in his day, although many of his works found swift and great favour, like the antiwar tale La Grande Illusion (1937), which managed the feat of getting nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, a first for a film mostly not in English.
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But Renoir’s association with the Front Populaire, the progressive and radical coalition that briefly came to power in France before World War II, made him a target for the right, and his best-regarded film, The Rules of the Game (1939), released on the cusp of conflict, stoked public ire despite being merely a tart ledger accounting bourgeois tomfoolery, subtly indicting the country’s self-congratulatory upper classes of detachment from their countrymen and blithe indifference to oncoming reality. Renoir himself had been the product of a gloriously unfettered childhood and had fought with distinction as a young man in World War I. His sharply diastolic worldview was formed then with a gift for depicting both the elating absurdity and gnawing distress of the human condition, his surveys sometimes acerbically critical, often warm and indulgent; even his regulation wartime propaganda film This Land is Mine (1943) champions communication above action. Renoir started making films in the mid-1920s, collaborating on Une Vie Sans Joie (1925) but really finding his feet with an adaptation of Emile Zola’s tale of an actress turned courtesan, Nana (1926), starring Renoir’s wife Marguerite, a first his cinematic muse and then indispensable collaborator.
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Renoir’s shoots were virtual family affairs and relied on a tight-knit team of collaborators. After acting in his movies Marguerite started editing them, whilst his nephew Claude would begin as a camera operator and eventually become a lauded cinematographer, whilst Jean himself and his brother Pierre acted in several. As he moved into the sound era, Renoir turned out a string of corrosively funny, brusquely intimate portrayals of squabbling class avatars and human frailty, like the hapless clerk and Sunday painter who gives himself up to life as a wandering hobo after killing his grotesque mistress in La Chienne (1931), or the fellow vagrant who refuses to be domesticated in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932). In the midst of the Front Populaire’s heyday, Renoir made several films including the proto-neorealist effort Toni (1935), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), which portrayed the murder of a sleazy capitalist to allow a successful experiment in a worker’s cooperative to continue, and La Marseillaise (1938), a recounting of the French Revolution’s most fervent hours, which bore out Renoir’s simultaneous capacity to embrace radical new causes whilst also extending sympathy to figures caught on the wrong side of epochal tides.
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It feels right to look at Night at the Crossroads and A Day in the Country in concert because they’re both relatively short fruits of Renoir’s great period, and that diastolic sensibility is plain from their titles on down. Both films are set just beyond the outskirts of Paris, at locales serving the passing trade and beset by a mood of isolation and transience. They share a quality with Shakespeare’s pastoral plays of being thrust out beyond the usual norms of civilisation and forced to improvise a different moral order. The day/night schism erected between the two works begs for a clever artist to render them porous, and the undercurrents of pining disappointment that finally defines A Day in the Country is mirrored by the final sense of new chances in life that comes with the dawn in Night at the Crossroads. Both films take on material adapted from highly regarded authors. Renoir made Night at the Crossroads specifically to honour one of his favourite then-contemporary writers, Georges Simenon. A Day in the Country was an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant, a friend of Jean’s father and the other Impressionists, and an artist who shared with them a certain gruff and zesty dedication to reflecting on life as he saw it.
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Night at the Crossroads has a certain legendary cache because it was very hard to see for a long time, and even today supposedly still has a reel missing. One reviewer compared it to Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) for being an ostensibly rational mystery that still feels imbued with a nocturnal and numinous atmosphere even after the fade out. It was also the first adaptation to feature one of the most famous detective characters of all time, Simenon’s cagey, calm, modest but unrelenting hero Inspector Jules Maigret, played here by Pierre Renoir. The film’s first image, under the title card, is of a blowtorch at work on a safe in otherwise pitch black, an introduction to the mode of inky darkness and troubling illumination the tale unfolds in, the sense of forces at midnight working like termites at the fabric of the stable world. The movie proper kicks off with a series of sociological jokes as a motorcycle cop pulls in at a service station at the crossroads, in a drab semi-rural locale. The gang of workers who labour at the station mockingly read out society engagement announcements. The bourgeois couple in one of the neighbouring houses, the Michonnets (Gehret and Jane Peirson), note the behaviour of ostensibly rich people who also pay on instalment plans, and instantly accuse their neighbours, a Danish brother and sister, of stealing their car when they notice it missing.
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The Michonnets lead a posse into the Danes’ yard and break open the garage, but get more than they bargained for, as the car is inside with a corpse sitting up within. The dead man is a Jewish diamond dealer from Brussels named Goldberg. The Danish man, Andersen (Georges Koudria) is arrested and grilled over the course of the day by Maigret and his assistant Lucas (Georges Térof). Renoir conveys the passage of time during the interrogation by cutting away to a newsstand where the developments in the story are reported in the day’s newspaper editions – the morning’s fresh news becomes the sludge being swept up by a street cleaner in the gutter – and then returning to the ever more crowded and smoke-riddled inspector’s offices as the interview continues, the smoke from the anxious coppers growing thick in anticipation of the fog that looms about the crossroads. Finally, Maigret is obliged to release Andersen, but decides to travel out to the scene of the crime to try and get his bearings.
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The idea of disorientation is realised on a cinematic level by Renoir as he unsettles and fatigues the eye with his oblique framings, peculiar edits, and frustrated viewpoints. Information feels random and broken-up. Far from impressionism, Night at the Crossroads takes place in a cubist trance. Physical objects – gasoline pumps, cars, house interiors – seem imbued with a form of life, as they’re shot in a way where the human characters are glimpsed through frames or behind looming imminences, or seen darting through scantly lit patches of ground. The branches of the roads that link at the titular crossroads fade off into murky night or boiling fog. A sequence in which Goldberg’s wife is driven to the crossroads only to be shot by a lurking sniper takes place in oceans of dark punctuated again by small pools of light, his rifle-wielding killer looming as a vague silhouette, a nocturnal monstrosity. Renoir’s customary, breezy use of location filming, one aspect of his cinema that made him a precursor to the neorealists, avoids the imprint of the expressionist style that was waning in its native Germany but gaining new use in Hollywood, even as Night at the Crossroads succeeds in feeling as rarefied and odd as the first Universal horror films.
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Elsewhere Renoir’s camera mimics Maigret’s incisive, quietly registering method. A little vertical tilt of the camera follows Maigret’s gaze as he takes in the appearance of one of the station works, registering the dissonances. A close-up of a cigarette packet tells the Inspector of visits to unlikely quarters. The little world Renoir creates here is solid, tangible, sensuous, at once torpid and agitated. Exploring the new possibilities and practicalities of sound, Renoir utilised on-location recording. Scenes are filled with the din of passing cars and bustling activity, and occasionally there are disjunctive matches in the noise from shot to shot, an aspect that seems crude at first but also helps reinforce the overt mood of dislocation. Renoir shows a more exact sense of how to exploit sound as he utilises a tune heard first on one of Else’s records and then on the accordion played incessantly by the station workers to tip the detective off to the hitherto unexpected link between the two camps. One sequence, in which Maigret interviews the garage men, is loaded with Renoir’s mischievous sense of behavioural quirk as one man idly flips a jack handle and then begins sawing away on a machining job purely to aggravate the Inspector during one of his interviews.
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Night at the Crossroads is a beautiful time capsule of a slightly grubby, wayside corner of pre-war France, one that seems to have had a powerful impact in some Hollywood viewers, like Howard Hawks, whose The Big Sleep (1946) feels particularly under this film’s spell in parsing the harshness of the crime film through a thin veil of the otherworldly. Indeed, much of the poetic realist style’s fascination for characters on the margins of gritty, industrial France and the later film noir mode’s obsession with femme fatales and troubled antiheroes might well have flowed from this well. Here the perverse temptress is Andersen’s supposed sister Else (Winna Winifried), who seems the incarnation of the narcotising pall that hangs about the crossroads, languorously rolling upon cushions as Maigret tries to interview her, flashing her gartered thigh, or caressing her pet tortoise, perhaps the most amusing apt pet in film history. Else is actually Andersen’s wife, but she’s really in thrall to her former husband Guido (Manuel Raaby) who is hidden amidst the coterie of criminals that hides in plain sight about the crossroads, who utilise the service station as the base for criminal enterprises including robbery and drug smuggling. Else is used by Guido as general purpose concubine to keep his gang in line, with Andersen, who married Else in the hope of elevating out of the squalid criminal universe, tied fatefully to her. Soon the criminals try to murder him to keep him quiet. The criminal alliance that spans the crossroads becomes Renoir and Simenon’s sarcastic cross-section of French society, eventually building to the inevitable punch-line that they’re all in league to pull off something crooked in a twist reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express.
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The workers in the garage who do the dirty work, the sniping, readily offended Michonnets who act as fences, and the lurking aristocratic duo in the big house, all share nefarious motives – even if things prove a little more complicated. The collective of criminals feels like an ironic precursor to the workers’ cooperative in The Crime of Monsieur Lange. Renoir considers Balzac’s maxim that great fortune is always the product of a great crime, and seems to wonder half-idly if the path to a socialist society might lie down the same path. Although nominally a femme fatale, Else feels like a rough draft for the hero of Boudu Saved From Drowning, a self-confessedly lazy person who exists as a project of betterment and/or exploitation for others, but who eddies amongst her own thoughts and whims, barely aware of the niceties of civilisation. Winifried is a fascinating presence who was Renoir’s find for the film, reminiscent of the German star Sybille Schmitz in her aura of languorous eroticism, but made very few films. Anderson looks like a characters strayed out of a Fritz Lang film with one lost eye concealed behind a black monocle lens, a touch that makes him ineffably odd, a creature of proto-science fiction, human and mechanism coming together. And yet he turns out to be the one well-motivated character save the policemen. Andersen is a prototype for Erich von Stroheim’s Von Rauffenstein in La Grande Illusion, a sad remnant of a figure, damaged, mechanism-aided physique, fallen from his station and adrift in a mean and grubby present.
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I suspect the reason cinema beckoned so irresistibly to Renoir over art forms was the promise of movement. Renoir’s films vibrate with peripatetic energy and a sensibility close to a pantheistic feel for the landscape as a living organism in itself, and a concurrent contempt for the stifling immobility of civilised conventions and quotidian social structures, unnatural forms with no flexibility or dynamism. The urge to movement is often literalised in his characters who, if they have no place to go but also no reason to stay put, give themselves up to the logic of flowing rivers, speeding trains, open roads and anxiously inviting frontiers. Renoir actualised this anxious, liberating joy found in surging speed by often including a shot from a camera affixed to the front of a car or train, precipitous images of racing speed. The stuck-in-the-mud mood of Night at the Crossroads belies this motif to a certain extent, but then gives way as Lucas chases after the criminal band, laboriously catching up with the vehicle and swinging about with giddy speed as the villains loose shots at their pursuers. Renoir might well have been thinking back to Louis Feuillade’s serials when he took on Night at the Crossroads, but the surrealist spirit of such models is dovetailed here into a seedier, more mundane yet just as untrustworthy reality. Another great joke conjoined with a surreal affect comes when a doctor is called in to treat a wounded man; the doctor (Max Galban), called away from a night at the opera, arrives in full eveningware, complete with top hat and white gloves, like he’s about to play Master of Ceremonies for walpurgisnacht.
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Love and sexual passion are usually privileged in Renoir’s films to a degree that almost seems to ape the stereotyped French affinity for romanticism. The titles of both Night at the Crossroads and A Day in the Country contain the seeds of an obfuscating joke, associating both locations with aspects of opportune erotic adventure; the dejeuners of the later film face, and leap into, dalliances which Maigret spends a great deal of his story avoiding, as Else constantly tries to provoke the detective, the ever-attentive copper refusing to be drawn but clearly on occasion having a hard time of it. If A Day in the Country sees Renoir exercising the theme at its most apparently blithe and freewheeling, Night at the Crossroads finds lurking neuroticism and pathos as Maigret becomes a distraction to Else’s ultimate choice of between Guido and Andersen, who suffers for his love with a bullet in his back. Else herself seems to mildly prefer Maigret himself, and the very last frame sees Else grasping the detective from behind. But of course he’s one of the most famously married law enforcers in pop culture and moreover he’s the stern guardian of social structures. So Else makes a final, dutiful trudge up to see Andersen, at least rejecting Guido and his poisonous influence over Guido’s howls of protest, which might be amour fou or mere petulance from the Apache chieftain that his suzerainty is finally ending.
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When Renoir would return to tales of murder and smouldering jealousy, he would however dispense with the safe and generic mediating figure of the detective; his Emile Zola adaptation La Bete Humaine (1938) would again take up the theme of two men attached to one woman driven to acts of inchoate criminality and passion, but viewed from within that vortex, and the key image of headlong flight into modernity glimpsed from the viewpoint of Jean Gabin’s ill-fated train driver with the lingering temptation of self-consuming crack-up at the end of the line. A Day in the Country, by contrast, retreats into a bucolic past, a portrait of Edens lost, a place free of psychic and physical pressure from bustling machines and harsh contemporary facts. All the better for Renoir to take a closer, more exacting look at the dance of seduction and the evanescence of pleasure. Accounts regarding the production radically diverge. Some have claimed it was essentially left unfinished, as Renoir became frustrated with the weather, and eventually dashed off to get working on his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1936), and that Renoir’s assistant director Jacques Becker, who would go on to be a highly regarded filmmaker himself, reportedly shot some footage. Renoir however insisted that the project was always intended to be a short film and he resisted his producer’s encouragement to expand it into a full feature.
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The resulting pile of celluloid sat on the shelf for nearly a decade, during which time war broke out and Renoir moved to the US, where his interest in people on the fringes of society was evinced in regional dramas like Swamp Water (1941) and The Southerner (1945). Eventually, Marguerite Renoir sat down and carefully cut A Day in the Country together and it was released as a 38-minute movie almost one decade exactly later. Whatever the truth behind the film’s shoot and its long marination on the shelf, if might well be a great argument for such messy method, as it’s one of the most perfect artefacts in cinema, an island of expressive concision and theme realised through filmmaking. The title and basic notion seem carefully tailored to recall the works of Renoir’s father and his artistic alumni, who often went off on jaunts in the countryside to try and capture perfect visions of the world and the people at large in it. A Day in the Country was also an inferred glance at the new freedoms the Front Populaire’s reforms allowed to French workers, with enshrined shorter working hours and paid holidays, to pursue leisure in a manner once reserved for the kind of prosperous bourgeoisie Renoir depicts here. Not that A Day in the Country is any kind of political tract either.
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The story is as simple and universal as the plot of Night at the Crossroads is knotty and obscure. Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello), a successful tradesman, takes his wife Juliette (Jane Marken), his mother (Gabrielle Fontan), his daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), and her fiancé Anatole (Paul Temps) out for a buggy ride in the country just outside Paris, on a fine summer’s day in 1860. Approaching a riverside restaurant, they decide to stop and have lunch. Dufour and Anatole are both enthusiastic to do some fishing and are initially frustrated when they can’t get their hands on some rods. Henriette sets her mind on a picnic under a cherry tree by the river. Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) are two gentlemen idlers whose day of calm and quiet time-wasting hanging about the restaurant and playing chess is spoiled by the sounds of the shrill and excitable city folk arriving outside. Upon catching a glimpse of the feminine pulchritude suddenly on hand, irritation swiftly turns to resolve to seduce the ladies, which proves, on the whole, a rather easy task.
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Renoir had taken initial, powerful inspiration from the lacerating intimacy of Von Stroheim’s films, and A Day in the Country could be described as Renoir’s take on the countryside trek and intended seduction in Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), shed of melodrama and moralism. Jean-Luc Godard, who greatly admired Renoir’s works even as he remained temperamentally antithetical to them as a director, would push the cycle of inspiration on by tormenting and misshaping Renoir’s template into Weekend (1967), tossing in one brief recreation of Renoir’s riparian placidity to ensure the connection. Renoir’s film celebrates passion in a manner blissfully, if finally with a flutter of heartbreak, disconnected from worldly business or moral judgement: there is only the purity of the erotic urge as an end in itself to be served by any willing party. As Renoir’s cinema matured, his grip on the rhythmic flow of his images and sense of how to use the space in a frame most exactly became surer and indeed scarcely rivalled, and A Day in the Country is a pure study in space as a cinematic value. The film’s key joke even depends on it: Rodolphe opens the restaurant windows to “enjoy the view,” and opens the window shutters to behold the sight of the mother and daughter riding upon swings, a frame opening within a frame where beauty of multiple varieties spills on.
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The two men look on like wolves in a Friz Freleng cartoon. Young seminarians marching by halt in distraction, needing a swift clip on the ear to get them moving again. Randy energy permeates everything; Dufour even mentions that the clasps for the oars on the riverboats are called dames. Later Madame Dufour tries to rouse her dozing husband after their meal with memories of past sexual adventures, but the torpor of bourgeois self-satisfaction has descended. It’s heavily hinted Henriette and Anatole’s looming marriage has been arranged; Anatole is probably one of Dufour’s employees, an overgrown calf more interested in fish than sex. Renoir casts himself and his wife as the Poulains, owners of the restaurant, serving up the goodies. But the mood isn’t one of mere, simple bawdy potential. Henri confesses to Rodolphe his exhaustion with carnal relationships with uninteresting women, and the project the two men set for each-other has a quality of dutiful adventuring. Rodolphe isn’t even particularly concerned when Henri abruptly takes more interest in Henriette rather than her mother. Meanwhile Henriette feels protean longings in the face of oncoming future. She’s tentative on a boat for the first time, worried she might fall in, and impressed by Henri’s easy way with rowing.
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If Night at the Crossroads is defined by its aura of hazy entrapment and immobility for most of its length, A Day in the Country, whilst seemingly far more placidly paced and becalmed than Renoir’s headlong contemporary fables, is actually rendered in a mode of constant, restless motion, conveying the giddy thrill of escaping a city where “there’s not enough oxygen,” as Dufour proclaims, into a land of sun, greenery, and lung-filling freshness. Renoir here offers a shot from the cockpit of the day-trippers’ carriage as they glimpse the restaurant on the roadside and read its signage with agreeable pricing. He attaches his camera to the swings upon which Juliette and Henriette ride, conveying the giddy sensation of being unshackled from the usual bonds of life and gravity. As the film reaches its climax the entire landscape comes alive, grass swaying, reeds thrashing, branches flicking, swing ropes dancing before the camera, the river waters pocked and pummelled by rain, all nature in concert with the thrill of fucking in the bushes.
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The river, the road, the railway, all courses that are ultimate symbols and shaper of Renoir dramas. Of course, one day he’d even make a film called The River (1951). Just as the water drives Boudu back to his natural state, Henri wants to flee the threatening encroachment of Paris (“Parisians are like microbes – admit one and you’ll have a colony in weeks.”) by heading upstream, but then the waterway bears the two makeshift couples down towards leafy beds. Henriette is resistant at first to Henri’s suggestions they land on the riverside and take a breather, only for Juliette to gaily float by, gleefully giving herself up to the designs of her self-appointed “Romeo” who then becomes into Pan chasing here around the tree with stick blown like pipes. Henriette lays down in the grass as Henri kisses her and Renoir swoops in for a colossal close-up of the girl’s tear-stained face, a portrait in conflict between social self and natural self, perhaps the ultimate theme of Renoir’s cinema (small wonder he’d go on to do his own take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, 1959).
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Collapsing facades gives way to elemental passion and the world falls into chaos before reshaping itself into the old, placid mould. A postscript scene redefines what we’ve seen, however. However many months or years later, Henri rows downstream alone to visit the scene of “my happiest memories.” He finds Henriette there, lying on the grass with Anatole. She sees Henri and approaches him, and reveals that she too can’t forget that defining day on the river, as it haunts her at night. Now she’s married to Anatole, who’s still a dolt. Henri watches the couple trudge dutifully back to their boat and settles for a sad and solitary cigarette, whilst now, in Renoir’s last, drollest bit of character revelation through action, watches as Henriette now easily and confidently rows herself and her husband, and the river flows quietly on. Passion has had its moment, the rest is mere stuff of persistence, but every good memory is a jewel taken out at night. This conclusion comes as a deft and supple gut-punch after all the sunny drollery, a vision of gentle interpersonal tragedy that, tellingly, enlarges upon the conclusion of Night at the Crossroads as the frustration suggested in the suggestive final framing of Maigret and Else, the eventual return to civilised norms an exercise in self-defeat.

Standard
1930s, 1940s, German cinema, Historical, Horror/Eerie

Fährmann Maria (1936) / Strangler of the Swamp (1946)

Director: Frank Wisbar

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By Roderick Heath

Frank Wisbar is today a fairly obscure name in the roll of classic film directors, and yet lovers of horror cinema still remember him for making two of the genre’s finer deep cuts, each film a variation of the same story, made ten years and continents apart. Born in Tilsit, Wisbar (or Wysbar as his name was originally spelt) was conscripted in World War I and stayed in the army until the mid-1920s, before he went into the film industry. He served as production manager on Leontine Sagan’s legendary lesbian-themed drama Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a success that gave him a shot at directing, debuting with the adventure-comedy Im Bann des Eulenspiegels (1932). Wisbar quickly earned the ire of the oncoming Nazi authority by making Anna und Elisabeth (1933), a follow-up to Mädchen in Uniform with the same stars and gay subtext. To play nice with Goebbels’ new Ministry of Propaganda, Wisbar’s next film, Flag of the Righteous Seven (1934), was an adaptation of German-language Swiss writer Gottfried Keller about romance, bourgeois mores, and regional life in the 1800s. The film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Wisbar’s career struggled on for a few more years. Wisbar was however to remain deeply at odds with the Nazis, in part because his wife Eva was Jewish: the state stripped him of his passport and forced the couple to divorce, and after he was finally blacklisted in 1938, Wisbar fled the country. He became an American citizen and found a niche making low-budget features and then TV shows in Hollywood. Eventually returning to West Germany in the 1950s, Wisbar found new but strictly domestic success there again with works about dark chapters in the war like the Battle of Stalingrad and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an adaptation of Wolfgang Ott’s grim precursor to Das Boot, Sharks and Little Fish (1957), as well as post-war issue movies, before his death in 1967.

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Fährmann Maria, or Ferryman Maria, could well stand as the last authentic product of the classic German cinema age, that time when the national industry that stood so tall between the Great War and doomed by the rise of Hitler. The great, endlessly influential German Expressionist movement in film kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) represented the kind of dark, sombre, highly psychologised drama the Nazis instinctively hated, and Fährmann Maria kept something of that style’s essence alive in a time when it had become verboten, although carefully mediated through a nominally more realistic, folksy approach, exploring a supernatural tale in a manner that also evokes a bygone sense of the Germanic landscape and communal identity: the word heimat, homeland, which was for the Nazis a talismanic phrase becomes a mystically tinged destination in the film. One supporting character, a boozy but good-natured fiddle-player (Carl de Vogt), evokes a cheery, open ideal of the parochial character as he’s constantly held up in his desire to return to his home by his love of the jug and a good time playing for people. And yet an undercurrent of intense unease and dislocation defines Fährmann Maria as it takes on a classic motif in German storytelling, the encounter of a young woman with Death personified in a battle between love and nihilism. That motif of Death and the Maiden was born in Renaissance art and transmitted through music like Schubert’s pieces of that title and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fritz Lang had used it as the basis of his omnibus film The Weary Death (1921), and F.W. Murnau had transformed Dracula into a variant on it in his Nosferatu (1922). Fährmann Maria’s exceptionally simple dramatic landscape, which isn’t actually based on any specific folk tale but evokes many, nonetheless aims to synthesise an ideal variant on this basic conflict that could well have dropped from the lips of some grandmother around the campfire some starlit walpurgisnacht.

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The setting is a small village and the nearby ferry crossing that traverses a wide river, the few landmarks in the midst of a landscape of wavering, wind-ruffled pines and twitching reeds, and patches of sucking marshland. The rope-guided ferryboat is tended by an old man (Karl Platen), who maintains the service day in and day out, shuttling people from one bank to the other. The river is borderland between two unidentified regions. A mournful song about a ferry crossing resounds under the opening credits: in the transposition into the first proper scene this song is revealed this song is being performed by the fiddler as he’s shuttled across the river by the old ferryman. The ferryman mocks the fiddler for the ease with which he gets waylaid by his appetites and his rootless habits, and explains that the fiddler’s very coin represents the last payment he has to make to own the ferry outright. That night, the old ferryman is awakened by the dull ring of the ploughshare that serves as the gong for service on the far side of the bank, and he hauls himself out of bed to answer it. When he reaches the far shore, he is intimidated by the grim-faced, black-clad man (Peter Voß) he picks up, and as he labours to get the ferry back to the other side, his tugs on the guide rope become increasingly laborious and strained, until he keels over dead from heart failure, and the mysterious man in black begins to pull the ferry back the other way. The old man has been claimed by Death.

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This early sequence is a superb display of technique from Wisbar. Having established the eerie, somnolent, exposed mood of the ferry’s surrounds, he intensifies for physical effect as he cuts between the old man’s face, his hands on the rope, and the implacable visage of Death, the lateral movement of the camera obeying a rigorous left-to-right viewpoint on the ferry’s motion, capturing the sense of strain and the failing pulse of the old man, matched to a shimmering, atonal score, until his hands cease to work properly. Death catches him and lays him down gently, a peaceful fate met at the very apotheosis of the old labourer’s life, his death at the moment of his triumph both a stinging irony but also a deliverance from any form of disappointment. Enter Maria (Sybille Schmitz), every bit the old man’s opposite, a young woman without a home or community, but destined to step into his shoes and face a rather different confrontation with Death. She wakes up after spending a night sleeping in the barn, pausing to listen to children singing in their school house, the pleasure and impossible distance of such inclusivity written on Maria’s face. Wisbar constantly evokes the folk tradition he’s burrowing into here through song and music, arts that bind together communities but also transcend such boundaries – the indolent fiddler is always half-heartedly trying to get home but is just as happy and seemingly more successful out of his native land – as a form of cultural currency people exchange. Maria enters the village and ducks the local policeman, long used as she is to trouble from such earthly powers. The mayor sees her doing this and makes light fun of her, before challenging her to take over the ferry, a job no-one else wants because “the Evil One haunts the far bank,” to prove she can make her stand.

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Maria takes on the job, and quickly becomes an object of fascination for some, including a local landowner (Gerhard Bienert) who regards her and questions her brusquely, but soon proves to be establishing romantic rights over her. One night Maria, like her predecessor, hears the ploughshare ring on the far bank, and goes over to fetch her fare. At first she sees no-one, but then spots a man (Aribert Mog) crumpled on the ground: he mutters something fearful about being pursued, and she speeds him to the other bank as a squad of black-clad men on horseback dash through the neighbouring woods and line up on the shore, watching their quarry glide to safety. Maria stashes the young man in her hut and looks after him as he’s badly injured. The man recovers and they fall in love, but then he lapses into a fever and she’s forced to tend to him during his raving dissociation. She must also keep him hidden from locals like the fiddler, who, drunk and boisterous, wants to cross the river, and then the landowner when he comes around to invite her to a village dance. But during the night, Maria answers the gong and picks up the man in black, whose unnerving visage Maria instantly recognises as bringing evil intent for her lover, and the man quickly announces the fugitive is the object of his search. Trying to lead him astray, Maria escorts him into town and becomes his partner in the dance. This infuriates the farmer, who had deduced Maria had a man in her house, and, believing the man in black is him, publically brands her a slut whilst also inadvertently informing Death his prey is back in her abode.

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Wisbar seems to have been chiefly under the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with this film, adapting aspects of its aesthetic, like Dreyer’s use of carefully stylised location shooting to create a different brand of crepuscular atmosphere to the heavy stylisation more typical of the Expressionist mode, and utilising Schmitz, who had played a woman suffering a vampire’s attention in Dreyer’s film. The troubled Schmitz had difficulty landing lead roles in the Nazi-run film industry in spite of her talent because she hardly looked the Aryan heroine, but Wisbar’s casting of her here turned this into a strong subtext lurking behind her character’s yearning for a place and role in the world, whilst also exploiting her specific, wounded beauty in a manner that perfectly suits her character. Maria is caught in the void straddling zones cultural, political, sexual, even life and death. Her tentative smile and large, melancholy eyes describe the strain of her life even as she goes about her work with stoic resolve and tries to keep a flame alight in her spirit. It’s clear she’s fended off a hundred men of the landowner’s ilk, but lets a real smile appear like a spring dawn on her face as she falls for the handsome stranger who embodies all the things she has never had but is forced to join her in this psychic no-man’s-land. Maria, usually dressed in gypsy-like garb that suggest the reason why she’s such an outsider, appears before her lover clad in a new dress, albeit a piece of garb that, with its ruffled collar, seems almost anachronistic even for the film’s vaguely nineteenth century setting, as if casting herself in a role outside of time. And that’s exactly where she is: Maria, whose name instantly evokes religious dimensions, takes over from Charon, shuttling souls between worlds across the Styx, giving her some unspoken form of power that lets her challenge Death himself.

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Wisbar’s off-screen troubles lend credence to the hints constantly given throughout Fährmann Maria that he’s not just describing some historical fantasia, however. Although possessed of some lightly used supernatural powers, Death is personified as a resolutely tangible force kept at bay by the rules of the physical world he manifests in, an implacable agent for a dark and oppressive realm. Maria’s lover is specifically characterised as fleeing a repressive government, hazily defined as an imposition of invaders he and his patriotic friends want to drive out, whilst the citizens of the village regard the far shore as a place where the Devil has made dominion. The film’s most powerful images, of the horsemen pursuing the young man ride out of the forest and perch on the shoreline staring at the couple in the ferry, and the first appearance of Death in his trim, black, semi-military uniform, regarding Maria with blood-freezing severity, evoke a definite sensation of totalitarian menace lurking just beyond the limits of the frame and definition. In one scene the young man, in his fever state, begins to enthusiastically sing one of the patriotic songs he and his fellows use as an anthem, suggesting the Nazi love of such anthems twisted into a grotesque dirge that drives Maria into weeping despair. Maria is left cut off from all communal aid as Death realises her deception, even muffling the sound of the church bell she tries to ring to rouse the villagers to the deadly being in their midst with his power, literalising the feeling of being stranded in the midst of a country suddenly wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to the new predations of power quickly becoming everyday fact. Maria is compelled by Death to lead him through the swamp between the village and the ferry. Maria makes the self-sacrificing gesture that is always the key to the Death-and-the-Maiden tale, and as she prays that her gesture protect her lover, she leads Death along the treacherous path through the swamp, tricking him into falling into the black mud, where he sinks silently into the murk, whilst she manages to keep her footing and escape.

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The final shots of Fährmann Maria see Maria and her lover crossing the river along with the fiddler and gazing out upon Maria’s new country, a grace note that seems a fulfilment of the patriotic dream of reclaiming the homeland, but with the vital, sneaky corollary that it’s a victory of the exiles and outcasts over the forces that oppress it. Wisbar’s visual sensibility is attuned to the horizontal in landscape and movement, a particularly tricky art to master for filmmakers working with the boxy classic Academy ratio, and fitted specifically to the environs Wisbar deals with here, the flat, semi-desolate spaces around the village and the glassy waters of the river, the to-and-fro motions of the boat and of Maria’s queasy dance with Death at the village dance filmed alike, the camera’s very range of movement communicating the stark, transfixing linearity of life in this space that finally, towards the end, gives way to the promise of gold sunlight on rolling mountains. Wisbar’s journey, at least for the time being, went in the opposite direction to his two heroic lovers, going into exile and soon finding his real reunion with his wife impossible. A decade later, Wisbar found a niche in the so-called “Poverty Row” studio PRC after a long period on the beach trying to get residency and a work permit. His first American film had been a teen crime potboiler, Secrets of a Sorority Girl (1945). For his second, he leveraged the notion of remaking his best-known work, and the result was entitled Strangler of the Swamp.

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The basic plot remained the same: after the death of a ferryman serving a remote town, a young woman named Maria takes over his job and finds herself battling a malign spirit for the life of the man she loves. Working with one of PRC’s famously stringent budgets – none of their films, supposedly, cost more than $100,000 – Wisbar transposed the story into a much more overtly theatrical and classically spooky setting, a bayou swamp choked with reeds and vines traversed by the ferry. Strangler of the Swamp strongly contrasts Fährmann Maria in its approach even as its mood of dislocation and morbid romanticism is retained, whilst the alterations to the story point to a different set of animating concerns for this take. Here, the spectral figure isn’t Death itself but the shade of a man killed by his community, and the death he brings serves a programme of retribution. At the outset, the dead body of a villager who has died in the swamp is brought back to town, where the townsfolk begin to argue frantically about their circumstances: several similar deaths have taken place, all seemingly strangled by vines or reeds wrapped around their necks in grotesque approximation of a hangman’s noose. Many think they’ve been living under a curse ever since the former ferryman, Douglas (Charles Middleton), was lynched as a murderer.

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Most of the men involved, including the mayor, Sanders (Robert Barratt), anxiously repudiate the notion even as they clearly live in fear of whatever lurks out in the bayou awaiting them, whilst the women of the village form a determined front, heading out into the swamp to strip down the noose that was used to kill Douglas. Joseph the ferryman (Frank Conlan), whose testimony was vital to identifying Douglas as a killer and who stepped into his post eagerly, sheepishly objects to the women’s proposals that he offers himself as sacrifice to the spectre to mollify its rage: “I’m only seventy! That’s not old for a man! I have plans for the future.” But soon enough, responding to the clang of the gong on the far side of the swamp, he encounters Douglas, a hollow-eyed wraith emanating from the shadows to deliver up stern pronouncements of waiting punishment: Joseph tries to toss the noose the women left on the ferry overboard, only for it to snare on a log, wrap around his neck, and strangle him, thus fulfilling Douglas’ design without any actual violent act. Amongst Joseph’s papers is discovered his written confession to the murder Douglas committed, as well as his admission that he framed Douglas to get his job. But the wraith is hardly satisfied with his death, and continues to await chances to kill off the rest of his lynch mob and their descendants. Joseph’s granddaughter Maria (Rosemary La Planche) arrives in town, hoping to find a place to settle after leaving a life of toil and alienation in the big city. Shocked to learn of her grandfather’s death, she nonetheless determines to take over his job as ferryman. She soon meets Sanders’ son Chris (Blake Edwards – yes, that Blake Edwards) and falls for him, but the curse is hardly averse to tormenting a pair of young lovers.

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Wisbar had joined Edgar G. Ulmer in productive exile at PRC. Like another émigré Fritz Lang’s Hollywood debut, Fury (1936), Strangler reads in part as a condemnation of lynch culture in the US, whilst the decision to locate the story in one of his new country’s more primal backwaters echoes Jean Renoir’s venture into similar climes for his American debut, Swamp Water (1942). Strangler of the Swamp might also have represented an attempt by Wisbar and PRC to tap the same well Val Lewton’s horror films had so lucratively drilled for RKO, with a similarly literate, carefully stylised script to the kind Lewton liked, although Wisbar’s concrete approach to the supernatural stands somewhat at odds with the airier, more suggestive Lewton touch. The style here is also quite different to the restrained, deceptively naturalistic approach of Fährmann Maria, here turning the limitations of PRC’s productions into an asset by employing one spectacularly dreamlike, claustrophobic locale, where the totemic hangman’s noose dangles in the wind from an old gnarled tree, the rickety docks for the ferry jut into misty waters, an old, ruined church looms skeletally in the distance, and the town huddles on the fringes. Wisbar’s fluidic camerawork is still in evidence, tracking the course of the ferry across the swamp with cool regard, if not as carefully tailored to fit the geography physical and mental of the story. The guilt and paranoia experienced by the townsfolk has infected the land about them, and Wisbar goes more a sense of gothic entanglement befitting a dense and miasmic sense of corruption, the overgrown weeds of the psychic landscape. He often uses superimpositions to obscure the images, the appearances of Middleton’s withered, eyeless ghost masked by haze, the reeds and foliage of the bayou crowding the frame, as if animated and determined to invade the human world that clings to this landscape.

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The result makes Strangler of the Swamp something like the platonic ideal of a dankly atmospheric, low-budget horror film. Severed from the culture and place that informed Fährmann Maria’s folkloric lustre, Strangler refits the story for a place that seems to hover right at the edge of liminal reality, a psychological neverland. That said, the story fits with surprising ease into the dramatic landscape of America’s backwood regions and the stark, moralistic, often supernatural flavour of songwriting in those areas – Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, or Robert Johnson could readily have sung of a similarly elemental tale. Perhaps a seed was planted here for the later burgeoning of backwoods horror as a permanent sub-branch of Hollywood horror cinema. Thematically, Strangler of the Swamp diverges tellingly from its predecessor. Wisbar’s PRC stablemate Ulmer had made his statement of utter moral exhaustion with his famous noir Detour a few months earlier, and Strangler, although ultimately not as nihilistic, seems similarly like a meditation on the psychic landscape left by the war: by the time Strangler was made, the Nazis had fallen and their crimes had stained the soul of humanity. Whereas the community in Fährmann Maria is essentially ignorant and innocent of the uncanny drama unfolding in its midst, Strangler in the Swamp is about vengeance reaching out from beyond the grave to attack a communal guilt – the evil is no longer an invasive one but internal, and the theme of the sins of the father is introduced as Maria and Chris must fight to escape the debt of their parents.

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In the climax, Wisbar revisits the moment from the original when Maria finds she can’t make a sound ringing the church bell and stages it more expressly as sequence depicting social exclusion, as Maria dashes through the village trying to find aid, only to have doors and windows slam shut and curtains drawn by the vengeful spirit’s power, shutting off all recourse for his outsider heroine. Both films obviously share a female protagonist who proves that love is stronger than death and offers her own life in place of her man’s, and in Strangler Wisbar takes this theme of feminine strength further. Maria here meets initial doubts she can do her job but readily adapts to it, but the menfolk of the town are variously foolish, self-deluding, and corrupt, where the women are generally wiser and try to act against the curse where their men obfuscate and deny the problem. Chris’s father objects to his relationship with Maria because he knows she’s the granddaughter of a killer, where his mother (Effie Parnell) recognises her character and encourages the match. When Sanders tells his son he can’t marry Maria, Chris retorts that his own father took just as big a part in murdering Douglas, setting in motion the first rumblings of the generational conflict that would define so much of the post-war age. The town lost its church to fire, the ruins standing in moody isolation out in the swamp embodying the wreckage of the local culture’s ethical standing, and Sanders proposes, instead of rebuilding it with the money the town has collected for the purpose, that they use the funds to drain the swamp instead, his onwards-and-upwards rhetoric exposed as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the past.

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One significant disparity between Wisbar’s two films is that La Planche, although fairly good in the lead, isn’t nearly as enticingly enigmatic or camera-fixating a presence as Schmitz (sadly, both women also died young), and the standard of acting in Strangler, although competent, is merely customary for a low-budget film of the time and place – even the very young Edwards is too callow to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Strangler isn’t weighed down by the smarmy folksiness of the earlier film’s fiddler character. The finale suffers from the hampered staging dictated by the limited setting, involving a lot of stumbling around in dry ice-clogged corners of the set trying to make it look like action is happening. Nonetheless Strangler of the Swamp stands as an example of what a real director could manage with even the most cynically straitened production of the day, a delicious visual experience that offers a real jolt of Wisbar’s poetic streak, and one of the few major horror films of the ‘40s not to have Lewton’s name attached. As in Fährmann Maria, Strangler’s Maria, exhausted by her frantic and desperate efforts to help Sanders in protecting his injured son from the wraith, offers herself in her lover’s place fends off dark fate amidst the sanctified ruins of the church. But Strangler pushes the import of the sacrificial gesture more strongly than Fährmann Maria, in a narrative shaped by a more personal and urgent sense of responsibility: where in the earlier film Death is outwitted by a touch of native guile as well as the ardent honesty of Maria’s prayers, Douglas is mollified by the gesture and dissolves in the night as Maria gives a benediction for his aggrieved soul. In Strangler, the victory feels quite different, as Maria must redeem the whole community through a selfless act, receiving a forgiveness that cannot be asked for, only granted by the aggrieved dead. Maria triumphs over entropy in her personification, however straggly and assailed she seems, of the finer elements of human nature and of woman herself, a detail that points up the irony in her job title. She is the being who encompasses life, death, and rebirth, who spans both shores.

Standard
1930s, Comedy, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

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Director: James Whale

By Roderick Heath

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus is a foundation text of both the science fiction and horror genres. Born of a dull, rainy summer by Lake Geneva by the brilliant young bride in the company of her famous husband Percy, his even more famous friend George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his physician Dr John Polidori, Frankenstein still makes Mary’s name familiar to people for whom Romantic poetry might as well be Klingon. Frankenstein, a text that referenced ancient mythology, was destined to be the legend of an age still busy bring born, the industrial and scientific eras. Shelley was herself product of a revolutionary age, daughter to the feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft and immersed in the burgeoning Romantic movement’s spiritual and symbolic conceptualism as well as radical thinking. Many both thrilled at and recoiled from the consequences of that time, the ancient regimes falling and new concepts and hierarchies rifling their way through every familiarity, as the French Revolution had devolved from florid optimism to a grim and concerted mobile slaughter consuming Europe, and that happy, elegant party in Switzerland were contemplating what it all meant via art. Ninety-four years after it was written, Frankenstein was filmed for the first time, by Thomas Edison’s film company. But it was another film version that was to permanently transform Frankenstein into a byword, and throw up an image of the monstrous still instantly recognisable to most people, eighty years after it was made.
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This famous transposition came in 1931, when Universal Studios wanted an appropriate property to follow up a smash hit, Tod Browning’s Dracula. As with that success, they chose an intermediary work, Peggy Webling’s theatrical adaptation, and hired a director who had proven himself gifted at traversing the gap between stage and screen, James Whale. Whale had come to Hollywood to adapt R.C. Sheriff’s play about the fatalism of World War I aviators Journey’s End for the movies. That film’s substantial success made Whale a major director, and he followed it up with the wartime melodrama Waterloo Road (1931). Dracula had suddenly made gothic horror popular after years when, in spite of the genre’s popularity in Europe, both Broadway and Hollywood had largely preferred jokey horrors like the semi-satirical The Cat and the Canary (1928): several years of the Depression and the harsh mood attendant in the early ‘30s had suddenly transformed the zeitgeist. With Frankenstein Whale, in spite of his comparative newness to the medium, fashioned a far more powerful work of cinema than Browning had managed, a dark fairy-tale painted in shades of grey and dusty light. Whale cast his Journey’s End star Colin Clive as the monomaniacal scientist, rechristened Henry rather than the novel’s Victor, and cast a relatively unknown English actor as his creation: the one-time William Pratt, who had rechristened himself Boris Karloff for an aura of the exotic and the sinister.
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Whale’s Frankenstein emerged as a rather different beast to Shelley’s, however. Updated to around the turn of the twentieth century, Whale’s film stepped back from the poetic grandiosity of Shelley’s concepts, which traversed the distance from Alpine peaks to frozen Arctic and pitted creator and creation against each-other each as mutually tortured poet-kings, to present a tight morality play with an atmosphere derived not from the elemental reaches of high Romanticism but from the fetid, id-like realms of Expressionism in art. The monster was conceived not as Shelley’s misbegotten but entirely articulate demi-titan, but a mute, hulking, ugly, instinctual being, both childlike and animalistic in its simplicity, even innocence, and its savagery. This choice, disloyal as it was to Shelley, was the key to the nigh-unshakeable impact Whale’s take has had on popular culture. The monster, in being rendered something less nobly post-human, had become more relevant, a being onto which so much could be projected. Everything different, troubled, outcast, reviled—other—lay behind Karloff’s limpid eyes and misshapen brow. Whale’s fulminating anger at his poverty-stricken childhood, status as a gay man in a hostile world, and the trauma of his wartime service, found just as much accord in the monster as the audience who, suffering through the Depression, surely saw so many of themselves, cast off by a system that had pretended to care for them only to leave them stranded and bewildered by forces beyond control. Any black man scared for his life in Jim Crow south or migrating Oakie trying to find a place of refuge would recognise the mob that chases down and annihilates the hapless creature for its supposed sins, some of which were only the sin of circumstance and others natural response to mistreatment and cold regard.
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Frankenstein’s stark seriousness as a parable had defined it, but Whale’s own sensibility was distinctly less solemn when let off the leash, particularly when it came to generic material he would resist being ghettoised in. With his next ventures into fantastic material, The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), he revealed that mischievous streak, interpolating overt humour and eccentricities of style in a way that still feels unexpected and bizarre, offering flashes of a new cultural argot that didn’t have a name then – camp. As Universal clamoured for a sequel to Frankenstein, Whale eventually caved in and agreed to helm it, and produced a film more suited to his personal humour. In spite of its eventual classic status, Bride of Frankenstein was beset by a troubled production, with endless revisions of plot and intent that lasted from initial story proposals to post-production edits designed to pacify the new production code. Whale ran through several screenwriters in searching for a persuasive concept and eventually found one when John L. Balderston, the dramatist who had written Dracula’s source play, hit upon the idea of using a vignette from Shelley’s novel, in which Frankenstein starts building a bride for his monster, and taking this to the logical end Shelley shied away from. The result is almost certainly the greatest of the storied Universal horror films, and also perhaps the strangest, a freewheeling romp through the landscape Whale had created for the first film that manages at once to mock and enlarge that landscape, and the already quickly calcifying clichés of the style Whale helped define.
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Aptly for a film whose title promises new frontiers of sexuality, Bride of Frankenstein grazes downright perverse invocations of the erotic and the abnormal, one that actually gathers impetus and power from Whale’s pitch-black humour and self-satirising impulses. Laughter and dread have long been twinned opposites but are also notoriously difficult to combine effectively. Whale pulled it off in part by rendering the vividly stylised, eerie, shadow-sodden landscapes he had created for Frankenstein even more bleakly beautiful and momentous: Bride of Frankenstein is the height of the gothic horror style on the visual level. Yet Whale populates it with characters who seem rather bewildered to realise they’re in a horror film, like Una O’Connor’s screeching, teetering servant Minnie, and Ernest Thesiger’s villainous Dr Pretorious, who, in spite of his repulsive practices and sinister ends, is also a perversely cheerful bon vivant. Whale’s sensibility is in play right from the opening frames as he segues from a classic horror landscape of a fearsome storm raging above a grim Swiss castle to his take on the pretensions of Byron (Gavin Gordon) and the Shelleys, with Mary (Elsa Lanchester) characterise as a delicate drawing room darner who writes tales about unfathomable horrors but can’t stand the sight of her own blood when she pricks herself with a needle, and Byron as a prototypical fanboy who delights in recounting her own nightmares to Mary’s protest that no-one can see she was trying to tell a serious metaphysical parable.
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The metafictional aspect to this opening – another idea that hadn’t been codified yet – ingeniously allows Whale to continue his narrative under the guise of a natural expansion on Shelley’s idea and lend it a quality rooted in a knowing sense of being told for its own sake, an extension of the parlour game roots of the original story. The scenes of Shelley’s story Byron recounts are also not those of the book but Whale’s film, allowing a recapitulation of that film in a manner close to a highlights reel before a new TV episode. Meanwhile the deliberately artificial acting of the three actors signals Whale’s wry approach to the effete aristocratic fantasies he’s engaging with and his smirking take on the heightened essence of melodrama, taken soon to extremes in Valerie Hobson’s hilarious overacting as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s fiancé, and Clive’s own raw-nerved performance, which nudges the scientist from thoughtful rebel towards hysterical patsy. Frankenstein, left gravely injured after being thrown from the top of the windmill where the monster apparently met its end at the climax of the first film, is taken home, believed to be dying, but he shows signs of pulling through. Meanwhile at the scorched and crumbled ruins of the mill the Burgomaster (E.E. Clive, splendidly pompous) tries to assert authority over the flocking villagers proud of their handiwork and hoping the monster is dead, including the Frankensteins’ servant Minnie and the parents of the girl the monster drowned, Hans (Reginald Barlow) and his wife (Mary Gordon). Hans, in his distraught desire to see the monster’s body, accidentally falls into the mill’s flooded cellar, and finds the monster scorched and wounded but still very much alive and vengeful. The monster throttles Hans and climbs out, and the near-sighted hausfrau doesn’t realise she’s helping the monster out of the pit until it’s too late: he pitches her down after her husband, before encountering Minnie, whose squawking panic bewilders even him.
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Minnie finds herself frustrated when no-one believes her about the monster’s survival, and the misshapen creature subsists in the forest, terrifying unfortunates he encounters even as he repeatedly tries to reach out to them, including a shepherdess (Ann Darling) who faints and falls into a pond. Although he saves her from drowning, she believes he’s attacking her, and a passing hunter wings him with a bullet. The monster finally finds refuge and fellowship with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), whose melancholy violin playing entices and pacifies the creature’s pained ferocity. Meanwhile, as he recovers, Frankenstein is visited by Pretorius, a former teacher at Frankenstein’s university who was “booted out” for pursuing similar forbidden pursuits in trying to create life. Pretorius talks Frankenstein, who has become a Baron since his father’s death during his convalescence, into taking a look at his creations. The Baron is revolted by Pretorius’s pint-sized homunculi, which he grows “like cultures” rather than stitches together and keeps living in jars, but Pretorius does pique Frankenstein’s curiosity when he proposes creating a second, female creature with a combination of their techniques. When a pair of lost hikers walks in upon the creature and the hermit, they spark a fight that results in the burning down of the hermit’s house, leaving the creature homeless and hunted again. Taking refuge in a graveyard, he encounters Pretorius who, with his murderous fugitive helpmates Karl (Dwight Frye) and Ludwig (Ted Billings), is robbing the tombs for body parts. Pretorius takes the monster under his wing and uses him to force the reluctant Frankenstein to complete their project, finally having the creature kidnap Elizabeth to force his hand.
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One of the trickiest aspects of Bride of Frankenstein to appreciate is the blithe way it steps between outright absurdity and total sincerity in treating its themes. Whale’s insistent religious imagery correlates the monster’s suffering with Christ’s, tethered to a pole and raised up as if on the cross, and the eerily highlighted crucifix on the hermit’s wall that lingers in a glowing image even after a fade to black. Whale pushes this element with fervent clarity, like a blazing insight into a core of real, irate, transcendental feeling that is otherwise purposefully contrasted with the absurdity of most human behaviour when backed up by feelings of security and self-satisfaction. At the same time, there’s also a hint of lampooning of the parochial side of this value system, particularly in the down-home church organ that drones under the same scene where the hermit and monster find each-other like a pair of hapless lovers. Minnie embodies this idea most directly for Whale, acting like a firebrand when she thinks the monster is down and screaming and running off when he proves impossible to suppress for long. In the first film Whale portrayed the monster as embittered and reactive after being tormented by Frankenstein’s assistant; here this element becomes something close to behavioural theory, as the reactions of the ostracised and the differentiated result in maladaptation in the face of the ignorant reflexes of others, often forming a tragic roundelay of victimhood. The reactions of people to the monster usually create situations that result in violence and harm. This idea is most vividly illustrated in the sequence when he saves the shepherdess, as he tries to suppress her panicky screams only to make things worse, Whale alternating between viewpoints with electric intensity conveying both the fear of the girl and the alarm of the monster, erasing the apparent line between appeal and assault.
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For a film as long-hailed as it is, Bride of Frankenstein is nonetheless nearly as stitched-together as the monster itself, chiefly because the new, strict censorship regime just gaining traction in Hollywood at the time, added to the tumultuous development, meant that aspects of the film were left choppy and unclear. These include a midsection in which a number of dead bodies are found scattered around town, killings for which the monster is blamed but which were supposed to have been committed by Fritz and Hans on Pretorius’s business. Whale changed the finale at the last minute, letting Frankenstein escape the final conflagration, although he’s still visible amidst tumbling rubble at the end. Despite this raggedness, the film comes on with astonishing pace and power. One bravura sequence follows another, but perhaps the two most brilliantly composed come half-way through and right at the end. The first sees the monster chased down once more by torch-wielding, pitchfork-trusting villagers through a forest until he’s captured by the mass, in a sequence that represents nigh-perfect interplay of editing, music, camerawork, and directorial thrust. The monster is bound, carted back to town, and trussed up in the old dungeon below the police station, held down with chains and bonds. The threat has been contained completely and utterly, the Burgomaster is happy to get back to work (“And leave us to ours,” mutters one of the gendarmes in bolshy manner), assuring the townsfolk everything is now taken care off. Except that the monster tears himself free and smashes his way out again with ludicrous ease once the weight of society is off him – the tormented alien has grown too strong to be held by such forces, and can henceforth only be destroyed by his own yearnings.
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Karloff initially objected to one of the biggest changes to his role, which had made him one of horror cinema’s most everlasting stars, was that the creature learns to speak in the course of the movie. Karloff’s brilliant mime work had given the creature qualities of pathos and terror more intense than most actors could manage with pages of dialogue. But the monster’s halting, grunting vocal deliveries, built around the basic words the hermit and Pretorius teach him, is one of the most memorable aspects of Bride of Frankenstein. His speech quickly evolves in spite of his small vocabulary from identification and association (“Bread!”) to value judgement (“Bad!”) to philosophy (“Love dead. Hate living.”). The two films form a tale of the creature moving from newborn to nihilistic experience, with stages of bratty, tantrum-throwing murderousness and clasping adolescent neediness in between, leading to a finale when he apportions life and death according to his own will. The moment of ultimate confrontation comes when Pretorius opens a door and lets the monster into Frankenstein’s parlour, the baleful gaze of the rejected creation above a mouth that now has mastered the broken syllables of his creator’s name – an act in legend that gives mortals powers over gods. Appropriately, from this point on the creature controls Frankenstein’s fate.
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The note of mutual fulfilment that sparks under the monster’s relationship with the hermit (“A friend – to be a light to mine eyes and a comfort in time of trouble – amen!”) is cunning for the way Whale universalises it, a perfect picture of Christian fellowship that can also be read as an idealised gay relationship, in a way that shoots for the cosmic by way of the purely personal, all we misbegotten creations of a dubiously competent deity clinging to each-other in the night. If the hermit is the angel on the monster’s shoulder, Pretorius is presented as a jaunty yet phthisic, queeny devil on the shoulder of Frankenstein, who spends most of the film clinging to his bed, bride, and Baronetcy as a desperate closet, trying to resist the thrill of creating life in forbidden rites. Pretorius, whose unlikely name baffles Minnie (“There ain’t no such name!”), struts into the film providing both its arsenic heart and its impudent instant critique, contrasting both the stricken conscientiousness of Frankenstein and the haplessness of the monster with his eager embrace of his own immorality. He plays the puppet-master creator mischievously arranging the world according to his acerbic understanding of the way it works and the stories it tells itself to make sense of its perversity, as he outfits his homunculi as travesties of social roles and essential identities – a king, a queen, an archbishop, a ballerina, a devil. He encourages Frankenstein to follow “the lead of nature – or God if you like your Bible stories,” although he also happily quotes the Bible when enticing the good doctor to join in his project: “Male and female created he them – be fruitful and multiply.” Pretorius is a happy inhabitant of the twilight world. When he leads his assistants in breaking into the tomb looking for harvestable bodies, he eyes a girl’s corpse with an assessing, physiologically and erotically incisive eye. “Pretty little thing in her way wasn’t she?” Karl notes with hesitant ghoulish interest, but Pretorius more directly states with gleaming eyes, “I hope her bones are firm!”
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Pretorius arranges bones as a centrepiece for an impromptu party he holds for himself, toasting monsters until the real thing lurches out of the shadows: “Oh – I thought I was alone,” he notes unflappably. Thesiger’s inimitable delivery and persona had already been exploited brilliantly by Whale on The Old Dark House, but Pretorius gave him an even more perfect vehicle, with his gift for lending any line the quality of some alien and malignant invocation, down to his “only weakness,” of which there are at least two. By comparison, Clive’s Frankenstein is marginalised for much of the film, perhaps a result of Whale working around Clive’s worsening drinking problem which would claim his life within two years, and also more definitely a by-product of the film’s waggish take on the pivotal myth, which makes Pretorius the core figure illustrating what Frankenstein would act like if every remnant trace of humanism was removed, the Baron stuck as wishy-washy moderate in the face of Pretorius’ embraced extremism. Still, although bullied and blackmailed against all his best impulses throughout the film, and appalled by realisation that Pretorius has his minions happily murder women to furnish their laboratory-born chimera with body parts, Frankenstein also falls under the spell of the promethean act again as the project gathers pace: what greater drug than the thrill of defying natural law and creating life, without any fussy intermediaries? The orgasmic charge of the final creation scenes, where Whale cuts loose in a riot of canted camera angles, vertiginous shots and sparking machines and faces turned to chiaroscuro death masks as the great phallic tower lifted to sky awaits electric insemination, pays off in new birth.
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The original film, like many early sound films, lacked an incidental music score. By 1935 that was quickly changing and Whale hired recent immigrant Franz Waxman to write music for the sequel. Waxman responded with a work of oversized bravado that instantly made his name in Hollywood and also expanded concepts of what a film score could do at the time. It also showed how much he understood Whale’s oddball sensibility by interpolating, amidst the rollicking drums and deep-throbbing strings that invoke the crepuscular epic, a faux-Polynesian love theme, a whine of sardonic yet plaintive feeling constantly nudging the film towards perverse romanticism even as the chiaroscuro visuals sketch out dread spaces of the mind. Whale, like a vast number of filmmakers in Hollywood and elsewhere, was a great admirer of the recent trend of German Expressionist filmmaking and its core creators, and took direct license from them. Their ranks included Paul Leni, Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, and Paul Wegener, whose Der Golem: Wie er in der Welt Kam (1920) had offered an obvious template for the concept of the daemonic creation as limpid-eyed yet glowering monstrosity pulverising the human world yet beset by simple and childlike things, whilst Leni’s gift for weaving in humour with horror undoubtedly appealed to Whale.
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Whale took this a step further as he tested the idea that the comedy of manners could exist within the heightened removes of such bizarre fare, and his understanding that the root of both the comedy and the horror was the fear and desire for others, with society as monster in its own right that torments and afflicts what appals it. Like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man’s Frank Griffin, Pretorius crosses the invisible but all too consequential barrier of what’s done and finds the thrill of transgressive power even as the forces of reaction snap into action and begin to fence them back in. The monster on the other hand is always unwillingly trapped beyond the fringes of the human world. The search for companionship, in all its forms, preoccupies all the characters, particularly the creature, whose train of thought, set in motion by Pretorius, moves inexorably through stages of relation – “Woman. Friend. Wife.” The film’s final, most ingenious and ruthless touch takes the comedy of manners theme to its logical end with the bride’s rejection of the monster as hideous, a punch-line that cynically splices the theme of the search for perfection and for fellowship – the human brain Pretorius grew, the perfect tabula rasa of social behaviour, still knows instinctively what is beautiful and what is ugly.
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Like Orson Welles who would similarly make a leap from stage to screen, Whale’s style was at once floridly theatrical and inimitably cinematic, compensating for the lack of open space he was used to in the theatre with energetic, sweeping camerawork and jagged cutting. His work here came with invaluable aid from the team of technical experts at Universal, including the inimitable work of makeup man Jack Pierce, special effects maestro Jack Fulton, and John J. Mescall’s photography. The evocations of cavernous ancient chambers and rude stonework, the dense forests of jutting trees, the soaring battlements of castles and old mills where creativity unfolds jealously guarded from the snooping hoi polloi (both the scientists and the poets), the glowing homey windows of the hermit’s hut, the stark statuary and blasted loneliness of the cemetery, the frosty sprawl of Hobson’s nightgown across the Frankenstein’s plush bed – all come close to the platonic ideal of this wing of the genre. One great technical and expressive moment comes when the monster watches from a hiding place as Pretorius and his goons invade the tomb where he’s hiding, their lanterns appearing in the distance and then advancing in an intricate play of light, the three gruesome intruders squabbling and fussing all the way whilst the alienated creature recoils in bewildered fear. Another, truly spectacular and visually ambitious moment comes later when the infuriated monster stalks Karl on the mill roof, the monster assaulting up the sleazy henchmen and throwing him from the roof amidst a wild survey of thunderous clouds, roaring winds, guttering fires, and the wind-rocked cradle of the bride’s body about to be fired with life. And this is just one vignette in the riot of images that is the climax. Such trappings still pack their oneiric power even when Whale makes sport of it, or perhaps especially when he does so, as when Frankenstein, Pretorius and his crew enter the old mill where Frankenstein does his experiments, all twisted, mimetic proto-Escher shapes and grimy hues, the Baron advising “Mind the steps” whist Pretorius noting, “I think it’s a charming house.”
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If Frankenstein still readily springs to mind when it comes to any variation on the misbegotten creation myth today, Bride’s imprint could be subtler, but just as definite, as it asked a question about such creations about where the lines can be drawn between life and technology and what we can invent to sate our needs. Recent films like Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2015) are similarly dedicated to exactly the same unpredictable notion of synthetic consciousnesses becoming erotically and emotionally enticing only to reject their would-be creator-controllers. Whilst the notion of a synthetic love object had been mooted in cinema before the Bride, particularly in Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and Henrik Galeen’s Alraune (1928), those tale posited the ancient figure of the demon temptress, where the Bride that Frankenstein and Pretorius make is actually the opposite, a creature that naturally refuses to be a mere passive creation and recoils from being objectified. Many years later when the film as partly remade by Franc Roddam in 1985 as The Bride, things had changed enough that the monster and mate find each-other whilst the creator goes mad and dies trying to rape his creation. Under Whale’s gaze this element takes on an extra dimension of bizarreness as he turns Pretorius and Frankenstein into mad makeover artists, swathing the bride with her jutting mane of frizzed Egyptian-styled hair in gown of white. This is Whale’s piece de resistance in mocking social and mating rituals and the game of love and the eternal conflict between flesh and soul: the bride’s hissing horror is a most normal reaction but also is rooted in something primal, something alien to the empathic self that defines humanism – and is thus anti-human. The bride’s rejection her proposed mate sets in motion the monster’s final, enraged auto-da-fe as he cordons off himself, the bride and Pretorius whilst, moved by the escaped Elizabeth’s show of loyalty to Frankenstein, commands them to depart before blowing up the mill. Whale’s last, most sublime irony is there in the spectacle of the weeping monster. Too human to cope with the world, he is finally gifted the power of the gods his own creator snatched but could never bear, deciding who should live and who belong dead.

Standard
1930s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective

Think Fast, Mr. Moto / Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Norman Foster

By Roderick Heath

J. P. Marquand had a serious reputation as a writer in the 1930s, but he’s been remembered to posterity chiefly for his sideline in pulp fiction. He created Mr. Moto for the Saturday Evening Post in 1935 as a replacement for Charlie Chan, whose creator Earl Derr Biggers had recently died. Marquand quickly wrote several Moto books. His creation proved popular enough that two years later, 20th Century Fox inaugurated a series built around Moto. But this was not quite the same character. Marquand’s I. A. Moto was an Imperial Japanese agent, superficially genial and eccentric but capable of ruthless action. The Hollywood version was renamed Kentaro Moto and redesignated as an importer with a sideline in private investigation who later was employed as an Interpol agent and teacher of criminology. But he was best described by a character in Thank You, Mr. Moto: “Adventurer, explorer, soldier-of-fortune – one of the Orient’s mysteries.”
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Whereas Chan was an avuncular collection of clichéd impressions of Chinese immigrants grafted onto the Conan Doyle template for a genius detective at a time when it was a short cut to popularity to give them distinctive ethnic or physical traits, Moto assembled more than a few Japanese clichés: pebble-lens glasses, big gold teeth, hyperattentive politeness, martial arts adeptness, and so on. Fox cast Peter Lorre in the part and gave him a sartorial makeover. Casting an Austrian Jewish actor as a Japanese gentleman seems a downright perverse idea today, but was hardly strange at the time; Warner Oland and Sidney Toler played Chan and Boris Karloff was both über-villain Fu Manchu and detective Mr. Wong. A big selling point for casting Lorre was that it would show off his thespian dexterity. His Hollywood debut two years earlier with Mad Love had been publicised as the coming to America of a great European actor, one who had electrified audiences worldwide with his performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Lorre, who learnt his lines by rote for his first English-language role in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was to become one of Hollywood’s indispensible character actors. The Moto films, which occupied him for most of the late ’30s, represented a stint of proper stardom. The role allowed him the widest range within a single part, and even the chance to destabilize presumptions about his character constantly.
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Moto, as a skilful detective and globetrotting, multicultural savant, combined aspects of the Sherlock Holmes brand of hero with the physicality of a man of action, a mix that feels more contemporary than most of the era’s pulp heroes. He anticipates later pop-culture titans like James Bond, without his carnal appetites, and Indiana Jones, with whom he shares a fascination with the arcane, with the added complication and fascination of his being a non-Caucasian hero, one who insinuates rather than dominates until he clearly has the upper hand. The Moto series doesn’t entirely transcend the moment of its making. Yellowface bugs many people today and for good reason, and yet the series just as often ridicules, subverts, or inverts such caricatures, often putting the sublimely poised and skilful Moto in the company of clueless Westerners or having him act out caricatures only to throw them off and stun enemies and onlookers. Lorre’s preternatural gifts are also often exploited so that, in the same way that he puts on a new face, Moto turns it about and becomes just about any ethnicity you please, including perhaps his funniest guise in the series in Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938), a German artist who derides a gallery full of modernist work and then shows off his kitschy pictures of kids and kittens.
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Several instalments in the series were helmed by Norman Foster, a former actor and a talent whose gifts were apparent enough for Orson Welles to collaborate with him on several projects, including Journey into Fear (1943), which marries Moto-ish settings with a more Wellesian technique. He later made some interesting noir films, like Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), and then moved into TV, where his career extended into the 1970s. Foster also cowrote the first two Moto films, with their backlot settings offering that delicious tang of the faux-exotic, encompassing much of what was wonderful and goofy about old Hollywood, that many filmmakers since have tried to reproduce. The Moto films are lightning-paced, funny, quirky, brief, but packed full of incident, detail, even mystique.
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Think Fast, Mr. Moto, establishes Moto and his abilities in an opening sequence that sees him in the guise of a scruffy carpet merchant wandering through San Francisco’s Chinatown on Chinese New Year on the hunt for a lead. He encounters a masked stranger secreted in a wicker basket in the store, where Moto tries to sell a diamond; his Union Jack tattoo will identify him as the man who murdered an investigator. Moto has to fight his way out when an officious policeman who thinks Moto’s an unlicensed peddler enters the scene, sparking a three-way battle in which Moto’s jujitsu abilities triumph. Returning to his hotel, the “real” Moto emerges from under the layers of his disguise, but Moto’s motives and designs remain largely opaque until the climax.
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One reason I fell under the spell of Moto as a character when I was a kid stems from this ambiguity. Although toned down from Marquand, Moto is still startling in switches of affect and manner, swinging from beaming friendliness and ready-to-please affability to command or chilling retributory violence according to the needs of the moment. When he confronts the tattooed murderer, who proves to be a passenger liner steward named Carson (John Rogers), Moto’s swerve into cold menace as he faces down and approaches the knife-wielding baddie is impressively badass, and their knock-down, drag-out fight climaxes with Moto heaving Carson over his head and hurling him over the ship’s side like a sack of rubbish. This follows on from an earlier scene in which, dragged into a stateroom by a party of boisterously patronising Americans, he puts up with them until he repays their pushiness by tossing several bodily about the room. It’s a bit of roughhouse payback that Bob Hitchings (Thomas Beck), object of the party and son of the ship’s owner, is good-humoured enough to understand. Moto and Hitchings prove to be linked by both the past—they belonged to the same college fraternity—and by secret, immediate motives; Moto is investigating a smuggling ring that’s been operating through the Hitchings Line, owned by Bob’s father, and Bob, trying to shake off his playboy habits, is heading to take over the Chinese end of the line’s export operations.
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Think Fast, scarcely over an hour long, nonetheless sets up Moto as a perfect pulp hero—infinitely talented, complete with an arsenal of awesome headache cures, magic tricks, and cardsharp legerdemain, tough in all respects and yet usually happily plays a pleasant Asian milquetoast, declining alcoholic drinks in favour of milk. Considering how awkwardly a lot of franchise films these days lumber about for hours trying to set up heroic characters, the casual concision of the film still feels like a perfect antidote and model, an engine of humming efficiency that modern Hollywood could do well to study. Foster surrounds Moto with a rich assortment of character actors and teeming settings, as if he wanted to pack in every possible trope of the exotic mystery, from the shipboard setting and romance to the plunge into Shanghai nightlife where White Russian and Sikh gangsters rub shoulders with international flotsam. Foster orchestrates it all with efficient energy: indeed it’s been funny watching recent high-class movies, like The White Countess (2004), Lust, Caution (2006), and Shanghai (2011), tackling the same milieu and failing to feel half as real, lacking that mythic tilt Hollywood once wielded so deceptively and fearlessly. Ironically, recently you have to go to Hong Kong cinema, like Tsui Hark’s work, like Peking Opera Blues (1986), for similar panache.
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Think Fast sticks to the basic pattern of Marquand books, as Moto teams up with an American innocent abroad who falls into the orbit of a woman of mystery, in this case, Gloria Danton (Virginia Field). Gloria poses as a wealthy traveller to ensnare Bob, expertly tempting him by feigning initial indifference, but, of course, she actually falls for him and is whisked off the ship by her employer, Nicolas Marloff (Sig Ruman), upon arrival in Shanghai. Marloff runs the International Club, one of those chic nightspots Hollywood would have believed were just everywhere in those days. Bob talks the Hitchings Line’s local manager, Mr. Wilkie (Murray Kinnell) into helping him find Gloria, but it’s Moto who secretly tips Bob off that she actually works as a singer in the International Club, and, of course, Moto has good reasons for bringing all the players together. Just getting to the club proves an ordeal for Moto and Lela, as they’re shanghaied by their rickshaw coolies on the order of Marloff’s agent, turban-clad Adram (J. Carrol Naish), who tries to assassinate Moto. Moto proves better with a gun than Adram does with a knife, winging Adram. Then one of the coolies tries to arrange his death by leaving his rickshaw in front of Bob and Wilkie’s oncoming car.
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In good old Hollywood style, once they get to the club, there’s a brief time-out for a song by Gloria (warbling a godawful ditty in which she declares, “I’m just a shy vi-o-let.”). A couple of times during the series, Moto grazes against a love interest, usually a young Chinese-American starlet, but that couldn’t go anywhere with a white guy, even one dressed up as Japanese. Plus Moto’s not exactly the type you see settling down to have 10 kids like Charlie Chan. Here he enlists hotel telephone operator Lela Liu (Lotus Long) to listen in on interesting calls, and then to be his date/back-up on the venture to the International Club. She finishes up getting shot in the back by an unseen villain as she tries to call the police to Moto’s aid, although later we’re assured she survives.
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One of the strong qualities of the series is the humour that constantly accompanies the thrills and seriousness, although it sometimes verges on goofy, as here when Moto has a hapless bartender make up a ridiculous hangover cure that includes gin, Worcestershire sauce, and a raw egg. Wryer is Moto cementing his friendship with Bob by revealing they were fraternity brothers; when Hitchings recalls Moto broke a pole vault record, Moto replies, “Now I would only break the pole.” In another example, one of Bob’s society lush pals, after seeing Moto toss her friends about the stateroom, asks in delight, “Hey – do that to me!” When Marloff asks what Moto is writing in Chinese on a menu, Moto replies that it’s an ancient haiku poem—except that when Lela reads it, it translates into a message to call the cops. In later films, Moto’s heroism is taken as a given, but in the first two entries he retains an opacity akin to ’70s antiheroes in his willingness to play dirty when necessary, think on his feet, and seem to ally with the bad guys if it gets him closer to his goal. Because his identity is so hard to nail down, he can get away with such tricks. When Marloff confronts him with the sight of Bob and Gloria trussed up and captive, Moto laughs and casually advises Marloff to keep Bob as a hostage and “slit her throat and be done with it.” This note echoes again in Thank You, Mr. Moto, in which he smilingly tells a woman, in response to her accusation that he killed a man to get hold of a valuable property, “Of course. I thought it was a very good reason.” The finale of Think Fast is a whirlwind of twists and reversals: exposed by the wounded Adram, Moto is shot by Marloff, and seems done for. Marloff prepares a coup de grace, only for Moto to rise miraculously and toss his enemies about the room before revealing his bulletproof vest to Bob and Gloria and slapping handcuffs on Wilkie, who proves to be both the real head of the smuggling ring and Lela’s attempted killer.
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The collegial feel of the series is partly due to the stock company of actors who played similar or recurring roles: Ruman and Beck play slight variations on their characters in Thank You, whilst Field popped up again in two more. In Mr. Moto’s Last Warning and Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (both 1939), Moto is “helped” by bumbling Englishmen, inverting the usual diptych of Anglo hero and ethnic sidekick. In another entry, Mr. Moto on Danger Island (1938), Moto gains the aid of good-natured palooka, “Twister” McGurk (Warren Hymer), who becomes Moto’s aide in his eagerness to learn Moto’s great wrestling moves. Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938), the third film, has the film buff’s delight of seeing Moto contending with Keye Luke, playing Charlie Chan’s inimitable Number One son Lee. This was a side effect of the rapid revision of the script, intended for a Chan entry, after Oland’s sudden death. In the film Moto mentions his respect for Lee’s father, and maintains Chan’s solicitude to the extent of having Lee locked up in jail to keep him out of trouble. Another interesting sidekick for Moto came in Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), where Rochelle Hudson plays an aviatrix who’s also a spy, staging a crash landing in the Vietnamese jungle to seek out the same rebellious conspiracy Moto’s investigating. The strongest villain of the series was also a self-reflexive piece of casting, as Joseph Schildkraut appeared in the final entry, Takes a Vacation, playing a supervillain with a genius for disguise. Like Lorre, Schildkraut was an Austro-Hungarian émigré and spends most of the film made up as another character, successfully impersonating a crusty American scientist before he’s unmasked, rises to full courtly bearing, and lets slip his Germanic lisp.
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The whole series is generally a lot of fun, but Thank You, Mr. Moto easily stands tallest. Having established Moto, Norman’s second entry does what good sequels are supposed to do; it gets on with business, but also can be enjoyed by any viewer coming in blind. The opening sequence is a gem of atmosphere, as a caravan crossing the Gobi Desert is assailed by a sandstorm, and one of the travellers, a disguised Moto, contends with the homicidal attentions of another member of the party. Attacked in his tent, Moto battles the assassin by the flicker of an oil lamp, with the desolate wind whistling outside. Moto wins the fight, battering his opponent into submission, but the battle begins again when Moto releases him. This time Moto hacks him to death with a knife and begins digging up the sand under the tent to bury the corpse. Moto reaches Peiping (then the name of Beijing), but runs afoul of Schneider (Wilhelm von Brincken), a supposedly concerned citizen who’s whipped up the police to hypervigilance over smuggled art treasures. Schneider smartly detects that Moto has a scroll painting hidden inside his prop walking cane. Moto snatches the scroll and runs for it, managing to elude capture and make it to his hotel room, where his current valet doesn’t recognise him at first. Moto divests himself of guise and valet and attends a formal garden party being thrown by Colonel Tchernov (Ruman), a wealthy White Russian wash-up. Moto recognises the gamesmanship behind such gestures: “Garden parties are seldom given in Peiping without a purpose.”
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That purpose proves to be so Tchernov could invite Prince Chung (Philip Ahn) and his mother (Pauline Frederick), make an offer to buy their family’s collection of scroll paintings and, if they refuse to sell, use coercive means to gain his prize. The party sequence is a another gem, this time of expository staging, commencing with a Hitchcockian crane shot the glides across Tchernov’s ballroom. The villains and heroes of the piece and all congregated with classical dramatic method, with all the major protagonists save the Chungs literally lined up to meet Eleanor Joyce (Jayne Regan), an American Oriental art historian and guest of the Tchernovs. Romantic, young consular official Tom Nelson (Beck) sets out to charm Eleanor with an extended gag about his psychic knowledge of her actually culled from her passport. Moto’s entrance, solitary and singular, is accompanied by a suddenly forceful passage in the dance music, gaining everybody’s interest and cautious attention, especially Tchernov, who invited him to keep an eye on him. This backfires, of course. Moto’s subsequent absence from the ballroom goes unnoticed by everyone except, in a terrific throwaway detail, the waiter carrying his customary glass of milk, as he thwarts Tchernov’s attempt to force Chung at gunpoint to sign over ownership of his scrolls. Foster elides Moto’s intervention; only when Eleanor intrudes, with Prince Chung brushing past hurriedly, does the resolution of the confrontation reveal itself, but through Eleanor’s confused eyes, seeing only Moto and a corpse. Moto convinces her to keep quiet about his and the Prince’s presence so that Tchernov’s death will be ruled a suicide, but finds herself increasingly uncomfortable, believing Moto murdered Tchernov.
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The scroll paintings prove to be part of an elegant pulp McGuffin that form a map to the lost tomb of Genghis Khan: the scroll Moto brought back with him from the Gobi is part of the set, deliberately stored away from the others long away to render the map incomplete. Moto has been hired to race against Tchernov’s allies, Schneider and Koerger (Sidney Blackmer), to bring all of the scrolls together and locate the tomb with its fabled treasure. Everyone wants the scrolls, even Eleanor, albeit for her collection. An antiquarian, Pereira (John Carradine, sporting droopy moustache and fez for some reason), tempts her with one, which might be one of the Chungs’ stolen scrolls. Moto rumbles Pereira by visiting his shop and spots the scroll he’s trying to sell as a fake, but also perceives he stole the real scroll. Pereira is gunned down from a car speeding by just as he’s about to tell Moto who hired him for the heist. Moto faces the same sticking point as Tchernov in trying to learn the secret of the scrolls: even with the Prince’s gratitude to Moto for saving his life, the Chungs refuse to part with their legacy and decry the inevitable looting of the Khan’s tomb. The Chungs’ place in this drama generates peculiar emotional intensity, with Madame Chung’s haughty efforts to cling to the last remnants of their clan pride in the chaotic modern world and China’s dismembered state circa 1937—she used to be a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress—and her son’s arduous position in trying to honour traditional values but protect his mother.
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This schism is painfully illustrated as Koerger and company break into the Chungs’ house, tie up the Prince, and, after beating him fails to dent his resolve to keep silent, begin torturing his mother. This proves more than the Prince can resist, and he gives up the scrolls to the villains. Far from being grateful, however, Madame Chung is appalled at her son’s lapse and makes a last-ditch tilt for honour by trying to stab Koerger with a ceremonial knife. Koerger shoots her, and Chung, once freed by Moto and Nelson, stabs himself with the same knife, expiring in convulsions of shame and despair. Ahn’s excellent performance as Chung, genuinely strong and proud, but with his one weakness awfully, tragically laid bare, sells this sequence. It stirs an interesting reaction in Moto, who reveals a streak of serious Buddhist faith and a conscientious determination to avenge his friend and balance his cosmic books. Moto operates throughout the film, as he did in the first one, between worldviews and hemispheric cultural sensibilities, which are tellingly represented by two versions of the same thing: Tchernov, an exiled tsarist, and the Chungs are both fallen aristocrats out of place in the mid-century tumult, but with radically different responses to crumbling values of homicidal rapacity versus suicidal fidelity, and meeting mirroring ends: Tchernov’s fake suicide (“We call it harakiri,” Moto tells Eleanor) and Chung’s real one. Moto, operating according to mercenary requirement (“My mission has been clearly defined,” he tells Chung), nonetheless feels the pull of other values as the mission becomes more urgent.
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A new dimension emerges as Eleanor eavesdrops on Tchernov’s wife (Nedda Harrigan) and learns she’s been having an affair with Koerger, which her husband’s death leaves her nicely free to continue. Eleanor becomes the object of Madame Tchernov’s jealousy when Koerger takes her prisoner, a random but felicitous element that gives Moto the key to destroying his enemies. Another interesting prefiguration of many a modern action hero is that way Moto becomes a kind of avenging angel: after the Chungs’ death, Tom and Moto pursue the villainous party who have Eleanor captive and most of the scrolls in hand in a car (“You handle your car quite well.” “It’s not mine, I borrowed it from my boss.”). After being shot at, Tom drives straight into a river, car crashing in the water with an almighty splash, and the pair struggle to escape the wreck and swim to safety under a hail of bullets. Tom is knocked out with an oar, and Moto seems to die from a bullet in the back. The villains set off on the trail to Khan’s tomb on a junk, but find their crew spooked by what they call a demon dogging their path. This is Moto of course, who, soaked and covered in mud and detritus, keeps emerging from the dark and fog to knock off henchmen, including Schneider, until he can crash in on Koerger, whom he keeps at bay in spite of the gun in his hand with an elaborate hail of bluffs. Eleanor proves quick-witted enough to help Moto in this, pretending that she’s also Koerger’s lover, which infuriates Madame Tchernov enough to grab at Koerger’s gun hand—all the window Moto needs.
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The very finish sees Moto burning the scrolls to ensure that they won’t ever cause such havoc again and to honour his promise to Chung, rounding off the film with a touch of numinous beauty as Moto prays over the smoking ashes in the flickering firelight of the junk cabin. There’s a haunting note here, with a level of deference for the shared cultural maxims of Chung and Moto that adds up to a rare touch in a genre action movie of the time. Again, Thank You is only 67 minutes long and yet packs in enough narrative layers for a film three times as long. All of the Moto films have solid production values, particularly marked in Thank You, with rich, chiaroscuro evocations of Peiping courtesy of Virgil Miller’s fine photography, with swank Western enclaves, busy street scenes, and gritty, shadow-swamped, almost besieged atmosphere on the fringes where soldiers wait by ancient gates on the edge of sepulchral territories where it seems entirely possible that Moto could be a demon on the hunt for vengeance, although that note is dispelled when he breaks in on Koerger and offers, in his familiarly chirpy way, “Good evening everybody!” The mood echoes back to Josef von Sternberg’s oneiric chinoiserie in Shanghai Express (1932) and forward to Seijun Suzuki’s stylised remembrance in Story of a Prostitute (1964), whilst works of referential pastiche, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Hammett (1982), would later find it a touchstone. The Moto series was ended by the spectre of World War II after eight instalments; the character was left out of the film version of Marquand’s last Moto novel, Stopover Tokyo (1958). Moto’s only comeback has been a cheap 1965 entry played by Henry Silva of all people. Japanese heroes aren’t so verboten now in Western popular culture, though chiefly only the historical kind. I’d love to see Mr. Moto return.

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1930s, Epic, Western

The Big Trail (1930)

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Director: Raoul Walsh

By Roderick Heath

One of the first true epics of sound cinema, The Big Trail left a deep and permanent imprint on movie history without a lot of people knowing about it. The late 1920s saw the cinema forcibly redefined by the advent of sound, a ruction for audiences, filmmakers, and theatre owners alike. True colour film processes would arrive soon after, but most filmmakers shied away from any further innovation until television forced them to fight for an audience. When they did, they would turn to the widescreen format, which had been introduced unsuccessfully in the 1920s. In France, Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) had demonstrated the artistic potency of the format, and three years later, The Big Trail came at the leading edge of another, brief campaign to promote the format in American filmmaking.
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A mammoth undertaking by the Fox Film Corporation, The Big Trail was shot, incredibly, in six different versions simultaneously: editions in four alternate languages, a standard 35mm format version, and another in an experimental 70mm widescreen process called Grandeur. The exhausting labour and cost involved in this reflected the cumbersome demands of the era’s technology, and came on top of a colossal, already difficult location shoot that trailed nearly 2,000 miles across five states. Fox may have hoped to maximise the film’s box office potential by making so many versions, but instead The Big Trail became a sad failure, as most exhibitors refused to take up the widescreen format and the regular-sized print couldn’t make enough money to cover the huge expense during the straits of the early Depression.
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The Big Trail languished in relative obscurity for a long time as a result, whilst the similar, but far creakier Cimarron would capture the Best Picture Oscar a year later. Director Raoul Walsh took a blow to his career and wouldn’t get to helm another film of such a scale for some time. The new male star he had discovered for the project would languish in small roles and B westerns for nearly a decade. That young man, a former college footballer and bit-part player, was recommended to Walsh by mutual friend John Ford, who liked the actor’s cocky walk. He came on The Big Trail’s set named Marion Morrison, but thanks to Walsh and a cadre of studio executives, continued his career under the name they chose for him—John Wayne.
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Walsh himself had been a rough-and-tumble cowboy actor in the pioneering days of Hollywood and dabbled in directing even before he appeared in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), including work on the legendary docudrama The Life of General Villa (1913), starring the great bandit-revolutionary as himself. Walsh evolved into one of the most sublimely rigorous and no-nonsense of classical Hollywood filmmakers. With The Big Trail, he matched Lewis Milestone’s work on All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) in freeing early sound film from its stagy reflexes to discover the world at large. For Walsh, this discovery resulted in a relative crudeness, with dialogue recorded out in the open and sometimes muffled by a general clamour, but also fascinatingly rich and with a lively naturalism quite different to the smoother, but more artificial textures that would become the norm.
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As a film, The Big Trail shows its age in places, but its general vigour and expanse is still breathtaking. As a depiction of the travails of early pioneers, it still dwarfs many amongst generations of imitations. The plot is merely sufficient to lend the film a through-line that sustains the panoramic study in a human tide on the move. Wayne plays frontiersman Breck Coleman, a product of life in the western expanses, one who credits his knowledge of hunting and exploring to the Native American tribes he grew up amongst. Coleman knows the land and can clear a path across the country for a huge wagon train forming at a trading post in Missouri, intending to be the first such large expedition to go across the country to claim farm land in Washington state. At first, Coleman is uninterested in joining the expedition because he’s on the hunt for the killers of his friend, Ben Griswold; someone tried to make the crime look like an Indian raid, but Breck looked closer and found signs revealing the true culprits, including the stub of a burnt-out cigar. Whilst he tells another old friend, Zeke (Tully Marshall) about this, Red Flack (Tyrone Power Sr.), the man hired to lead a cattle team ahead of the wagons and blaze the Oregon Trail, overhears him and is clearly rattled. Breck finds he leaves behind the same brand of cigar in his wake. Walsh employs a brief flashback to illustrate the processes of Breck’s deduction, revealing his discovery of Griswold’s last camp site in the wilderness and his comprehension of a masked crime. As he probes further, Breck discovers a large quantity of pelts probably stolen off Griswold were sold to the trading post by a man named Lopez (Charles Stevens), who happens to be a friend and employee of Flack.
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Breck agrees to scout for the wagon train so he can stick close to this suspect pair and see if he can dig up more evidence and bring them to whatever kind of justice the moment provides. Meanwhile, he accidentally antagonises some of his prospective charges. He mistakes proper Southern belle Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill) for another girl he knows and plants a kiss on her, only to realise his mistake as she stomps off in an offended huff. Ruth is the daughter of a greatly respected Southern elder, but she’s set on building a new life with her brother Dave (David Rollins) and younger sister. She has a self-appointed guardian and would-be suitor of traditionally gallant credentials, Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith), who claims to be a plantation owner looking for adventure and tries repeatedly to talk Ruth into marrying him. He exchanges pithy words with Breck, as the young man tries to apologise to Ruth—except that Thorpe is actually a gambler who can’t stay at the trading post lest he be hung and can’t go back lest he be shot thanks to excessive displays of his prodigious skills with firearms. But he’s friends with Flack, and he joins the wagon train with an eye to netting Ruth and taking out Breck as a favour to his pal. Breck tries to do his job whilst avoiding Thorpe’s various attempts to kill him, barely surviving one ambush in which his horse is killed. Meanwhile, Breck negotiates safe passage through Cheyenne territory with their chief, Black Elk (John Big Tree), but danger waits as other native nations join in a coalition to block their path through the Rocky Mountains.
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The basic storyline is familiar genre melodrama and mostly serves to give a little sinew to what is otherwise a survey of frontier experience, a depiction of a communal event that strays legitimately into the true definition of epic as an account of the social flux and great undertaking that creates a nation. Walsh records this with such elaborate detail and rhythmic intensity that he creates a virtually pantheistic work of art. Although there’s a brief patch of speechifying towards the end, when Breck underlines the overall meaning of the event, Walsh is for the most part happy to let his images speak—visions of prairie schooners rocking along in clouds of dust under the rays of the setting sun, his characters traversing rivers and mountains and forests. The unusual, laborious shoot meant that The Big Trail comes close in nature to one of Robert Flaherty’s staged documentaries simply by the unavoidable authenticity of much on screen, the peculiar thrill of such moments as the wagons being lowered with improvised cranes down a cliff face and trying to negotiate a swollen river. The vast number of extras look unusually like the kind of people they’re portraying. Walsh delights in zeroing in on sights like strong, muscular woman chopping down trees and lashing along their oxen amongst the broad diorama of human activity, this moving city in the wilderness, all achieved without recourse to tricks like back projection.
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The admiration for the pluck of ordinary men and women is typical of Walsh, who stayed in the Hollywood game as a jack-of-all-trades but made his clearest mark in Warner Bros. plebeian melodramas, like They Drive By Night (1940) and Manpower (1941), and films with sociological breadth, like The Bowery (1933) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), the latter a particularly potent influence on subsequent waves of filmmakers from Orson Welles to Martin Scorsese. Walsh could handle any genre, but found real focus in gangster and war films. Where his great rivals in the classic cadre of macho auteurs Ford, DeMille, and Hawks, tended towards mythologising in their different ways, Walsh, like William Wellman, retained something of a reportorial attitude, comprehending the shifts from the plucky energy of the ’30s to a despair over the illusions of the American dream (The Roaring Twenties), the defeat of individualism (High Sierra, 1941), the neurotic birth of the atomic age (White Heat, 1949), and overtures of fascist power and resistance in the burgeoning Cold War (The Naked and the Dead, 1958). The Big Trail, meanwhile, feels like a preparatory sketch for those canonical Western epics, Hawks’ Red River (1948) and Ford’s The Searchers (1956), whilst How the West Was Won (1963) is a partial remake. Like Red River, The Big Trail watches an intimate drama play out in the midst of a massive undertaking, and neither can resolve until the end of the trail is reached. Like The Searchers, the quest to write a form of justice and human meaning upon an impassive and voraciously expansive landscape and the need for safe harbours and human connection remain in constant tension.
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The drama in The Big Trail is much more elemental than what Walsh usually offered, but it’s rewarding to look closely at Thorpe and Flack, a divergent pair of characters united by the fact they’re both nefarious criminals, forming with Lopez a kind of shadow society within the greater enterprise. Thorpe is a fake gentleman, slick and charismatic, precursor to John Carradine’s similar, if more ambiguous character in Stagecoach (1939) but also a type for whom Walsh might later have offered far more sympathy as the man who can’t submit to a society bent on ironing out wrinkles like him, dogged by his impulses towards nobility rather than merely using that attitude as a disguise. Indeed, by the time of White Heat, Walsh would reveal the processes of empathy completely inverted: the psychotic, desperate Cody Jarrett had become the hero and the man quietly shadowing him to bring him to justice the villain. Keith has lean charisma in the role of Thorpe, and he would later become a favourite actor of DeMille’s. Flack is a monstrous brute who nonetheless has great reserves of native cunning and authority, and reportedly provided the direct inspiration for Popeye’s Bluto. Power, a former matinee idol as his then-teenage son would become, looked gnarled and terrible by this time. With bushy beard, snaggy, rotten teeth, and belly-deep, broken-bottle voice, he creates an unsubtle, but galvanising villain, like some kind of prehistoric monster born aberrantly in human form. Both Thorpe and Flack represent fading varieties of authority, the raw force of the barbarian king and the deceptively lethal self-interest of the pseudo-aristocrat who wants to be taken for a slave-owning oligarch, men who tellingly “lead” the expedition but don’t actually do much for it.
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Interestingly, Walsh would later combine the Thorpe and Flack characters to create his unstable antiheroes who waver between nobility and base violence, particularly White Heat’s Cody Jarrett and The Naked and the Dead’s Sgt. Croft, who, like Flack, is an ancient kind of he-man who leads his team on an epic mission but with more Melvillian overtones per Norman Mailer’s source novel. Meanwhile Walsh pulls apart the presumptions of a film he starred in, The Birth of a Nation; note that Ruth is, like the central family of that film, a Cameron, but is running away from her legacy following the telling death of the old patriarch and the loss of property and standing. Thorpe mentions that there “isn’t a home in all the South that wouldn’t be happy to take in the daughter of Colonel Cameron” (notably, much later Walsh would take on the legacy of slavery more pointedly in A Band of Angels, 1957). By contrast, Breck is the egalitarian son of the frontier who doesn’t fear a fight. but also easily negotiates with the Indians he understands and with whom he shares a worldview. Meanwhile, Ruth’s brother Dave takes the place of another character Walsh was fond of, the fresh-faced neophyte anxious to take his place amongst men. Walsh also plays with his camera and storytelling methods: the flashback to Breck’s discovery of Griswold’s camp counts as an unusual touch for the time, whilst Walsh’s way of shooting the fleet of prairie schooners, including a shot from inside one wagon as it negotiates the land, surely influenced Ford’s work on Stagecoach.
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The photography by Lucien Andriot and Arthur Edeson is remarkably alive to physical texture—the grains of wood in the fixtures of the wagons seem almost alive—whilst hinting at some larger spirit in their visuals, found in rays of sunlight gushing through clouds over the convoy, and the bone-chilling final hunt sequence in the forest at the extremes of mortality. Walsh’s grasp on orchestrating massive action and hordes of extras and the precision of his flow of vignettes, suggests what he learnt from Griffith, as well as the relentless logic of his horizontal compositions. But even as he contends with some hokey comedy and the simplicity of the story, Walsh has left the Victorian sentiments of Griffith far behind: here there are only strong and hardy people contending with the land. The soundtrack captures a constant clamour of juddering wheels and rattling pots and lowing cattle, the ambient din of the wagon train, with enriching authenticity, the kind of effect that would later be commonplace, but here still has a quality of discovery. The final sequences, filmed in the midst of California’s awe-inspiring redwoods, sees the wagon train climb down from soaring white mountains to verdant valley floors fringed by the great trees, underlining a feeling of having passed into some mythical realm where gigantism is a norm and everything is touched with a dusting of mythology. Critic Fred Camper tellingly saw The Big Trail it as an epic where the place of the individual human was displaced by nature at the heart of the film, and this often feels quite true, laying seeds for the ways later generations of filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu would attempt a similar sensitisation to environment as character.
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Walsh might also have been taking a few ideas from the trickle of Soviet Realist films in the way he plays down individuals in favour of observing group action with an intensive eye for their way of life. Interpolated title cards reinforce the heroic bluster in the film’s take on the colonising event, but for much of its length, The Big Trail actually takes a droll, even laid-back approach to the human level. Breck and Ruth’s thorny romance is played mostly for light comedy as Ruth remains superficially cold to Breck’s ardent attempts to romance her. Ruth obeys a programmed cultural loyalty that sees her gravitating to Thorpe in spite of all warning signs, whilst even the Comanche who come along for the ride can recognise their budding relationship, labelling her “Coleman’s Squaw” to her extreme aggravation. Some of the humour verges on silly, particularly as Zeke’s drinking buddy, Windy Bill (Russ Powell), ruffles Thorpe’s savour faire as he tries to romance Ruth by making animal noises. El Brendel contributes his patented comic Swede act for some gags that were probably hoary at the time, contending with his rather perturbingly large, forceful mother-in-law and at one point, sitting in a mud puddle only to explain the mud’s so deep he’s actually still on top of his horse. The sight of Zeke and Windy drunk as lords as they set out on the great expedition does a lot to dent the grandiosity with a sense of human scruffiness. Ruth decides to leave the wagon train with Thorpe after feeling humiliated by the jokes of the pioneers and Indians, and Thorpe decides to try to complete his job for Flack by taking a chance to gun down Breck before departing.
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Lucky for Breck that Zeke keeps an eye out for him and plugs Thorpe as he’s taking aim at Breck’s back. This sparks a brief travail for Breck as Ruth, misinterpreting what Dave reports of the event, accuses Breck of murder, an accusation Flask tries to take advantage of. Fortunately, Zeke intervening to set the record straight and an Indian attack head off trouble for Flack. The settlers circle their wagons and battle off the massed attackers. Breck still can’t prosecute his vengeance against Flask and Lopez, not until they make a move as the convoy nears its destination and the necessity of stopping him before he can bring in outside authorities grows urgent. It’s truly fascinating to see Wayne here at the very start of his career, easily commanding the screen as a leading man in spite of his youth and tenderfoot status. Gary Cooper was initially commissioned to play Breck, and it’s easy to see at this time why Wayne would be taken as a substitute, just as tall but still fairly rangy, dashingly handsome in a way hard to associate with his older, craggier visage. It’s clear from the first moment what a different screen persona he wields compared to Cooper’s cagey intensity, with his hearty laughter and easy stride and yawing line deliveries. Cooper often played characters adapted to a rugged life in a cautious and thoughtful way, whereas Wayne just seems to belong in this world, body and soul. There’s still something boyish to Wayne here, his looks rather foxy and his voice ringing a little higher, accentuated by the old Vitaphone sound recording, that’s particularly appealing. Some of the half-suppressed playfulness filmmakers like Ford and Henry Hathaway could get out of Wayne later is evident here, particularly in the scene when he accidentally kisses Churchill’s Ruth with a young masher’s energy.
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Churchill is less engaging, though she handles well the crucial moments when she finally gives up trying to hold in her feelings for Breck and begs him not to go after Flack and Lopez, and she has a certain pithy tilt of chin and flash of eye that repeatedly demonstrates that under the remnant façade of the prim Southern belle, Ruth is a hardy, worthy lady. Walsh was particularly great when it came to vivid action finales for his films, pushing push them to perfect visual and thematic nexus images—the church steps at the end of The Roaring Twenties, the battle on the electrical wires in Manpower, the exploding gas tank in White Heat—and The Big Trail builds to a spellbinding vignette high in a snowy forest where Lopez collapses and freezes to death whilst Flack forges on, only for Breck to catch up with him with the two men oblivious to each other on either side of a colossal, toppled redwood stem. Snow billows, light shafts, the flash of Breck’s knife blade, a gunshot, and death, Flack’s huge body collapsing by the fallen tree, another titan of an age about to meet civilisation’s at once revolutionary and withering touch. When Breck and Ruth are reunited, Walsh returns to the midst of the colossal redwoods, like organ pipes for a colossal cathedral of nature, climaxing in a final shot tilting up along another giant redwood, this one growing and titanic, to the sun far above. The images here haunted me for months after first watching the film, as if Walsh had captured the essence of a time and place that never quite existed, the fantastic world every dreamer reaches for. The Big Trail might not have found the stature it deserved in its time, but it testifies to the great power the medium could wield even as its very nature changed.

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1930s, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie

The Mummy (1932)

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Director: Karl Freund

By Roderick Heath

The series of horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s has long carried a specific mystique. The epoch of Expressionist horror that ushered the genre’s true arrival on screen had flowered in Germany but was waning by the time of the talkies. Whilst serious horror films were made in Hollywood throughout the silent period, jokey horrors were the most popular, lampooning the same dark and miasmic fantasias that the German filmmakers were revelling in. Many of the talented artistic progenitors of the Expressionist style, like directors F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Paul Leni, and camera wizard Karl Freund, decamped to Hollywood, which had already absorbed a lot of their style. A Hollywood horror revolution was officially kick-started by a native son, Tod Browning with Dracula (1931). Actually an adaptation of John L. Balderstone’s play taken from Bram Stoker’s novel, that film emerged as an awkward compromise, but it still came charged with an enfolding sense of sonorous evil, and expertly exploited Béla Lugosi’s iconic charisma. Freund, who shot the film and helped meld the Expressionist ethic to the theatrical demands of early sound cinema, emerged from the production with standing, as some felt he saved the difficult shoot, often filling in for the distracted Browning. Although more concrete and formulaic than the more fervently dreamlike Expressionist films, the specific power Universal’s approach lay in their dedication to making their horror films densely atmospheric and rarefied, close to cinematic mood poems and fables.

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The great movies of their brand, including Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and a few others, defined the horror film in many minds, and still influence how many envision the classic roster of genre ghouls. Universal eventually turned successes into franchises and hammered those into the ground, although even their silliest later monster pile-ups like House of Dracula (1946) are exceedingly well-made and entertaining. But the earlier Universal output is superior and still casts a spell even when the films show their age. Dracula proved a gigantic hit, and was quickly followed by James Whale’s brilliant take on Frankenstein, which although very different to Mary Shelley’s source novel, touched on a kind of fairy tale beauty and menace. Perhaps after a few years of the Depression, American audiences were in a mood not all that different to the struggling early days of Weimar; either way, dark, eerie, perverse and violent visions suddenly became wildly popular, an id to accompany the ego warriors of the gangster films soaring in popularity at the same time.

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Universal, searching for another realm of the fantastic to explore, next produced The Mummy. It was an inspired and obvious recourse. Since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb ten years earlier, things Ancient Egyptian held great cultural power. The Mummy was an original property rather than a well-worn literary classic, albeit strongly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth” and “Lot 249” as well much of H. Rider Haggard’s writing. Keeping recent success in mind, the studio gave Boris Karloff, who had rocketed to stardom in Frankenstein, the title role, and had Balderstone pen the screenplay. Barely days before the shoot was to start, the studio pressed Freund to direct. When Universal returned to the idea of the mummy as monster in the Kharis series, kicked off by The Mummy’s Hand (1940), the more familiar version was created, that of a lurching, raggedly bandaged zombie slowly and remorselessly tracking victims. In this regard the original The Mummy can be a surprise, as the notion of a walking mummy is only briefly touched on in the film’s famous opening sequence.

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That scene sees respected Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), his friend and colleague Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), and young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) inspecting their latest discoveries on their 1921 field expedition. Sir Joseph, an old and wise hand, wants to carry on cataloguing in the order of discover as per usual practice, but Norton is too distracted by their big finds, a casket that proves to house a mummy, a high priest named Imhotep, and a box containing a hieroglyphic scroll. Muller, inspecting the casket, deduces the mummy was in fact a man buried alive, for treason or, more likely, sacrilege. “Maybe he got too gay with the Vestal virgins in the temple,” Norton theorises cheekily, getting closer to the mark than he thinks. Sir Joseph is momentarily shocked by the terrible curse inscribed on the box containing the scroll, which proves on inspection to be the mythical Scroll of Toth, inscribed with a spell for raising the dead. Muller, an occult expert, and Sir Joseph head out to argue the wisdom of prying any further into their find, leaving Norton alone, where curiosity proves far too powerful for him: he removes the scroll, transcribes and translates it, and reads the words quietly to himself. As he does so, the eyes of the mummy behind him slowly flicker open, its desiccated hands twitch and shift. The poor archaeologist is unaware until suddenly one mouldering hand reaches into the frame and lifts the scroll.

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The walking dead disappears out the door, still only glimpsed only as a few trailing bandages, leaving behind the instantly mentally shattered Norton, who bursts into hysterical laughter and reports to Sir Joseph when he comes running, “He went for a little walk – you should’ve seen his face!” This opening is so arresting and memorable that it has long overshadowed the rest of the film. The technical limitations of early sound cinema, including sparing use of music, actually helped imbue the early Universal horrors with their power – these films work like stepping into some quieter, sinister antechamber of reality, in spite of the fact Dracula and The Mummy are both set in a contemporary world of motor cars and other noisy paraphernalia (even Frankenstein was set about 1900). Freund turns a static, all but eventless scene into a little minuet of delicate camera movements and judicious cuts. He privileges the viewer at first to the manifestations of something extraordinary occurring, but then cuts the viewer out from seeing the climax of the moment. He concentrates instead on Norton’s transgressive act as something nudging the edges of an unseen world as he silently recites the crucial text, and then his confrontation with something from beyond the bounds of human experience and sanity. The narrative jumps forward ten years and takes up again with Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) working with Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie), on a new expedition on behalf of the British Museum that’s had a total flop of a digging season.

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The events of ten years before are an enigma for these men, as Pearson ponders why David’s father vowed never to return to Egypt and David himself glibly theorises the boredom of digging in the desert broke Norton’s mind. A knock at the door of their base hut proves to be the strange, stalk-thin, brittle-skinned man claiming to be Ardeth Bey, who is of course is Imhotep himself, having cast off his grave wrappings and spent ten years practising Osiris knows what acts of dark magic to set himself up in the twentieth century and pass as a living being. Ardeth entices David and Pearson into facilitating his secret plan, by giving a clue to the location of the tomb of the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Intrigued by this seemingly wild surmise and anxious for anything resembling a find, the archaeologists set their diggers to the task and locate the tomb, fully intact with a bounty of untouched relics. So sensational is the find that Sir Joseph breaks his pledge and comes to oversee the removal of the treasure, which is then shipped to the Cairo Museum as prize exhibit. Freund offers another brilliant pirouette of style here as his camera explores the museum like a restless, hungry spirit, eventually zeroing in on the face on Anck-es-en-Amon’s casket. Freund then transitions via a whip-pan and an odd, delightful effect using a scrolling, illustrated cityscape as if the camera is racing across the city, to then halt on the face of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), gazing out at the pyramids as if staring into the past – the subliminal connection between her and the dead princess instantly stated.

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The scrolling effect is deliberately artificial; a nod to the roots of fantastic cinema in magic lantern shows and theatrical effects, with an echo of Freund’s work for Murnau. It also reinforces an idea in the dialogue, a sense of disconnection from the reality of “this dreadful modern Cairo.” Helen is the daughter of the English governor of Sudan and an Egyptian woman “with a family tree a mile long,” and is the repository for a memory of nations and wandering spirits. Helen is being watched over by Muller and his wife (Kathryn Byron), but can’t concentrate on the “nice English boys” because something’s stirring in the night. That something is Imhotep, who breaks into the museum with the Scroll of Thoth and begins chanting her name in a ritual to bring her soul back to her body. Helen is the one who obeys the call as the Princess’s reincarnation, and Frank and his father come across her in a daze banging on the museum door. They take her to her apartment after she faints whilst Imhotep is chased by a museum guard who meets an ugly end in the shadows.

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One distinctive quality of the Universal horror brand was that it upheld the notion that horror as a genre was at heart tragic, by concentrating on monsters and antiheroes who are often essentially cursed with existence, doomed to exist outside of the world and often prey on it. This idea stands in complete opposition to the tendency that emerged in the 1960s and still dominates the genre where the forces of evil have become increasingly one-dimensional and symbolic. Whale’s Frankenstein monster captured this idea with such power that it became a recurring motif, whilst Imhotep, in his desperate, eon-long search for his great love, exemplifies it. Appearing like a sun-dried praying mantis in kaftan and fez, Imhotep proceeds with Mandarin cool, alternately effete and concerted, afraid of being touched (“An Eastern prejudice,” he tells Sir Joseph by way of explanation after asking him not to) in case his skin comes off in mouldy flakes. But his parched and brittle body is belied by the power emanating from his eyes and the fixity of his desires. Universal’s make-up wiz Pierce created both the overtly gnarled and desiccated look of the mummy when first discovered and a subtler look for the revived and rejuvenated Ardeth, who looks just normal enough to pass but whose face bears a thousand tiny wrinkles as if someone tried to shrink his head.

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Freund returns more than once to a single, stunning shot of Karloff’s face, every rut in Pierce’s make-up inscribed by the lighting and his eyes in shadow, only for his eyes to suddenly light up and reveal a dread, piercing stare. It’s a very simple effect, and yet it turns the idea of Imhotep’s deathless passion and innate force into a totemic picture. The Mummy also helped codify a now-common form of morbid romanticism popular in the horror genre. Nowadays even Dracula, a human-shaped leech originally, has become a deathless romancer in search of his reincarnated darling in many recent takes on his story. Freund’s channelling of the Germanic liebestod tradition into a Hollywood movie was still a relatively new and powerful notion, and even segues into a perverse joke when Frank, half-jokingly and half-honestly, confesses to Helen that he fell in love with Anck-es-en-Amon’s mummified body after rifling through her personal effects. Archaeology as pick-up art by way of stalking and necrophilia.

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The Mummy’s mood of subliminal obsession is mediated through intensely rhythmic visual and editing patterns, particularly the recurring images of Imhotep, swathed in shadow, chanting Anck-es-en-Amon’s name or reciting killing curses, alternately pathetic in his longing or terrible in his malevolence. Music and image build to crescendos as Imhotep screws up a fist to drive home his maledictions like lances. He kills Sir Joseph this way and also almost kills Frank, who is saved only by clasping onto a charm given to him by Muller, who serves as the de facto Van Helsing character. Van Sloan gets to display even more impressive pith as Muller than he did as Stoker’s savant, as he proclaims his desire to “get my hands on you – I’d break your dried flesh to pieces!”, but knows he can’t even approach the deadly magician. That’s another unusual aspect of The Mummy, too, as most horror films invoke the supernatural but very few place so much emphasis on mysticism as a form of power to be invoked and resisted. Every character in the film feels or wields an invisible influence, locked as they are within patterns of fate, from Sir Joseph’s Sudanese servant (Noble Johnson) who falls under the influence of Imhotep like one his ancestors did to that fallen but still potent empire, to Anck-es-en-Amon whose spirit continues to wander and find new bodies eternally for having broken her vows as a priestess of Isis.

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The Mummy is one of the most overtly dreamlike and ethereal of horror films made between the coming of sound and the work of Georges Franju. An otherworldly quality is sustained throughout, a quality glimpsed at its strongest in moments like when Imhotep shows Helen their shared past in a shimmering pool of sacred water, or when Helen, swathed in white nightgown, stalks a corridor in a trance-state, leaving behind Frank’s crumped form on the floor. One the film’s most genuinely weird and jarring asides comes when Helen’s dog, nervous in Ardeth’s house of dark magic overseen by the cat goddess of evil sendings, Bast, is killed off-screen with a horrible wail. Most mummy tales exemplify, and indeed are today the most recognisable version, of a story pattern popular in a lot of Victorian-era fantastic fiction (also crime fiction, a la The Moonstone and The Sign of Four). In that pattern, exotic, mysterious objects from alien cultures come into the possession of hapless westerners, who find out just how much deadly power there is in the taboo objects of ransacked cultures. The forbidden object stood for a certain suppressed, half-conscious anxiety at the possible surge of forces stirred by colonialism, and reminded of the necessity of a certain stoic acceptance of foreign customs and rules.

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This The Mummy has an aspect of this but moves in different directions. Imhotep re-emerges to torment the despoilers of a cultural heritage but also uses them to accomplish his ends. He lets Frank and Pearson commit the heresy he won’t, for he himself is a rebel against the demarcations of the sacred. He also happily reclaims ancient status when he mesmerically suborns the “Nubian” servant: the bath ain’t big enough for two imperialist powers. Karloff played Fu Manchu the same year in The Mask of Fu Manchu, and there’s a distinctly similar note of paranoia over the possibility of an aristocratic man from a non-Caucasian society creating a different, if no less oppressive, power paradigm. Here that pattern is complicated by Helen’s status as inheritor of dual legacies and existing in multiple ages. A deleted addendum to the lengthy flashback followed Anck-es-en-Amon’s spirit through many ages and places, disseminating the flow of civilisation out of Egypt and into Europe as well as the progress of her spirit. Imhotep is the power of things past but not forgotten; Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon is the life force that graces and never dies.

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The vision of their shared history, including his own downfall and terrible death, Imhotep shows to Helen in his mystic pool, glimpsing how Anck-es-en-Amon died and Imhotep, the high priest to her priestess who had fallen in love with her against all taboos, tried to use the Scroll of Toth to revive her, only to be caught and sentenced to be buried alive. This sequence, which was recycled several times in Universal’s later mummy films, is a delight as a throwback to the fast-receding ideals of silent cinema, like a lost reel from some lost Cecil B. DeMille historical epic. Freund, like DeMille, takes the rectilinear styles of Ancient Egyptian art as a basis for stylising compositions and the movements of the actors within them, creating a ritualised form to evoke the distant past. More interestingly, though, Freund also utilises silent film acting styles to suggest the bygone and archaic – Freund both tipping his hat to the art form that had defined him and other filmmakers but which was already fading into legend. The close-up of Imhotep being wrapped in bandages before burial is excruciating, as Karloff communicates his unutterable fear and suffering even as he submits to his fate: this is, in its way, one of the most violent images ever committed to film. Imhotep’s pathos as a lover and antihero, where before he was merely a menacing ghoul, emerges here and gives context to the priest’s incredible defiance, even of his own death, a character who triangulates the dominating stature of Dracula, the victimised pathos of The Wolf Man‘s Larry Talbot, and the Promethean arrogance of Dr Frankenstein.

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The Mummy hinges on Karloff’s ability to paint tortured depths in unlikely figures as well as sepulchral menace, his depictions of the alternations of hate, pain, longing, and a wry and haughty authority that drive the character making Imhotep one of the most genuinely interesting horror film villains. To have seen the film is to have his plangent chant of “Anck-es-en-Amon” forever in mind, reminiscent of that scene in Hour of the Wolf (1968) when the similar chant of “Pamina” in The Magic Flute is explored, the name as spell, love as transfiguring force. Indeed, Ingmar Bergman made that film in part as a tribute to his love for Universal’s horror films. Johann, a stage actress who was showcased as a potential movie star for a brief time but then retreated to Broadway and married John Houseman, is a fascinating presence. With her deep, silky voice and large-eyed beauty, she was at once able at once to seem the perfect flapper-age woman but also evoked a timeless quality. Her Helen looks and sounds like a being detached from the hoi-polloi of the twentieth century, and it’s easy to imagine her adrift on the rivers of time. Indeed, by the finale Imhotep has regressed her until she is once again Anck-es-en-Amon. Johann projects an easy sensuality and an aura of emotional maturity that belies her standing as damsel in distress, and she constantly nudges the viewer to remember this is a pre-Code film we’re watching. “What girl could fail to make a conquest who collapsed at a man’s feet in the moonlight?” she prods Frank amusedly when he professes instant passion for her, before adding: “Don’t you think I’ve had enough excitement for one evening without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?”

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Manners, who had played a drippy Jonathan Harker in Dracula, is similarly outmatched here in a way that points to the way familiar romantic heroes were all but incidental in this kind of film long before the days of final girls. But Manners also fares better in playing Frank, who’s a rather oddball hero, a handsome nerd, albeit one whose romantic nerve once touched is impressively ardent: “You can tell me to go to the devil – but you can’t laugh at me,” as he proclaims with impressive determination as he declares his instant obsession to Helen. The Mummy is a flawed film for all its qualities. Balderstone’s script betrays something of the same stagy thinking that weighed down Dracula. Many scenes unfolds in the theatrical-like environs of the Whemples’ apartment, whilst Manners has deal with the lion’s share of unspeakable lines as romantic ingénue (“How I love you so!”). Freund’s last-minute hiring means that the filmmaking is flatly functional as often as it’s inspired. Freund was a profoundly gifted technician but only directed two horror films, this and Mad Love (1935). The degree to which he could take charge of material remained in question after the second film in particular was badly hampered by an unfocused narrative and excessive comic relief, and he stopped directing after that.

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But The Mummy remains almost without likeness in its delicate sense of horror and tension, and resolves with a climax where the heroes, rushing to rescue Helen from Imhotep’s impending sacrifice and resurrection of her mortal form to remake her like himself, find themselves still outmatched by Imhotep’s power. Instead, aptly, it is up to Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon to defeat him by an act of prayer and contrition, calling on Isis to save her. Whereupon the statue of the goddess looking over the scene lifts a stony arm and strikes down the unruly priest with a curse that causes him to crumble to dust and skeletal remains, and Frank is left to try and drag Helen’s persona back from the murk of the past. Although the staging of the finale is a bit awkward and rushed, it retains power for respecting the strange logic of this tale, where forces beyond rule all and love is an immutable force that distorts and rewrites reality. In celebrating this idea, The Mummy moves beyond Expressionist ideas into the realm of the authentically surreal.

Standard
1930s, Epic, Historical, Pre-code films

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

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Director: Josef von Sternberg

By Roderick Heath

In the hectic days of 1920s Hollywood, Jonas Sternberg, son of Austrian Jewish emigrants who had lived in the United States since childhood, was just one of many prodigious blow-ins. But he worked his way up through the ranks, and eventually appended an exotic, aristocratic background to his resume for his prestige-hungry industry by adding “von” to his name. The affectation fit Sternberg, a fan of the similarly faux-Junker, equally talented Erich von Stroheim, as it suited his aesthetic sensibility and self-image as outsized cinema artist, with a boldly cosmopolitan outlook and floridly artistic eye. He found success as a director with his stylised melodramas, like the prototypical gangster film, Underworld (1927); The Last Command (1928); and Docks of New York (1928).
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Sternberg’s delight in rapturously visualised storytelling was threatened as cinema culture changed with the coming of sound. His first work in the new medium, Thunderbolt (1929), wasn’t popular, so he accepted an offer to work in Germany on an adaptation of a Heinrich Mann novel, which became The Blue Angel (1930). For the film, he made the discovery that would revive his career, and then mark it forever, by casting Marlene Dietrich as the femme fatale Lola-Lola. Dietrich gave Sternberg a face to fetishize, a model to construct intimate and spectacular cinematic dreams around. Dietrich was Sternberg’s canvas and alter ego, an actual upper-crust German, as imperious on screen as Sternberg wished to be off it. The Blue Angel became one of the most legendary films of the early sound period and an international hit.
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Few collaborations of director and star have sustained as much mystique and fervent fascination as that between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Sternberg’s work with Dietrich remains something of a by-word for the quasi-erotic entrapment that can develop between the director male and the acting female, a reputation that probably stands in the way of the duo’s very real accomplishments. Sternberg brought Dietrich back to Hollywood with him, and initially gained great success in a feverishly creative partnership, as the fleshy Teutonic ingénue transformed into svelte Hollywood goddess. But within a couple of years, things were running off the rails. Having initially cast Dietrich as an amoral tart, and then as a redeemable woman of mystery in films like Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), Sternberg elevated her to majestic feminine power with The Scarlet Empress, whilst the main male protagonist becomes the rueing fool, seemingly a studied autobiographical portrayal of how the power relations between director and star had steadily evolved.
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For a time, however, it looked like both were doomed. Repeated flops sent Sternberg to the fringe, and Dietrich struggled to find a way to make herself acceptable to audiences tired of continental mystery. Dietrich recovered and became a fixture, but Sternberg, in spite of making several great films in the strangest ways and places after their union was sundered, remained an exile. The Scarlet Empress looks both forward and back, but is fundamentally unconcerned with its moment—the stolid, businesslike mid-1930s. The passion for visual expressiveness harks back to the already faded apogees of late silent film, as does the blending of New World energy and sardonic attitude with a hysterically Never-Never Land take on Russian political antiquity, in opposition to the stately, stagy charms of sound’s new prestige cinema like Rasputin and the Empress (1932), Cavalcade (1933), or Conquest (1937). And yet it plants seeds for high cinematic style’s resurgence with directors like Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein in his later works, and through to modern filmmakers.
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The air of fin de siècle folly is exacerbated by awareness that the film’s calamitous flop was partly due to being targeted by Legion of Decency condemnation, making it a figurehead for the rising regime of the Production Code and the Hays Office, to which the film’s ornery sexuality and feverish celebration of an open id’s vision of history feels like a last blown raspberry. Sternberg reinterprets the life of Catherine The Great as a kind of filthy novel passed around the girls in a boarding school, girls much like the naïve but excitable young lady Catherine was when she was still called Sophia Fredericka. Raised by a sternly fixated mother, Princess Johanna Elizabeth (Olive Tell), as one of a stable of marriageable Hapsburg princesses, Sophia is introduced as a small girl (played as a child by Dietrich’s own daughter Maria) suffering from scarlet fever, already being bullied by her mother to conform to the plans for her, though her wry doctor encourages a show of defiance: “Stick out your tongue and say ‘ah.’”
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Her tutor, Wagner (Edward Van Sloan), reads to her accounts of the wicked excesses and depravities of Russian nobility, accounts that spin Sophia’s rapt mind off into a whirl of sadistic delights. This is the first show of Sternberg’s wild imagery, a startlingly stylish roundelay of blood-curdling cruelty, with the various depictions seeming to “turn” as if on pages: a naked woman tumbling out of an iron maiden; men tethered in semi-abstract arrays, a horizontal tracking shot depicting a proliferation of bound hands; cruel machines with men spinning on them; an enthusiastic executioner lopping off heads; a gleeful Tsar tearing open the blouse of a trussed young woman; another beaming with lunatic pleasure as he rings a huge bell whose clapper has been replaced by some victim; and more stripped, topless lasses being burnt at the stake. Even after you’ve seen this sequence a handful of times it’s hard to process, so raw and stunning is it, how barely censored, how far beyond the pale of what would very soon be Hollywood norms. Sternberg uses blurring effects in the scene transitions to just slightly mask the bared breasts and gore. What makes it doubly weird and potent is the fact that a young girl’s head is being filled with this stuff and that on some level, like many kids, Sophia delights in such morbid detail. It will define her understanding, and, later, her wholehearted entrance into that world.
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The grotesquely sexualised violence anticipates the friezes within the palace of the Tsars, Sternberg cheekily dissolves from the man swinging in the bell to the grown Sophia, now a blond-ringleted, doll-lipped, wide-eyed naïf on a garden swing, signalling her fate has been sealed. Indeed, when she returns to the palace, she learns that her mother and slightly more empathic father, Prince August (C. Aubrey Smith), have arranged for her marriage to Grand Duke Peter of Russia. The rakish Count Alexei (John Lodge) has come to collect the princess, and Sophia’s mother insists on accompanying them to Russia, just managing to stymie Alexei’s nascent desire to seduce Sophia before their arrival. Met with all the grandeur and pomp of the autocratic state, Sophia is plunged directly into the midst of an insanely Byzantine world. The suffering victims of the early montage now seem to live within the fabric of that state, as the palace is filled with carved grotesques and statues mimicking and mocking the pretences of the living people who share space with them.
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Although based on Catherine’s diaries, The Scarlet Empress is mostly a hymn to the way history ought to have gone, presenting Catherine at once as liberated debauchee and yet also cleansing force of futurism, and casually dismissing the national history as a hymn to “ignorance, violence, fear and oppression,” of which the grotesque Peter is a perfect example—imbecilic, devolved, and malignant. That was certainly Catherine’s own story, though some historians now think Peter was a much stronger liberalising influence who fell afoul of reactionaries thanks to his goodwill for Prussia and democratic proclivities. Sternberg doesn’t even seem to think much of Catherine as enlightened despot, describing her rather as the Messalina of the North, although that’s eventually revealed to be a kind of compliment. Although The Scarlet Empress depicts a woman rising to power in a highly masculine realm, Sternberg finds this logical, depicting it as a triumph for the exceptional female who harnesses men as a source of power through sex and charisma.
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Catherine emerges, however, from the clasp of powerful matriarchs, in this case, her mother and then her stepmother, Russia’s present ruler, the Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser), who makes it perfectly clear to young Sophia that she’s been imported to give Russia an heir, and changes her name to Catherine to meet parochial standards. When Catherine is introduced to her husband-to-be, she finds Peter (Sam Jaffe) diverging widely from Count Alexei’s description of an exemplary specimen of manhood: he proves to be a bug-eyed half-wit with a free-floating id, a love of toys and a black-haired, feral-like mistress, Countess Vorontsova (Ruthelma Stevens). She has a habit of appearing at inopportune moments to collect the gadgets Peter leaves behind him, hoping to catch people in incriminating poses, as she does Catherine and Alexei. The gadget, a kind of spinning wheel with a soldier mounted on it, offers one of Sternberg’s many visual jokes, as when Peter first appears, he places it in Catherine’s lap, the rotating figure readily mirroring Catherine’s shock and sense of starting on a ride she can’t get off.
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Sternberg had readily adapted to sound cinema, and indeed was one of the directors, along with the likes of Rouben Mamoulian, Alfred Hitchcock, Lewis Milestone, and Fritz Lang, who had done the hard work of proving the new form could balance visual form with the theatrical necessities of dialogue. And yet the scene grammar and structuring of The Scarlet Empress deliberately harkens back to the pure visual-tapestry effects of Fritz Lang and Stroheim, whilst anticipating the open-sprawl, elliptical structuring of later filmmakers like Luchino Visconti, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Sergio Leone, hacking back dialogue for many scenes and preferring visual exposition not just of story, but of character and psychology. Sternberg structures the film around two affairs of state, each building a particular rhythm, the first a plunge into eroticised hell. Catherine and Peter are married in a scene of heightened, almost dreamlike-beauty, where only Peter’s mad eyes belie the insidious realities behind the plethora of religious icons, veils, spectacular ornaments, robed holy men, and faces.
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Sternberg binds Dietrich, Jaffe, and Lodge together in serial edits, making it clear the marriage is a strange kind of ménage a trois bound by guilt, jealousy, fear, and lunacy. Dietrich’s face becomes holy icon, as a votive candle is held up before her face in voluminous close-up, good looks transduced into adult beauty, the proximity of the candle sharpening the image with the kiss of hot light seeming to burn both pretty cheek and cinema screen, at the edge of both religious transcendence and infernal pain, as she is transfigured from single girl to woman who is going to have to survive in a world where marriage is a soul-rending crucible. The wedding gives way to arcane ritual, as Orthodox ministers bless the marriage bed, making it clear that Catherine has not married a man so much as a state, whilst she journeys to the wedding banquet through the bowels of the palace with more of its bizarre statuary.
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The banquet is just as dense and tangled with overflowing detail as the wedding, but whereas Sternberg shot the nuptials from angles that carved up those details into faintly abstract, even cubist spectacles, the banquet is first glimpsed via an overhead tracking shot. The camera surveys the massive table festooned with the carcasses of roast animals and oddball decorations—a leaning skeleton arranged as if to drink from a pitcher of wine, a lushly female figurine clasping bunches of grapes, a roast deer with fruits stuck on its antlers—in a whorl of animal appetites and images of fecundity and death violently juxtaposed. A pull-back crane shot then regards the whole scene in all its teeming detail, like some vision of a Renaissance parable painter. Sternberg then offers portrait shots of the protagonists at the feasting table—fatuous Elizabeth is drunk and wobbly, doll-like Catherine is regaled by a fiddler, houndlike Alexei slouches testily, the patriarch Todorsky (Davison Clark) tilts his head in wry tedium—each lost in their own space of conflicting necessity and will, whilst other guests are unified with the twisted statues and bones. Catherine is soon installed in her bedroom, with its walls covered in spectacular gilt and icon paintings, promises of religious fulfilment both warding off evil and encaging her, as her husband, silhouetted and monstrous, steals in for the wedding night, and a title card and cutaway shows all Russia praying that night for an heir to the throne. But it soon becomes clear that Peter didn’t know what to do with her, and Catherine is increasingly browbeaten by Elizabeth for not conceiving yet.
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Sternberg’s vision of the Kremlin is thoroughly psychologised, every corner dense with shadows and seemingly packed with gargoyles that leeringly mimic the stances and mindsets of the characters. Peter is a slinking, crawling id-beast, abused by his aunt the Empress, who drills holes in the walls of bedrooms for erotic insights. One of those walls is Elizabeth’s, whom he hopes to see with Catherine. One of the film’s most funny and memorable moments sees Catherine agog at the sight of Peter’s drill slowly worming its way through the eye of a portrait hanging on the wall. The hidden eyes that perceive all in a paranoid state are literalised in this shot as the décor comes to unseemly life, and reveal the luridly voyeuristic side of Sternberg’s imagination. Alexei, who starts off as the very image of a cavalier dripping masculine power, is increasingly marginalised, an onlooker of dark, marauding potency doomed nonetheless to be Catherine’s passive fool because he’s also Elizabeth’s lover. The Empress humiliates Catherine and chokes off her attachment to Alexei through an elaborate game whereby she has Catherine admit Alexei to her chamber via a secret door. Later, Catherine herself repeats the gesture with Alexei now as the unlucky doorman, as her way of letting him know why he’s out of favour, a gesture Alexei can finally only accept with wry, abashed grace. Sternberg’s framings see Alexei variously juxtaposed with arrow-stuck sufferers, looming beasts, and a horny devil that suggests both his sexual desire and his status as cuckold.
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Elizabeth’s gesture in quelling Catherine’s crush on Alexei backfires, however, not on her, but on the system in which Catherine’s intended to be a mere cog. She tosses the locket Alexei gave her with his portrait out the window, and Sternberg portrays its fall as almost eternal, seeming to move through several different seasons and climes, a vision of romance wilfully denied. Catherine dives out into the snowy night immediately to find it, but instead is caught by guards, whereupon she determines to let one seduce her, initiating her into a self-willed future. The affair gives her a son, and whilst her husband’s wits are sharpened surprisingly by fury in realising he’s been cuckolded, Catherine’s motherhood is popularly hailed. This leaves her unshakeably secure for the time being, even as Elizabeth demands stringent care for the baby boy on pain of torturous execution if he so much as sniffles or coughs. Nonetheless, Peter declares war on Catherine as he invites her to his play pen to entertain her with the sight of his sawing the head off a blonde doll, signalling his intent to execute her once he becomes Tsar, whilst Vorontsova mocks her. Of course, Catherine is arming herself as well, having systematically seduced the entire officer corps. Peter, as a title card reveals, enjoys marching his living tin soldiers up and down the corridors of the palace when it’s raining, and stages a mock execution of Catherine. When faced with rows of fit young officers paraded before her, Catherine picks and chooses her lovers. Where Alexei almost seduced her in a horse pen as she nervously chewed on a stalk of hay, now she surveys her assemblies of manly flesh chewing on a hay stalk as insouciantly as Groucho Marx on his cigar.
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When Elizabeth expires, Dietrich’s performance reaches an apogee in a subtle moment, when the patriarch rings the bell to announce the Empress’s death whilst Catherine is playing a game of blind-man’s bluff with her admirers. Catherine strips the blindfold from her eyes and, upon realising the bell’s import, her face is charged with electric fear, then exaltation and determination, now that her last defence other than what she can provide for herself is gone. The patriarch had already solicited Catherine to keep her husband from becoming Tsar: “I suppose you know that the Grand Duke isn’t exactly pleased with the present state of affairs,” to which she replied, “State of affairs? What affairs? I haven’t had an affair for some time,” before assuring the priest that her own arts will get her further than any mere political conspiracy. Peter’s plotting perversely lays the seeds for his own destruction, during a particularly bratty display at a religious feast where it’s customary to give alms for the poor. Catherine and her circle donate lavishly to the patriarch, whilst Peter gives the patriarch a slap in the face, to which he responds so coolly, “That was for me—now what have you got for the poor?” Peter then offends Catherine by toasting Vorontsova and humiliating one of Catherine’s officer lovers, Captain Gregori Orloff (Gavin Gordon).
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Sternberg offers more than a hint of onanistic delight in detailing Catherine’s gradual perversion from doe-eyed girl to hood-eyed seductress, but mixes it with a powerful strand of feminist-minded melodrama, a form popular in the pre-Code era that was just moving out of favour. Yet Sternberg laid a template for whole zones of modern popular culture yet to be invented. Camp culture would delight in the film’s exemplification of Sternberg’s fetishistic textures, particularly when regarding Dietrich, who occasionally becomes mere mask of female perfection bathed in delirious light and shade, shadowed by lace and veil. Shifts in status are registered in costuming in a way that rejects historicism and moves according to haute couture magazine logic: Catherine graduates from fluttery, flowery, conservative dresses to huge gowns adorned with frou frou, and then, as she charges to victory, a fabulous snow-white cavalry uniform that speaks to the deepest reaches of camp, as Sternberg, who had not shied away from spelling out Dietrich’s sexually ambiguous edge, rings the bells for his creation’s emergence not just as Tsarina but as pansexual deity. Surface is gateway to truth in Sternberg’s vision here, every element placed not just for aesthetic value but also the creation of a mimetic world. Moreover, The Scarlet Empress, in its approach to a historical figure as a study of Catherine’s ascent from pawn to powerbroker, has proven persuasive; modern films taking a similar slant, like Elizabeth (1998) and Marie Antoinette (2006), do not merely evoke it, but recreate some of its accents note for note.
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Sternberg’s approach, moreover, expanded the palette of Lang, Abel Gance, and Stroheim, and then permeated other directors’ sense for the possibilities of cinema even as it seemed to sink into oblivion. Michael Curtiz would slick it up and use it in his historical swashbucklers. Sergei Eisenstein would take permission from it for his Ivan the Terrible films. Similarities to and anticipations of Citizen Kane (1941) have been critically documented, particularly in the theme of lost innocence, power, and torment expressed through psyche-describing surroundings, whilst Orson Welles’ baroque Shakespeare films owe much of their similarly seething, surrealist-tinged sense of landscape and setting and internally divided visual grammar to Sternberg. The plethora of dreamy double-exposures and transformative close-ups run through an underground current into the short works of Kenneth Anger and into Martin Scorsese’s most stylised works: Taxi Driver (1976) is replete with its layered, interiorised, oneiric edge; Casino (1995) owes some of its mood of the imperial charnel house to it, as well as its swooning direction; whilst Kundun (1997) retells it as positive fable, but with a rhyming structure and vivaciously similar visual touches, like the entrance of the Chinese army carrying icons of their religion of Maoism, as Catherine’s partisans do here. Meanwhile, Ken Russell tried many times to affect a similar mix of high cultural spectacle and down-and-dirty exposé.
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Sternberg had a fascination for intense, infernal moral fables, often with characters that trail their pasts like guilty secrets and are catapulted between social levels. All of his films with Dietrich contain an element of such fables, as does The Last Command. His version of Crime and Punishment (1935) walks Raskolnikov’s sweating existential terror through the expressionist world of Sternberg and fellow silent masters like G.W. Pabst and Frank Borzage, whilst The Shanghai Gesture (1941) similarly spins a young, spotless heroine down into Hades, where she finds she likes it. The Scarlet Empress plays its narrative as just such an innocent’s infinite corruption, but inverts the usual moral to end in a triumph that plays as cultural orgasm of nascent matriarchy. Only by accepting and indeed outpacing the process of corruption by others does Catherine master it and become a world-ordering force. The finale builds with intense rhythm as Catherine makes her move, joining her cavaliers and the patriarch for a ride first to refuge, and then into the palace. The perverted interior of the royal abode is invaded by brilliant white stallions ridden by Cossacks, raw natural force expelling evil, whilst the patriarch carries a cross festooned with a buckled Christ figure that suggests less religious exculpation than substitution.
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Orloff takes revenge and does his duty by Catherine as he corners Peter in his bedroom and strangles him, a fate presaged earlier as Catherine, furious at Peter’s spurning of her at the fest, tied a scarf into a lethal knot. The soundtrack churns together Wagner and Tchaikovsky as apotheosis nears, whilst the visuals explode into criss-crossing double exposures, the very substance of the world seeming to leap as Catherine gains victory, the “1812 Overture” blaring out. The motif of political coup was undoubtedly as touchy to audiences of 1934 as was the general moral nullity, as much of Europe had just gone fascist, and the eventual downfall of the Russian nobility echoes right through the film. Sternberg subverts this, too, as he refashions the triumph of revolutions, be it American republican, Russian Soviet, or German Nazi, as the annunciation of Woman, with bells ringing out in sanctifying peals. Dietrich, beaming with fearsome exultation, is last glimpsed with Sternberg’s wickedest symbolic flourish, holding onto the reins of her grand white steed as she is hailed by her studs. Here Sternberg again evokes the seamy flipside to the triumph, via the popular rumour that Catherine eventually died taking her obsession with large phalluses to an extreme with a horse.

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