1940s, Horror/Eerie

Son of Dracula (1943)

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Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenwriter: Eric Taylor

By Roderick Heath

World War II proved an ironic boom time for Hollywood’s horror cinema. Such was the general assumption that piling morbid and fright-inducing images on top of all too immediate worries and losses was too much for the public at large that the British government banned them all for the duration of the war. But appetite for the genre remained strong in the US, even as it entered a period of declining fortunes, with many a short, cheap horror entry tossed onto movie screens, still often entertaining but generally lacking ambition. Horror films actually provided a neverland where audiences could escape the war, as very few genre entries mentioned it, except as background or as a subtext. Lon Chaney Jnr’s arrival as a genre star with George Waggner’s Man Made Monster (1940), quickly amplified when Waggner cast him in The Wolf Man (1941), helped give Universal Pictures’ horror franchise a new shot of life, and the studio quickly started casting Chaney in the studio’s familiar roster of monster roles. Universal would smother their renewed fortunes through a succession of cynically produced, if certainly well-made and entertaining meet-ups between their monsters, like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943). The Val Lewton series made for RKO would represent the supreme achievement of the decade, and a handful of other filmmakers took inspiration from them at the time, but the Lewton brand was ultimately too rarefied a mould to popularise, and after the end of the war horror films almost vanished from English-language screens for the next decade.

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Son of Dracula wasn’t the first time Universal had tried to concoct a follow-up to Tod Browning’s Dracula, a film that had proven the biggest hit of 1931 and gave impetus to the entire idea of sound-era horror cinema. The idea that a vampire didn’t necessarily have to stay (un)dead even after the usual rituals of staking or sun exposure wasn’t yet a familiar motif in screen genre lore, and Bela Lugosi was so strongly associated with his star-making role that any notion of recasting it seemed self-defeating for a long time. So Universal offered Dracula’s Daughter in 1936, featuring the statuesque Broadway actress Gloria Holden as Countess Walewska, the equally sepulchral offspring of Dracula, and Edward Van Sloan reprising his role as Van Helsing. Dracula’s Daughter was initially met as a disappointment, only to gain appreciation much later to the point where it’s now one of the best-known Universal horror entries, entirely for one notable scene with needling erotic overtones, in which Walewska attacks a young, female photographic model. This scene has been long since installed in a pantheon of notably queer-coded vignettes cutting against the general faith Old Hollywood kept such things neatly hidden away. Trouble is, otherwise Dracula’s Daughter is a dull, clumsy affair, a by-product of Universal’s confusion when it came to enlarging and evolving their franchise.

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By contrast, Son of Dracula is probably the best of the works Universal made in the 1940s. Although it lacks the tragic stature of The Wolf Man, it makes up for it in the beauty of its imagery, the sly perversity of its story, and the clear imprint of a fraternal creative team, Carl and Robert Siodmak. The Siodmak brothers were born in Dresden, members of a German-Jewish family with roots in Leipzig: Robert, born in 1900, was the elder, and Curt came two years later. Years later, Robert would pretend to have been born in Memphis, Tennessee, to obtain a visa to Paris and get out of Germany after the Nazi ascension. Robert tried his hand at banking and theatrical directing before he found work in cinema through the director Curtis Bernhardt and later with his own cousin Seymour Nebenzal, who hired him to forge new movies out of recycled stock footage. Nebenzal eventually produced Robert’s first proper feature, People On Sunday (1929), a work that made Robert’s name and involved a host of the future talent that would eventually crowd together in Hollywood, including his brother Curt, who co-wrote the script with Billy Wilder and also invested in the project, and Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann, and Eugen Schufftan amongst the crew. Robert’s affinity for what would later be called film noir was already apparent in The Man in Search of His Murderer (1931) and Storms of Passion (1932), before he was singled out for attacks by Joseph Goebbels, and decamped first for France and then Hollywood.

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Curt, meanwhile, made his name as a screenwriter and pulp novelist, gravitating often towards the evolving science fiction genre. His novel FP1 Doesn’t Answer was adapted into a trio of films in 1932 (each in a different language), whilst his later works The Beast With Five Fingers and Donovan’s Brain would become staples. When he followed Robert to Hollywood, Carl soon became a go-to figure for fantastic cinema, contributing to several major films of the era, including the scripts of The Wolf Man and I Walked With A Zombie (1943). He also wrote storylines for many of the later Universal entries including Son of Dracula, which reunited him with his brother professionally, although the actual script would be written by Eric Taylor. By this time Robert was rising rapidly through the ranks at Universal, escaping the ghetto Ulmer became stuck in, and soon becoming one of the major directors of the noir age with works like Phantom Lady (1944), The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1948), and The File on Thelma Jordan (1949). Of the films he made at Universal as a studio hand, two of the most cultish were Son of Dracula and Cobra Woman (1944), beloved for very different reasons and yet works linked on a fascinating level as smuggled reflections on the raging war.

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Son of Dracula followed the lead of the previous year’s The Mummy’s Tomb in bringing a familiar monster to American shores, opening in the railway station of a small Louisiana town as a train rolls in. Plantation princeling Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) and local GP Dr Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) have come to meet an important visitor, Count Alucard, who proves not to be aboard. Only his luggage arrives, and Brewster notices the crest and the letters of the Count’s name which are, of course, Dracula spelt backwards. Alucard was to be the guest of wealthy but elderly and frail landowner Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), at the invitation of his daughter Kay (Louise Allbritton), at the estate of Dark Oaks. Kay has an obsessive fascination for the supernatural, a fascination the Count supposedly shares and which has made her idolise him, although she’s engaged to Frank. The welcoming ball the Caldwells throw for their absent guest still goes ahead, and the Count (Chaney) proves to be hovering outside, transforming into a bat and infiltrating the house to attack and kill the Colonel, which is taken for death by heart attack. A lately rewritten will gives the estate money to Kay’s sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers) and leaves Kay the house and plantation. Kay pleads with Frank to not to doubt her no matter what she does, but soon she meets clandestinely with the Count and marries him. Frank, on the warpath, confronts the couple on their wedding night and, after the Count hurls him across the room, Frank shoots at him. The bullets seem to pass through the Count, and Kay, who shelters behind, collapses dead instead.

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Siodmak’s aesthetic wielded an updated, carefully controlled version of the classic Expressionist style that had permeated the German cinema he started off in, and would use it to lend his noir films, tales of earthy violence and folly, an aspect of overwhelming psychological distress, a mimetic zone where the illusory constantly threatens to reshape the tangible. That style perhaps reached an apotheosis perhaps with the killer’s viewpoint in The Spiral Staircase erasing the mouth of the mute heroine, but continued to permeate his hardboiled stories, like the climax of Criss Cross where characters fade in and out of the dark like agents of fate. Son of Dracula’s superb studio simulation of a southern gothic atmosphere is first explored in an early sequence in which Kay leaves the Caldwell mansion and visits the ancient gypsy seer, Madame Queen Zimba (Adeline De Walt Reynolds), she allows to stay in a waterfront shack. Allbritton’s Kay with her jet black pompadour contrasted by the swirling silk about her body, strides a trail between tangled trees and reeds, a vision of morbid beauty, tracked by Siodmak’s gliding camera, escaping the prim white halls of her home for the landscape that’s forged her imagination, a wonderland of dangling Spanish moss and rippling swamp water caressed by moonlight. Queen Zimba waits in her shack with black raven sitting on hand, feeding the potion in her brazier, withered face and curling smoke inscribed by candlelight. Zimba tries to warn Kay of the bleak fate awaiting her – “I see you, married to a corpse!” – but a bat invading the shack terrifies her so much she promptly dies of a heart attack.

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Meanwhile Siodmak pulls of a beautiful tracking shot as he retreats from the mansion window, the ball in full swing within, and locates the Count, cowering in the shadows, awaiting his chance to invade the mansion. When he does, taking a bat form, he flits through the household corridors and transforms, sneaking up on the luckless Colonel Caldwell as he puffs a cigar in his bedroom. The sultry reaches of the southern bayous seemed to have an appeal for European directors taking on American thrillers around this time, considering the likes of Andre De Toth’s Dark Waters (1944), Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water (1943), and Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp (1946). The out-of-the-way, backwoods atmosphere and fetid remnants of a collapsed feudalism with lingering old world manners still permeating the deep south might have seemed a coherent and appealing zone for such artists, as well the obvious potential in the picturesque and dreamlike qualities of the bayou environments. Certainly such a setting was made for a horror film. Son of Dracula depends on a peculiar dichotomy. Siodmak presents Dracula as an avatar for an invasive, parasitical foreign evil in a manner that at once recasts the original plot of Bram Stoker’s novel and invokes wartime anxieties of invasion by infiltration, whilst also evoking the not-quite-buried skeletons of slavery and exploitation: Dracula proposes to use the plantation class in the way they used and profited from others. His quest is to find a “young and virile race” to feed amidst, finding a ripe one in the American polyglot, lending Dracula’s canonical hunt for new feeding grounds a hint of an ubermensch mentality in search of lebensraum. Or is it untermensch?

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The ripe, proto-camp Technicolor fantasia of Cobra Woman would let Siodmak pivot to an inverted proposition to this beware-the-fascist-invader narrative, instead viewing the war against Nazism through a sequin darkly, stranding plucky heroes on an island ruled by a death cult with a snaking-armed variation on the Nazi salute, plucking out random sacrifices to feed its bloodlust and secure its power. Many Universal horror entries, unthinkingly or not, finished up celebrating mob law and lynching as townsfolk, pushed too far by murders and mayhem, set out in gangs with blazing torches to cleanse their locale of malefactors. This refrain started with James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), which gave fuel to a quality of populist energy in Universal’s horror imprimatur, in courting the audience’s simultaneous feelings of exclusion and rejection in the Depression milieu leading it to identify with the monster, and also a desire for communal identity and mass action blurring into mob justice (Whale clarified his vision as one of persecution of the outsider in The Bride of Frankenstein, 1935, but the problem remained elsewhere). Siodmak pointedly avoids this pattern, and indeed turns a sceptical eye upon Frank’s efforts to wield his smug sense of position in his community to browbeat Dracula. This feels unexpectedly close to the portrayal in Cape Fear (1962) of a clash between the undoubtedly evil and the discomfortingly ineffectual network of good old boys who allow such evil to flourish through misjudging their own power and distinctness from the rotten underworld.

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Rather than wilt before Frank’s threats to have him jailed or run out of town which might carry some weight if this was a Tennessee Williams play, Dracula grips him by the neck and makes him feel like a child in an adult’s grip, unmanning him to such a degree that Frank starts his fast spiral into near-lunatic dislocation. Kay meanwhile signals the arrival of something new in pop culture, the horror movie character who also represents a variety of horror movie fan, enthralled by dark fantasies, and a brand of rebel bohemian spirit anticipating everything from the Beatnik to the Goth and the Emo. As with the ecstatic blooming of camp in Cobra Woman, Siodmak conjures this new figure from amidst the official seriousness and grimness of the war, embodying a reaction. Kay is ecstatically morbid, seeking new dimensions of experience and deliverance from the ordinary. “What do they know of these occult matters?” she questions in frustration in contending with the smaller minds she lives amongst. Eventually it emerges that she courts a nocturnal existence, hoping to obtain it through playing up to the Count to obtain his vampiric gift, and then pass it on to Frank, her true love. But he remains far too attached to the everyday world, and so must be forced to join her. Already pale and stark of feature under her crown of black hair before she becomes a member of the undead, as a vampire Kay slides in and out of the shadows, skin white as milk and sometimes dissolving into vapour, eyes gleaming with otherworldly light, airily assuring Frank “you have no choice” as she explains her plans to make him her undead mate and helpmate in eliminating the Count’s controlling threat.

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The film’s second great interlude of gothic beauty comes as Frank tries to follow Kay as she drives into the swamps, losing track of her whilst Kay descends to the water’s edge in a remote corner of the swamp. Dracula’s coffin rises from the depths and the Count, taking the form of a curling mist, slides out of the coffin and takes form upon it, riding it like a gondola in sublime smoothness across the bayou as Kay awaits in beaming anticipation. There’s a dash of drollery in the way Siodmak contrasts this vision of otherworldly grace and unholy accord with the more humdrum, as Dracula and Kay go knock on the door of a bewildered small town JP to be married, a notion so obscene that the winds rise and thrash at the door once they enter the JP’s house, but the portents of the elements go unnoticed. Siodmak keeps the tone very close to the worldly precepts of noir throughout, identifying Frank’s furious reaction to the charismatic stranger subsuming his place and placing the control of the Dark Oaks at the centre of the narrative: even when eternal life is involved, or perhaps especially then, property remains a good motive for murder. Frank’s attempt to shoot Dracula only to kill Kay instead, conflates a clever use of the supernatural with the hysterical overtones of much noir like Ulmer’s Detour (1945) where the hero keeps finding himself implicated in crimes against all his intentions, rooted in a fear that at any moment the shape of reality might distort and the absurd become the only certainty. Notably, Siodmak would later offer, in Criss Cross, essentially the same basic story and triangle between sucker, femme fatale, and evil overlord.

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Siodmak’s third great, if brief interlude of horror style comes as Frank flees Dark Oaks, pursued by Dracula as a bat: Siodmak even offers a high-angle shot of the bat hovering over Frank as he dashes through the undergrowth. Frank collapses on a grave in a cemetery, and the bat lands on his prostrate form, nuzzling up to his neck, only for the moon to emerge from behind a cloud and cast the silhouette of a grave-marker cross on Frank. Siodmak inverts the field of cast light and dark so the cross shines blazing light. Dracula flees to the edge of the cemetery and cringes ruefully at his missed chance. Frank manages to stumble his way to Brewster’s house, and Brewster investigates his hysterical tale of killing Kay: caught by Dracula investigating the cellar of Dark Oaks, he’s ushered upstairs where Kay proves to be apparently alive and entirely lucid, if a touch spacey. In the morning, Brewster finds Frank has fled his house and gone to confess to Kay’s killing to the local sheriff, Dawes (Patrick Moriarity), who insists on investigating despite Brewster’s assurances. To everyone’s shock, they find Kay’s body laid out in a coffin in the family crypt. Brewster manages to avoid being arrested whilst Frank is locked away in the local court house, and he welcomes the arrival of Professor Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg), a Hungarian-born authority on folklore who knows the Dracula legend inside out.

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Son of Dracula inserts an interesting, prototypical aspect of the metafictional as it portrays a world in which Stoker’s book exists and is known to the characters, and Brewster is portrayed reading it, trying to tease fiction from fact. Having spotted the game in the name Alucard, he asks Lazlo if any members of the historical family are still alive. Lazlo proposes that considering that the original Dracula was destroyed, the one they’re dealing with is a descendant. As Lazlo explains to Brewster that Dracula can transform himself into animals or a mist, Siodmak ingeniously has Dracula take that precise cue to enter Brewster’s living room by wafting under the locked door and appear to his foes, forestalled in his attack only by Lazlo’s canniness in having a crucifix in his pocket to drive him out again. Much as J.R.R. Tolkien’s remedy for evil was described by one critic as a yeoman sensibility based in ale and common sense, Siodmak’s answer for migrating vampiric masters is a pair of cool-headed old men smoking pipes, unhurried, almost folksy in response to the eruption of supernatural evil in their community – “A nauseating thought,” Brewster comments with a wince at one point as Lazlo proposes accurately what the nature of Kay’s plot could be. Brewster the embodiment of canny, homey Americana and Lazlo the wise embodiment of European poise.

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Except that Brewster and Lazlo don’t really do much to stop Dracula, instead forced to contend with the narrower precepts of policing and proof. Brewster’s most forthright achievement comes when a young boy, bitten but not killed by Dracula, is brought to him, and Brewster performs a palliative measure, painting small cruciform over the bite marks. Son of Dracula contributed a couple of permanent concepts to screen vampire lore, as the first to actually portray, through simple but effective animation and editing effects, Dracula transforming into a bat, and the notion of him leaving behind only a skeleton when killed. The most distinct and ingrained quality of the Universal horror brand was its sense of the genre as something fundamentally tragic. The studios’ films created a place of sepulchral passion and deeply sublimated sexuality mixed with the worship of Thanatos, soaked into the textures of the chiaroscuro photography. A place where the monster is a victim as well as villain, consumed by a need that also leads them to consume others, a quality joining the Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf Man, as well as less storied characters like the various ill-fated scientists Boris Karloff and Bèla Lugosi played, or Onslow Stevens’ luckless humanitarian doctor in House of Dracula.

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Dracula never quite fit this template as a character despite giving the marque its adrenalin dose: it wasn’t until much later that the notion of Dracula as cursed and timeless lover floated by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola would surface. Dracula served more as a catalyst for assailed lovers to feel the pain of unnatural desires tearing them apart, a force of refined, malignant erotic wont coming between them and the sanctitiy of heteronormative union, a note sounded in the Browning film as Mina mourns her relationship with Jonathan Harker as vampirism slowly takes her over. Siodmak makes much more of this theme whilst subverting it at the same time through Kay and Stanley, whose childhood love turned corrupted adult passion finally reverts again in the final moments of the film: Kay becomes an agent of corrupt adventuring for whom the Count is a mere means to an end, and Frank seems to be tempted right up to the threshold of eternity to share it with her. Like a true surrealist, Siodmak sees the force of love dragging a couple not towards the insular and the permitted but out into the wilderness, a place where only the ferocity of one’s commitment to passion can hold one together.

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Chaney had formed his screen persona playing average men with lodes of tragic luck and pathos, including his breakthrough role as Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939) as well as his signature role as Larry Talbot. His father’s reputation as the “man with a thousand faces,” an actor famed for his demanding and often excruciating physical transformations, became a difficult inheritance for his son. Chaney Jnr had acted at first under his real name of Creighton but only gained career traction as directly took on his father’s mantle, but unlike his rubber-limbed, almost professionally masochistic dad, Chaney Jnr, stocky and specific, was no such multifarious performer. Nonetheless he played the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and the mummy in three entries of the Kharis series in addition to returning to his role as Larry Talbot four times. To play Dracula he was made up with suavely greying temples and a sharp moustache, a look that makes him seem a little like a rough draft for Vincent Price’s horror persona. A few snarky tongues noted that the beefy Chaney looked like an extremely well-fed for a vampire. He’s merely okay in the role, lacking the silken charisma of Lugosi’s nobly diseased conqueror or the intensity of John Carradine’s gentleman pervert take in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, although he does project the character’s aggressive authority well, particularly as his imposing stature properly dominates.

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Chaney Jnr is at his best in the finale as Dracula tries desperately to extinguish the fire consuming his coffin leaving him without a resting place before the dawn, his frantic, panicky reaction palpable in a manner Chaney Jnr was effective at: his horror antiheroes are most vivid when exposed before terrifying forces of fate. Two aspects of Son of Dracula hamper it naggingly despite its fine points. One is casting. Allbritton looks the part but she and Paige lack the right kind of contrasting passion and neurotic vibrancy to really sell the amour fou Siodmak seemed to want to generate in their relationship, on top of Chaney Jnr’s unease in his part. Ankers, the official Universal scream queen who had been effective opposite Chaney Jnr in The Wolf Man, is wasted here in a role that doesn’t even give her a chance to give her famously shrill lungs a workout. The other is Taylor’s uncertain screenplay. Taylor had written Dick Tracy movies and he brought a rather stolid touch a little too much like B detective movies to the horror films he was assigned to, also including The Phantom of the Opera (1943), where the horror elements are subordinated to investigation and tepid romance. The narrative here belongs to the twisted threesome of Dracula, Kay, and Frank, but too much of Son of Dracula is devoted to Brewster and Lazlo arguing with Dawes and others about the veracity of things vampiric. Another foil is the film’s general cheapness with a straitened wartime budget, forced to hang around a few basic sets and fill out screen time not with action but talk.

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But the flashes of mysterious beauty and covert perversion continue as Kay materialises in Frank’s cell and tries to talk him into killing Dracula, wafting through the cell bars to stage his escape and drinking blood from his neck as he sleeps whilst in bat form, a deeply strange new frontier in erotic encounter. Kay still strongly resembles the familiar femme fatale figure here but goes one step further, becoming a literal phantom lady, free-floating animus goading Frank to defy limits of life and society: she can even help him casually subvert the law, usually the reef her kind leads mean like Frank to run aground on. She gives him the information required to track down Dracula to his sleeping place, in a disused, dried-out draining tunnel at the swamp, a detail thankfully overheard by Frank’s prison watchdog Mac (Walter Sande), who takes Frank for a nut: “Some goofball talkin’ to himself!” But Frank does manage to escape with Kay’s aid and finds Dracula’s coffin. Dracula returns to catch Frank before he can flee, but is quickly confronted by the sight of his coffin ablaze. The vampire hysterically tries to extinguish the fire. Failing that, he instead starts throttling the life out of Frank, only for the breaking dawn to send its lances of light through the gaps in the wooden structure, causing Dracula to collapse in a puddle and dissolve like a bad dream.

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As a climax this is a welcome eruption of the visually dynamic and physically brutal after all the chat. Siodmak cleverly delays sight of the burning coffin until Dracula himself sees it over Frank’s shoulder, whilst the rising sun appears out of a stock footage netherworld, and Chaney’s Dracula is dumbstruck by his own vulnerability, keeling over and fading away, another failed ubermensch. But it’s the very end that makes the movie, as Frank stumbles into Dark Oaks and finds Kay laid out in her coffin in what used to be the old playpen they shared as children, a frigid sleeping beauty and bride awaiting her mate, the veiled canopy a travesty of the wedding bed. Frank even completes the foiled ritual by taking a ring from his finger and placing in on Kay’s. When the ponderous trio of Brewster, Lazlo, and Dawes arrive after finding Dracula’s remains, they find Frank has not joined Kay but set fire to her coffin instead, the veiled canopy consumed by flame, a Viking funeral for a false idyll. Siodmak films Frank’s mournful visage through the burning silk, suggesting that the veil of complicity and abnormal love has been stripped from over his eyes, but leaving him abandoned, solitary and earthen, in an existence stripped of wonder and passion. Which is the fate worse than death?

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1940s, 1960s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Romance

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) / Hatari! (1962)

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Director: Howard Hawks
Screenwriters: Jules Furthman / Leigh Brackett

By Roderick Heath

Howard Winchester Hawks, born in 1896, was a scion of an Indiana family that made its fortune in paper milling. The family often visited Pasadena for the sake his mother’s health, and Hawks grew up there as an increasingly rambunctious lad who found physical outlets in car racing and barnstorming flying even before he’d left high school, plus success as a junior tennis champion. His hotrodding incidentally introduced him to then-cinematographer Victor Fleming, his first major contact in Hollywood. Soon after Hawks worked on some Cecil B. DeMille films in between stints at college, and gained his first directing experience filling in on set for Marshall Neilan on the Mary Pickford film The Little Princess. His flying skills served him well as he was engaged to instruct young pilots during World War I, landing a plumb assignment after a visit by Pickford during his training dazzled his commanders. After the war he returned to Hollywood and used his family’s financial clout to get him in good stead with Jack Warner. Following several years working in producing and screenwriting whilst crashing around with a cohort of similarly macho and venturesome young filmmakers, Hawks decided directing was his true passion. He made his feature directing debut with The Road to Glory in 1926. For the next forty years Hawks would remain one of Hollywood’s most vital and visible players, even before being anointed as an essential American auteur.

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Hawks had been directing films for thirteen years by the time he made Only Angels Have Wings, including outright masterpieces like Scarface (1932). But Only Angels Have Wings marked the advent of Hawks’ mature style and method. Hawks’ family background of successful entrepreneurs probably helped give him some savvy as a businessman within a business that a lot of other filmmakers lacked, an aspect of the man inseparable from the artist. He successfully branded himself and developed a reconfigurable product. He knew that his art was inseparable from the forces that allowed him to make it, the desire of a viewing public to hang out with movie stars, to both see, and see themselves in, such uncanny beings. Hawks’ cinema, more than that of any other director, was the pure synergy of performance and shaper. Only Angels Have Wings holds a contradictory place in Hawks’ oeuvre in some ways. It’s both one of his most cohesive and impeccable films but also a mere preparatory sketch for the work he’d pull off over the next three decades. Hatari!, a product of Hawks’ divisive final phase, is by contrast a much more uneven piece of work, and yet also sees Hawks’ touch often hitting its most beautifully distinctive notes.

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At his best, Hawks was something like the platonic ideal of commercial filmmakers. Particularly today, when filmmakers are often completely indifferent to the qualities and energies of the movie stars at their command or incompetent at utilising them, when special effects rule the blockbuster roost and narratives are so dictated by screenwriting manuals and cast-iron formulae, Hawks’ ability to make movies come alive according to their own internal logic and the interaction of performers seems like a fever dream of what entertainment’s supposed to look like, compared to what it so often is. Hawks worked within an industry just as often strict and inimical in warding off creativity, of course, but he knew how to make it serve him, and the audience. Hawks was reputed for his easy capacity to step between film genres whilst maintaining his distinctive imprint. Hawks’ dramas and comedies usually worked in an obviously divergent fashion, but were never entirely polarised. His dramas depicted intense, very masculine worlds where women prove themselves as capable, whilst his comedies emphasise his male characters being disassembled on the fly by the female.

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Hatari! represents a point where the boundary between the two dissolves, as Hawks entered a cinematic zone obeying only his own sure sense of behavioural sprawl. Only Angels Have Wings gained meaning from seeming to summarise much of Hawks’ life and career until that point, fusing his love of flying, his interest in group dynamics, games of love, and codes of honour, and his cinematic talent for situations of heightened stress like wartime transposed onto a nominal peacetime just gearing up again for a great convulsive moment. The project had roots in Hawks’ experience in scouting locations for Viva Villa! (1934) and his encounters with flyers in Mexico, although it feels more crucially like an idealised and extrapolated analysis of his own youth. Credited solely to Jules Furthman although Hawks and others contributed to it, the script saw Furthman recycling a major motif he’d used on Tay Garnett’s China Seas (1935), that of a disgraced coward trying to earn back respect. But where that was an incidental aspect of Garnett’s work, here it fuses perfectly with Hawks’ overall schema, perhaps as neat an illustration of the difference between genre convention and auteurist sublimation as you can get.

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Only Angels Have Wings is also one of those movies that works because of rather than in spite of the strictures of classic Hollywood’s embrace of stylised artificiality. Travelling performer Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) steps off the boat at the fictional South American town of Barranca for a short stopover and right into the arms of two Yank exiles desperate for a little hometown flavour, Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr) and ‘Gent’ Shelton (John Carroll). The two men’s eager, jovial competition for her attention soon takes a tragic turn. Both are flyers for the Barranca Airways, a fledgling, low-rent operation run by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and bankrolled by bar owner ‘Dutchy’ Van Ruyter (Sig Ruman). They’re trying to land a potentially life-changing subsidy by filling a mail delivery contract for a set period, but in chasing it down they’re obliged to take obscene risks in antiquated aircraft and contend with the often brutal climate in getting over the Andes. Joe is killed when weather closes in and he’s too eager to take a chance on landing in fog so he can have dinner with Bonnie. Soon enough Bonnie and Geoff strike sparks of romantic interest and Bonnie decides to hang around, but is soon confronted by Geoff’s determination to retain his sovereign ethos, the outlook of the pilot inimical to domestic order.

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Only Angels Have Wings saw Hawks consciously trying to transfer the outlook of wartime he’d explored on The Dawn Patrol (1930), an ethos based in omnipresent threat and a prototypical version of existential angst, where the constant fact of death and danger means taking a radically different attitude to it. Bonnie is initially shocked and appalled by the dismissive flintiness adopted by Geoff and the other flyers over Joe’s death (“Who’s Joe?”), and whilst she soon realises it’s an attitude that actually suits her quite a bit, she’s nonetheless compelled by fear and affection to try and stop Geoff risking his life. The fatalism is counterbalance by a study of the richness of human interaction and a panoply of ironic rhymes. Geoff refuses the trappings of domesticity but serves as parental figure to a peculiar family and has his platonic wife in ‘Kid’ Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), one of his pilots and pals whose failing eyesight compels Geoff to ground him. Bonnie embodies traits that blur gender lines, her independence as a musician (as opposed to the chorus girl Geoff immediately asks if she is) and sexual being all footloose and fancy free. The narrative seems to be predicated around Bonnie’s ability to change, to surrender any need to demand her man settle down, but actually ultimately depends on Geoff’s, as he’s obliged to surrender his usual rule of refusing to ask anything of a woman lest she take it as licence to do the same to him.

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Meanwhile the tight-knit scene is crashed not only by Bonnie but Geoff’s ex-flame Judy (Rita Hayworth) and her husband ‘Bat’ MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), who Geoff instantly recognises as a man formerly known as Kilgannon, disgraced after he bailed out of a plain leaving behind his co-pilot, who just happened to be Kid’s younger brother. MacPherson and Judy represent failure in terms of the group ethos – she failed to be supportive to Geoff and he recognises she’s doing the same thing for MacPherson, who in turn has to run a gauntlet of ostracism and put up with being handed absurdly dangerous jobs to maintain his place on the Airways staff. Geoff is obliged to keep him on after grounding Kid, sending him first to fly a mine owner’s son out from a remote plateau, demanding piloting of incredible skill. But mere professional ability doesn’t make a professional. One aspect of Only Angels Have Wings that makes it feel at once like a cumulative statement and a draft is the quality of the machismo running through it. Plainly, it had taken Hawks this long to acquire both the clout as an artist and industry player to make such a movie and summarise his basic worldview with a concision like that of his pal Ernest Hemingway. As he entered his forties and fifties, Hawks became increasingly witty and adept at playing with the gender coding in his movies, tinkering with the entire concept of American manhood and womanhood. But the big daddy morality is played straight nearly to a fault here, with such vignettes as Geoff soaking Judy’s head as prelude to a tongue-lashing.

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Despite her eminence, Bonnie isn’t the classic Hawksian woman, the tough and worldly gamine, but rather is trying to become one. She keeps failing the creed to the point where she accidentally shoots Geoff after trying to force him at gunpoint to stay on the ground. And yet the machismo in Only Angels Have Wings has a performative aspect, one underlined by casting Grant, hitherto an actor known almost entirely for light comedy roles, in a part that might have seemed a better fit for the likes of Clark Gable, strains subtly at the contours of the assured masculine leader figure: Geoff is consciously working to fulfil the role he’s assumed. The type of no-cry-babies-allowed discipline all the characters ultimately agree is necessary to mounting an operation like building an airline off the ground, and yet the toll mounts up to the point where even Geoff is reduced to weeping private after Kid’s death. From one perspective this is a myth of gutsy free enterprise, from another a horror story of venture capitalism brutally and literally illustrated, and from yet another a metaphorical vision of all human endeavour as a duel with nature and circumstance. The most luckless and yet paradoxically the happiest-seeming member of the crew is Tex (Don Barry), who mans the remote mountaintop shack to keep watch on the pass the pilots have to fly through to get over the Andes, often a trap of fearsome weather and huge condors, a jolly Tiresias guiding the pilots on their tilts toward destiny.

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But Hawks’ real focal point is the reaction of his characters to their situation. Geoff states, “I’m trying to run an airline, and I’m not doing it any different to anyone I ever flew for.” As with the majority of Hawks’ later films, the drama resembles less the linear deluge of cause and effect preferred by mainstream narrative but a series of music variations or chess moves, each one reconfiguring the basic initial proposition, testing and revealing the characters and shunting them on to new beginnings, or ends. The MacPhersons turn up just when the narrative needs a new motif and a crystallisation for those already in motion; Kid’s crisis of sight and temperament points the way forward to the end of a way of living. Hawks’ love of having his characters sit down and begin performing music together didn’t simply let him show off his actors’ talents and give his movie pivots of entertaining downtime, but helped bracket such shifts of energy and present a ready and blatant portrayal of such improvisatory happening. Bonnie’s initial arrival in Barranca establishes her as a figure of life and song, chiming in with the waterfront singers and swiftly catching the wind of a new culture and way of being. Her clicking into gear with Geoff and the pilots is dramatized as she sits down at the piano and quickly begins orchestrating Dutchy’s musicians for a show of passion and talent that proves how alive the living are and how dead the dead. Flying as metaphor for life, of course, the importance of retaining a self-ruling attitude towards it as well as grasping for great challenges.

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Hawks, who was probably better at grouping actors together in frames than just about any other director past or present, also loved such sequences on a visual level, allowing him to cram faces and bodies in close relation, as busy and bustling as Hogarth but with the scabrous misanthropy swapped out for its opposite, a love of teeming human energy and unity. The fall-off from the raucous high-point of Bonnie’s piano playing to later as she dabs at the keys signifies the moment for deeper revelations and connections. And misunderstandings, as when Geoff for a moment thinks Bonnie intends to claim a trinket from Joe’s effects for herself whilst in fact intending to gift it to Joe’s heartbroken local girlfriend. The spectacle of human frailty and mercenariness is so much more common than decency it’s easy to make such mistakes. Only Angels Have Wings depends upon an almost metaphysical sense of mission to make itself comprehensible – being a pilot is a calling that transcends the usual and compels men beyond bonds of sense and earthbound loyalty – and that’s clearly signalled in the title, if in contradictory fashion: all are doomed, sooner or later, to crash to earth again.

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At the same time, Hawks seems to be having a bit of fun with the world of moviemaking itself, perhaps no less an enslaving and obsessing profession. Dutchy emits Samuel Goldwynisms like “Include me out,” making him the mogul, with Geoff as director with a surplus of wannabe leading men and in need of a hardy leading lady. And what a leading lady he lands with Bonnie. Hawks was supernaturally skilled at putting across a sexual vibe in his films whilst eluding censors, and makes it very clear Bonnie’s eager to jump in the sack with Geoff, accepting an invitation to his room, only for events and Geoff’s scruples to forestall things. Sex is easy in Hawks’ films, consequences not so much. Arthur, one of the less-regarded but most entertaining stars of her day (having a good year in working with Mitchell, as they were both also in Mr Smith Goes To Washington), had a unique ability to seem at once adorable, sharp, and offbeat, a quality that serves her well as Hawks uses her to crash the boundaries of the adventure movie with a screwball comedy heroine. Hayworth, who gained a major boost to stardom thanks to her role here, contrasts Bonnie by seeming more mature and fitting for Geoff’s purposes on first inspection, with her cool, level stare and low, lilting voice contrasting Arthur’s chirp. But her lack of moxie is soon revealed as she gets plastered rather than confront her own role to play in the face of her husband’s apparent disgrace.

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Hawks casting Barthelmess, who had fallen a long way from his days as a silent heartthrob, was particularly inspired and one that served the film’s themes intrinsically: the tyranny of exclusion from one’s metier was literally etched on Barthelmess’ face, from a botched facelift, and the impression he makes in the role feels all the more genuine for it. Flourishes of melodramatic inevitability, leading to Kid and MacPherson being forced to pilot together in a desperate attempt to deliver the last mail delivery, are imbued with a certain logic as each new advent sets in motion forces that whittle down alternatives. Kid’s displaced rage over being grounded and stuck with his brother’s betrayer sees him accidentally break Gent’s arm. Geoff is winged after Bonnie sticks him up. As the deadline for filling the contract nears, crisis also gains velocity, as various minor players and converging angsts crash against each-other like pool balls. Hawks’ love of compressed settings gave many of his films theatrical unity of space and performance as well as dramatic intimacy, whilst relying on supple cutting and camera placement to dispel any hint of the stagy. Only Angels Have Wings may be the most perfect variation on this aspect of Hawks’ cinema because it feels intimately joined with overt story and thematic impetus as well as metaphorical vista. It feels likely Hawks was taking some inspiration from the French poetic realist style having its heyday in the late ‘30s, with the same strongly contrasted but also finely textured photographic style and fatalistic concerns, although the sharp feeling of impending doom that defined the French movement is softened.

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Only Angels Have Wings hovers in hallucinatory form, a stage of drama perched between fog-ridden ocean and soaring, jagged model-work mountains, the space in between, Dutchy’s saloon and airfield, an island of life and death etched out in pools of vivid chiaroscuro and expressionist fervour. It’s probably also, visually speaking, Hawks’ finest work. The photography (by Joseph Walker) offers a restrained brand of expressionist heightening. There’s a near-dreamlike vividness to the evocations of the exotic, from the Barranca waterfront where musicians and dancers collect in localised storms of human energies, to Tex’s remote, rough-hewn but cosy vantage amidst elemental extremes of the high Andes. And yet Hawks was one director never terribly interested in pretty pictures: he was always looking for the most concise conveyance of information and the most charged and engaging way of framing his actors. The most striking piece of Paul Mantz’s aerial photography, by contrast, as Bat lands on the remote plateau, filmed in one great, unbroken shot from another plane, swinging about with a vertiginous sense of height and movement. Bat’s success in getting his plane in and out of this nearly impossible setting is powerful both on the thematic level – we see how inured Bat is to danger now thanks to endless humiliation and deploring, as well as serving his professional need in the only way he can now, whilst the stunt flying offers a jolt of real and palpable danger amidst the film’s stylised simulacra.

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The last quarter of Only Angels Have Wings entwines moral and character crises and physical adventures with mischievous perfection, and Hawks’ and Furthman’s tropes, arranged as carefully as dominos, begin to fall. Bonnie’s fear and romantic frustration leads to Geoff’s wounding. This leads to Bat and Kid being forced to work together, flying a new trimotor plane that still cannot surmount the loftiest reaches of the Andes. The two men goad each-other to new daring, only to find their capacities have limits, instead forcing them to take the sopped-in pass, only to collide with one of the condors nesting there. This leaves Kid with a broken neck and Bat forced to try and pilot the flaming plane back to the airfield, displaying such fortitude and daring that he finally dispels the last of the curse upon him and is readmitted to the society of fliers. Kid’s death proves a catharsis for Geoff that reduces him finally to weeping in the shadows, but also releases him to love Bonnie. The fundamental imperfection of men and women, their breakableness in the face of a hostile universe, has been reproven, but so too has the fact of their indomitable capacity. Geoff and Gent are granted a last chance to prove their mettle as together the form one complete, operating man and fill the contract with a few hours to spare. Bonnie realises at the very last moment that Geoff has asked her to stay indirectly through the device of Kid’s double-headed coin, a momentous life moment and dramatic climax hinging on a subtle device.

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Whilst Only Angels Have Wings had taken its keynote from a transliterated quote rooted in Shakespearean tragedy — “A man can die but once, and we owe god but one, and if we pay it today we don’t owe it tomorrow,” — Hatari! is a wayward approximation of the Shakespearean pastoral, studying its heroes out in the wild where the adventures and connections are playful and fruitful. Hatari! carries over many basic Hawksian refrains from Only Angels Have Wings – newcomers breaking into a tight-knit domain of preoccupied specialists, the hero who’s been romantically burned and refuses to initiate a courtship, the musical performance as fulcrum of evolving relationships – but with a much more measured and puckish take on it. The Hawks of a quarter-century later is quite a different artist in other ways. Filmed in bright colour out on the actual African veldt, the business this time around is much less urgent, portraying the Momella Game outfit, dedicated to capturing wild animals for zoos and circuses in the wilds of Tanganyika (today mainland Tanzania). As a profession it’s not nearly as dangerous as bush piloting, if still hardly a soft option. It’s not even so masculine, as the official boss of the outfit is Brandy de la Court (Michèle Girardon), daughter of its founder and well-used to the rough-and-tumble travails of the savannah, although Sean Mercer (John Wayne) is its operational chieftain. The team’s efforts to capture the animals demands a blend of toughness and care that fascinates Hawks thematically and visually, finding in this an almost perfect union of masculine and feminine traits. Where Only Angels Have Wings dealt specifically with exiled American characters confronting the imminent age of the US emerging as a global superpower as well as the threat of war, Hatari! offers a multiethnic sprawl reflecting the vicissitudes of the post-World War II age.

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Mancini’s score, often playful elsewhere, wields a main theme replete with plangent drums and horns evoking a dramatic and intrepid landscape. The newcomer this time is Anna Maria D’Alessandro (Elsa Martinelli), swiftly dubbed Dallas as per the outfit’s tribal lore which demands a good, pithy nickname. A photographer hired to document the capture of animals destined for a Swiss circus, Dallas turns up in Sean’s bed when he and the rest of the crew return from a drinking session after the Indian’s life is saved: having simply claimed the first bed she could find, Dallas offers sexual provocation to Sean right from the start. Dallas initially finds herself well out of her depth as she doesn’t count on just how jarring and strenuous the savannah chases get, but after swallowing her pride and apologising for getting in the way she soon finds her feet. Dallas also instantly falls in love with Sean as the compulsory Hawks alpha, but like her forebears such as Bonnie finds him determinedly unreceptive. On the advice of team driver and mechanical wizard Pockets (Red Buttons), Dallas instead starts finding ways of putting Sean on the spot. The team experiences a crisis just before Dallas’ arrival, as one its stalwarts, ‘The Indian’ Little Wolf (Bruce Cabot), is gored in the leg by a rhinoceros. A young French roustabout, Charles ‘Chips’ Maurey (Gérard Blain), asks Sean for the job of filling in for the Indian in the hospital with an opportunistic verve that annoys German team member Kurt Müller (Hardy Kruger), but in donating blood for the Indian and later matching Kurt in a test of shooting skill, he earns himself a place in the ranks. Soon he’s competing with both Kurt and Pockets for Brandy’s affections.

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Hatari! saw Hawks working again with the ingenious crime and sci-fi author turned screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who had collaborated on several of his greatest films including The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959): Brackett was Hawks’ ideal collaborator as one who enacted the whole business of being a hardy woman in a manly world rather than just fantasised about it. Hatari! broadly reproduces Only Angels Have Wings’ basic structure as the outfit must fill the animal orders they’ve been hired to nab. Compared to the agonising travails of the earlier film, there’s not much more on the line than professional pride, although that’s the most unforgiving taskmaster of all. The Indian’s fear that they might be jinxed in regards to rhinos adds a psychological, even spiritual foil to be overcome, in a similar manner to the insurmountable Andes. The Indian plays a similar role to Kid in Only Angels Have Wings and Eddie in To Have and Have Not (1944), the wounded elder the appointed alpha male plays protector to. Here, however, this aspect is supplanted as the main mode for expressing the protective, quasi-parental need by Dallas evolves quickly from being freaked out by the outfit’s pet cheetah to adopting some young, motherless elephants. She pressgangs the outfit into helping her keep them fed – her skill and abandon as a nurturer is at once perfectly maternal and erotically provocative. Sean hovers in readily bewildered and cautious fascination as Dallas rattles his cage with propositions like, “How do you like to kiss?”

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Hawks loved recycling elements and reframing ideas from movie to movie, considering them from different aspects: whilst several of his films are virtual remakes of others, this reordering gave each a distinct tenor. Wayne’s Durston in Red River (1948) concentrated on the dark and irrational aspect of the authority figure, particularly when haunted by romantic loss and challenged by youthful talent. The boozer characters played by Dean Martin in Rio Bravo and Robert Mitchum in El Dorado were depictions of the sorts of degrading lows characters like Geoff and Sean had certainly experienced following their own romantic crucifixions, as men who try to hide from their emotional anguish in the narcotising delight of booze only to find out all too cruelly what it cost them. Chips and Kurt are reminiscent of the many competitive bucks in Hawks’ oeuvre and also have a quality reminiscent of Kid and Bat, albeit remixed to a less fraught level. Chips’ opportunism in asking for the Indian’s job offends Kurt, who attacks him and derides him. Chips then makes him ask him to help the Indian, and later they directly compete to see who’s the better shooter before Sean’s indulgent gaze: Chips matches Kurt and punches him in the jaw, a last act of score-settling that Kurt accepts with rueful understanding. Later, as the two men compete for Brandy’s affections, they become inseparable pals. Given the intimations of a political metaphor that runs through the outfit’s adventures, they stand for rapprochement between Germany and France in the post-war order, just as the figuration of Sean, the Indian, and sharp-dressing Mexican Luis Lopez (Valentin de Vargas) are the model for a modern North America that’s left behind past conflicts and schisms.

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Hatari! is the longest film Hawks made, although it scarcely has a plot. The comedic interludes verge on silliness at times, in Dallas pressganging the outfit into helping her keep the baby elephants fed, and many scenes of the outfit trying to corral escaped and intransigent animals. A scene of Dallas being inducted into a local tribe’s ranks and painted in blackface definitely puts the teeth on edge now. A late scene where she bathes the animals is pure froth (and yet this provided the film’s deepest impact upon the pop culture as it’s scored by Mancini’s instant standard, “Baby Elephant Walk”). And yet Hatari! nonetheless perhaps comes closest of all Hawks’ films to achieving what he had always chased in a movie, a state of immersion with a set of characters whose actions, traits, and foibles become as familiar as neighbours, living lives imbued with an outsized vitality by circumstance and mythmaking technique. In this regard even the film’s nominal faults help Hawks portray his team in various states ranging from high gallantry to happy absurdity. Sean and Dallas finding connection in playing a piano is a virtual copy of the scene in Only Angels Have Wings. Kurt and Chips entertain Brandy by playing music for her to dance to, only for Pockets to reveal startling ability to cut a rug as he enters the romantic fray. The giveaway for who Brandy actually loves, in such a stoic environment, an only ben an expression of purely reflexive care. After tending with soldierly efficiency to Kurt and Chips getting banged up in a crash, she freaks out with Pockets has a minor fall and nurses him back to health.

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Hatari! exemplifies Hawks’ credo of making use of his actors’ talents and capacities by making them really get in the mix with the animals, and other moments that depend on unfakeable displays of skill, such as Martinelli playing piano, or her rapport with the baby elephants, or Button’s delightful display of dancing. Rather than seeming like some kind of movie star showing off, Hawks taps this sort of thing to make his characters seem all the more palpable: everyone has their party trick, their unexpected aptitude. Unifying rather than interrupting Hatari!’s sprawling behavioural indulgence are the hunting sequences. These come on as long, detailed, scoreless depictions inviting the audience to witness something at once madcap and delicate. The animals quite often fight back and torment their pursuers with unexpected verbe. The actors are unmistakeably engaged in the action: shots of Wayne perched in a catcher’s chair trying to lasso wild animals amidst driving dust and grit, fill the compressed widescreen frames with a sense of pure motion and dynamic engagement. Another of Hawks’ singular capacities was his ability to find a sense of drama in watching people do their work. Of course that’s much easier when work is this different and interesting, but Hawks’ fascination for watching people do such things for money was undoubtedly designed to plug into his audience’s own sense of workaday pride, and as part of their social identity. This was a sensibility he shared with Raoul Walsh and not too many others in the movie world then and now.

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The crew are a team apart, elevated by their communal dedication and general skill. When not dashing about the savannah they’re people with lives elsewhere, contrasting the desperate tenor of Only Angels Have Wings’ exiles, and sometimes signalling an innate love of danger – Kurt is a race car driver. Sean notes a telling similarity between his crew and their proud neighbouring Massai tribes, who maintain a strict ethic in remaining cattle growers and herders and pay another tribe to carry their water. It’s hard not to notice, from today’s perspective and despite the general idealism, the way the team relies on its African workers but includes no actual black locals. The inclusivity of the Africans however stretches to inducting Dallas into their ranks to honour her for her protection of the young elephants, although that’s an honour Sean has to coach her to understand: Dallas’ tribal induction mimics her inclusion in the outfit but in some ways outweighs it, establishing her as someone engaged with the African world in a way the outfit never quite does. Pockets is her temperamental opposite in regards to animals, tentative and clumsy in their presence. But he’s finally able to stake a claim to equality in the team when he develops a device for catching monkeys with a rocket-delivered net, a triumph for gawky mechanic that he doesn’t even see because he keeps his eyes closed.

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The catching season ends with the hoodoo broken and a rhino caught. As if by deliberation, Hawks’ next film, Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964), would purposefully invert the general proposition here as its would-be outdoorsy hero is revealed as a boob way out of his depth needing schooling even in catching fish by female provocateurs. As in Only Angels Have Wings, the climax of Hatari! is a romantic clinch, but comically sustained this time. Dallas flees the crew at the end of the catching season rather than face rejection from Sean, obliging the crew and even her adopted elephants chasing her into town. Whilst perhaps an excessive affirmation of the film’s goofy side, as well as inventing as far I can tell the most famous cliché ending of the modern romantic comedy, this is also perhaps the ultimate display of Hawks’ depiction of a kind of fusion family, mobilised to bring one of their own back to the hearth. Hawks circles back to where Sean and Dallas’ relationship started, with Dallas ensconced in Sean’s bed and even with a pie-eyed Pockets barging in, except with the crucial detail that Sean and Dallas are now married. And this time, in come the elephants again, interrupting all hope of connubial bliss as literalised manifestations of the eventual dangers of marriage – children! Now there’s a frontier of experience the bravest adventurer will shrink from.

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1940s, War

The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944)

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Director: Cecil B. DeMille

By Roderick Heath

Cecil B. DeMille’s films are synonymous with a specific kind of cinema, a realm of grandiose subjects realised with an even more grandiose style. DeMille had trouble attuning himself to audience tastes in the early sound era with present-day stories like Dynamite (1929), Madame Satan (1930), and Four Frightened People (1934), whilst his splashy, Roman-age martyr romance Sign of the Cross (1932) was a hit. Hollywood in the Depression-defined 1930s was trending towards more present-tense, down-to-earth subjects and economical productions, compared to the inflated fancies of the late silent era. DeMille had exemplified that era as he became reputed for acts of elephantine showmanship like The Ten Commandments (1923) and King of Kings (1926), but his essential stock-in-trade was still the sexy but moralistic melodrama. Seeing an audience still hungry for larger-than-life thrills even in an officially more sober and straitened age, DeMille decided to redefine himself more properly as a maker of historical adventures, romances, and religious dramas, for which he’s remembered largely today beyond his place as one of the key progenitors of Hollywood’s first half-century. The Story of Dr. Wassell is something of an aberration in DeMille’s later career, as probably the most obscure film he made in that phase. Along with The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), it’s his only return to a present-day topic, and even his later Oscar-winner is only nominally contemporary, whereas The Story of Dr. Wassell engaged then-current geopolitics as DeMille’s lone contribution to the era of morale-boosting dramas made about and during World War II.
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DeMille and two of his most regular screenwriting collaborators, Alan Le May and Charles Bennett, took on the life and adventures of Dr. Corydon M. Wassell, whose efforts during the evacuation of Java in the first weeks of the war with Japan earned him special praise from Franklin Roosevelt. Needless to say, DeMille may have been taking on hot-off-the-wires news but his approach was hardly the stuff of stony authenticity. He adapted Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr Chips author James Hilton’s book about Wassell. The doctor was a man pushing sixty at the time of his exploits, whereas DeMille cast Gary Cooper as a romantic hero cast in mould both Hilton and DeMille were both fond of in their highly diverse ways – a searcher seeking new spiritual and humanistic horizons. DeMille kicks off in a manner swiftly becoming customary for him since he had first dared put his own voice on the soundtrack of North West Mounted Police (1940), with his spoken prologue paying tribute to a noble tradition. Or, in this case, two noble traditions. First he offers a hymn to the humble country doctor, the hardy creed to which Wassell belonged until he was drawn overseas to work in China’s missions, illustrated with a small bronze statue of a doctor in his horse-drawn buggy set before abstracted backdrops and assailed by snowflakes. DeMille had dealt with the war in sidelong fashion prior to this, trying to foster better relations between the USA and the British Empire on North West Mounted Police, and commenting on the then-raging Battle of the Atlantic through the historical likeness of wrecking and piracy in Reap the Wild Wind (1942).
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DeMille’s glossy, entertainment-at-all-costs template might have seemed out of place in context of the all too real, all too palpable war, which was giving birth to a new mode of cinema embracing a blend of traditional filmmaking and documentary techniques, resulting in the birth of neorealism in Italy and variations in Britain and France, and even starting to influence Hollywood. And yet what better filmmaker than the man used to evoking the wraths of gods and rise and fall of nations to portray something close to an apocalyptic moment for so much of the world? The onset of war for America saw moviemakers rush to deal with the bruising and deadly events of the Pacific war’s first few months, for the most part a period of unstinting calamity for the US and other Allies. Rather than tiptoe around such ignominy, Hollywood’s newborn propagandists saw the value in downbeat tales like Wake Island (1942) and Bataan (1943), casting them as neo-Alamos to inspire the next wave of warriors. The Story of Dr. Wassell stands aloof from such movies in a surprising way, sporting very little actual, military action and instead concentrating on non-combatants attempting to escape the eye of an oncoming storm. Even a climactic assault by the Japanese on a last Dutch redoubt in Java is depicted chiefly via a radio broadcast.
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The story proper starts in the immediate wake of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese advance into South East Asia. DeMille’s voiceover next celebrates the fame of the USS Marblehead, a cruiser severely damaged during the Battle of the Makassar Strait. The battered, burning ship is seen on screen, her innards a trap of flooding water and boiling fire and limping her way into a port on Java in Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies as it was called at the time. One of DeMille’s trademark panoramic introduction scenes follows, one that sees multiple characters meeting and interacting in the midst of a staging area for great events. Badly injured men are unloaded under Wassell’s supervision, as he’s now a navy surgeon commanding a hospital train sent to fetch the wounded and take them to a hospital. Wassell here meets the men from the Marblehead whose future will soon be bound up fatefully with his own, and also encounters two old friends from his missionary days: mission nurse Madeleine (Laraine Day), and his former research assistant Ping (Philip Ahn). All have been flung together in the desperate migration pushed ahead of the Japanese advance.
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Wassell and his team of steadfast nurses patch up the injured with the aid of a terse Chinese doctor (Richard Loo) on the train, and the wounded are installed in a hospital in central Java. But after the Japanese capture Singapore and invade Java, the hospital is bombed, killing Ping. Wassell is ordered to only evacuate walking wounded on transport ships, and leave behind the worst cases to be captured. Wassell decides to ignore the order and try to send stretcher cases out to a transport ship with the other wounded, but they’re spotted in the process by an officer who chides Wassell but also agrees to his request to have his orders amended to stay with the men left behind. After travelling back to their hospital to find it in ruins, Wassell encounters a convoy of British soldiers retreating before the Japanese, planning to reach another port and meet up with more transport ships, and the British CO (Richard Aherne) readily agrees to ferry Wassell and his charges along with them. But this proves to be merely the start of an arduous odyssey as it seems like all of heaven and earth are conspiring to destroy Wassell’s ragged band.
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To appreciate the best aspects of The Story of Dr. Wassell, as with many DeMille films, is to wade through some pure cornball and ungainly, runtime-hogging comedy that feels better suited to a serviceman comedy or a lesser MASH episode than a tale of such catastrophic urgency, before the film gets on a roll. So lumpy is The Story of Dr. Wassell because of some of this that some have called it DeMille’s worst movie. But I find it better than that, and once the film does really get moving, the second half proves a lesson from a master in big, vivid, suspenseful staging. Most of the levity comes from Johnny Leeweather (Renny McEvoy), a walking wounded case from New York so obsessed with romancing he fills out his hospital bunk with an improvised dummy and finally misses his chance to leave because he’s been too busy canoodling with the Javanese ladies. The director, who always knew how to sex up even the most unlikely material, shoehorns in one of his patented dancing girl scenes, in this case half-European, half-Javanese nurse Tremartini (Carol Thurston), who invents a blend of jazz-baby hoochie-coochie and folk dance that sets the hot-blooded patients amok during an improvised festivity. Some of DeMille’s worst dramatic tendencies are enabled by the film’s attempts to bolster wartime alliance-building, as he has Wassell say, “There’ll be a special place in heaven for the Dutch,” before depicting a heroic Dutch soldier dying in a hail of bullets muttering, “God save the Queen!” in the kind of cornball vignette satirists have made a meal of ever since. DeMille once quipped that critics’ appreciation of the audience’s intelligence sank every time he released a movie.
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Yet DeMille’s style was wrought in a fashion designed to be readily, easily accessible by a mass audience, and put across this openness with his open, pictographic visual style that betrays levels of intricacy in the way his camera shifts from vignette to vignette, knitting all together in a format that can only be likened to a mobile fresco. DeMille’s fondness for framings as carefully composed and lit as neoclassical paintings is much in evidence, although sacrificed to a more imperative pace of cutting than he usually wielded. His method of trying to please a panorama of tastes in that audience with flourishes from multiple genres was undoubtedly part of his success, but today you have to go to the Chinese and Indian film industries to see the same approach, especially compared to the increasingly monomaniacal stylistic approach to contemporary Hollywood franchise cinema. DeMille’s feat as a director who could speak to such a vast audience still doesn’t gain much appreciation, and yet which fascinates me deeply, an argot as stylised as anything in cinema and yet not perceived as such. Moreover, once it gets going, The Story of Dr. Wassell, along with his next film and one that has a claim to being his best, Unconquered (1947), belongs to a brief phase of relative toughness and grittiness for the director, before he’d turn back to a more self-consciously artificial, totally stylised approach for Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), with The Greatest Show on Earth in between as a commentary on his own belief in moviemaking as salving act of communion between artists and audience.
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The Story of Dr. Wassell is also interestingly complicated by DeMille’s adoption of a flashback structure possibly influenced by In Which We Serve (1942), exploring defining episodes in Wassell’s life amidst the onward rush of the main drama. Ping begins to explain to the sailors Wassell’s past in the midst of a bombing raid after one of the wounded, the grumbling Murdock (Paul Kelly), rants fearfully about hearing a rumour Wassell fled China rather than face the Japanese there. Ping tries to correct this rumour by explaining how Wassell left his home in Arkansas after getting one too many pigs as payment from his poor rural patients, and falling in love with Madeleine’s picture, used as the image of the exemplary missionary worker in a flyer Wassell got in the mail. Wassell himself takes up narrating his experiences after Ping is killed, recounting his dedication to discovering a microbe causing virulent and deadly fevers in the Chinese interior which he believed to be carried by a species of rare snail. He formed a close bond with Madeleine as they worked with Ping, and was thrown into both professional and romantic rivalry with Dr Ralph Wayne (Lester Matthews). Wassell was split from Madeleine after being assigned to a remote station with Ping, but there he was able to isolate the microbe. Believing himself a success at last, Wassell intended to ask Madeleine to marry him, but then found Wayne beat him to the discovery. In defeat, Wassell instead encouraged her to take up Wayne’s marriage offer instead, before leaving the missionary service and joining the navy.
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DeMille’s decision to tell his story in this fashion risked breaking up the pace of his drama, but it introduces a contrapuntal quality to the tale, the memory of labouring for years in dedication both altruistic and personal ambitions and the evanescent emotions of peacetime recalled in both its sublime and painful pettiness before the great trial arrives. For a director so often associated with adamantine moral values freely mixed with sensuous hype, DeMille had a telling penchant for badly flawed heroes. Often skilled as bringers of violence and accomplished in the hardier arts of life, DeMille’s protagonists are eventually obliged to writhe their way pathetically towards transcendence, heroes fit for a more rambunctious world trying desperately to become its better self. That description is true of figures like Fredric March’s love-struck tribune in The Sign of the Cross, Henry Wilcoxon’s Richard the Lionheart in The Crusades (1935), Cooper’s Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman (1936), and Victor Mature’s Samson. Wassell, by contrast, is established as a constantly frustrated protagonist whose nobility stems in large part precisely from his well-exercised gifts for self-effacement and coping with crushing twists of fate. As a character Wassell accords with Cooper’s preference for playing strong yet slightly offbeat, pensively modest characters, a natural succession from his Oscar-winning role as Alvin York as another man who manages to be heroic with sensibility that’s notably at odds with the age of mass slaughter. DeMille gives shading and dramatic tension to the portrait by having characters raise the spectre of Wassell’s past failures and rumours that he ran out on his responsibilities in China, charges Ping determinedly puts down.
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The film’s better comedy interludes come from Cooper, giving a quiet master class in playing physical awkwardness, including a brilliant little dance of actions with Ahn as Ping tries to help Wassell dress for a date with Madeleine, and near the end, when Wassell hears Roosevelt’s voice speak his name on the radio, arresting him as he starts to sit and making him holt upright to rigid attention again. Wassell embodies many qualities DeMille found worthy, particular the hero who’s a prisoner of honour, holding his tongue and refusing to make others beholden or to make excuses for himself. He’s also something of a rough draft for DeMille’s concept of Moses, a man who arrives at the level of maturity required to lead an exodus after trials of identity and moral and emotional reflex, encountering multiple references of culture and history. Most of the other characters around Wassell are open books, the sailors all avatars for a certain lively, clean-cut, scrappily life-hungry ideal of American youth, identified closely with home states and all the totemic meaning of nicknames and fond associations. Cmdr Bill Goggins (Stanley Ridges) is a strong and strict voice of leadership who is good friends with Wassell, but is frustrated by his injuries that keep him rigidly dressed and bedbound. Badly-burned Benjamin ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins (Dennis O’Keefe) becomes attached to the whimsically named Tremartini after she donates blood to him. Mangled romantic ‘Andy’ Anderson (Elliott Reid) quickly develops a crush on Dutch nurse Bettina (Signe Hasso).
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Bettina already has an interested beau, gutsy Dutch soldier Lt Dirk Van Daal (Carl Esmond), and the stage seems set for one of DeMille’s familiar romantic triangles. Except that, recognising Andy’s crush, Dirk calmly tells the American that, given the utter chaos of their lives, neither has a right to claim Bettina, so they make a pact to both look after her until war’s end and then contest the issue. If Wassell is a contemporary Moses, Hoppy is a Samson who must face his own battle against an army single-handed, armed with Tommy gun rather than the jaw-bone of an ass. Tremartini is another familiar DeMille figuration, the simple and innocent girl who falls for a man, tethered to him on a perfect, sublime level but also doomed by the purity of that ardour: she feels they’re connected permanently after she’s given him her blood. The story of all these characters allowed DeMille an honourable way to engage with the war and portray the sorts of qualities he admired without celebrating bloodthirstiness, through a focal figure whose business is not feats of warfare but saving lives. The sailors for the most part can no longer fight, but get to display other forms of bravery and gallantry, as when they band together to distract a young boy from his mother’s death in machine gun fire hailing all about them.
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The pivotal sequence involves Wassell’s charges being denied their place on a ship home, hard military facts butting up against earnest humanitarian urges as Wasell makes a forlorn but hopeless appeal to a higher ranking officer to look the other way and give a break to men desperate for escape and deserving of it. Later it’s revealed that this tortuous moment actually saves the men’s lives, as the ship they were supposed to board was sunk. When Wassell learns this he thinks Madeleine, who was on that ship, died too. The Story of Dr. Wassell was DeMille’s third film in colour, with Victor Milner and William E. Snyder his cinematographers. It’s some measure of DeMille’s clout that he was able to make such a big-scale production in colour right in the middle of the war. But where colour was primarily a decorative device for DeMille on his first two efforts, here was the first occasion in which he evinced the overtly spiritual use of it he would exercise more completely in Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments, decorating corners of his tale of cosmic violence with promises of redemptive beauty. A flashback to Wassell and Madeleine seated by a pond in an old temple sees them amidst a riot of blooms of flowers, the multihued skins of exotic fish, crumbling statuary, and overgrown foliage.
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This sequence is rhymed by a later, nocturnal scene where Wassell, poised on the edge of fatalistic despair, leaves the hospital and makes his way through the night to investigate the sound of moving traffic. He encounters a statue of Buddha outside another such ruined temple, a grand, vine, tangled form in the background under pale moonlight, the statue looming with silent, boding promise. Wassell finds himself making desperate appeal to Buddha, and is met immediately by a seeming miracle as he recognises the singing coming from the passing convoy of trucks as that of British soldiers. It’s hard to imagine film artists more different to DeMille, than Sam Fuller and Francis Coppola (on some levels at least: none of them was averse to big thinking and broad statements), and yet this scene opens a door to both Fuller’s China Gate (1957) and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), both of which similarly depict the psychic shock of rock-ribbed faiths of western certainty gazing in trepidation at the stark, carved imagery of the east’s mirroring faiths and opaque history, in the context of wars that send different creeds, nations, and ways of understanding into violent collision. The chief difference is that DeMille’s vision is determinedly positive, embracing the possibility of faith taking on manifold faces. This idea recalls the cumulative message of The Crusades where Richard and Saladin made peace on the back of mutual love Berengaria’s question as to what it really mattered what path one took to find enlightenment.
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Although DeMille’s faiths secular and spiritual are eventually affirmed throughout the film, nonetheless he’s also obliged to depict a dreadful moment in history, the forces of western influence in Asia being chased out by a ruthless broom. One quality of DeMille’s efforts that still distinguishes them effectively from so many films labelled as epic was precisely his assurance that such grandiose themes could only be articulated through dramas staged on the largest possible scale. For DeMille, questions of religious conscience or humanitarian obligation weren’t ideas to be explored on the level of Ingmar Bergman’s tortured neurotics but in direct engagement with grand narratives. DeMille’s vision grew increasingly familiar with the apocalyptic, first evinced here in the midst of wartime and growing more urgent as the immense popularity of his biblical epics seemed rooted in their ability to comprehend the atomic age’s landscape in trepidation. But DeMille’s most revealing choice here is to leave the enemy almost entirely unseen, except for a brief, vague glimpse of a soldier crawling through underbrush. The wartime foe is rendered an abstract power of wrath and destruction, anticipating the formless force of annihilation that arrives in the Pesach sequence of The Ten Commandments. Bombs fall and shake the earth, smashing homes and sanctuaries and great works, a divine wrath tormenting his mere humans but also driving them towards new states of being.
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The central set-piece sequence sees the British convoy trying to run across a huge bridge under heavy enemy shelling. A truck blows up in front of the lorry Wassell drives, forcing him onto a wild, careening ride off the road and through the yards of hapless villager as his load of injured men are tossed about. Hoppy and Tremartini, riding in a jeep behind, are blown off the road. Their vehicle tumbles to the foot of a steep embankment, their driver killed, and Hoppy is crippled with a broken leg. Wassell tries to return to get them, only to see the bridge crumble under the impact of a bomb, cutting him off. The mighty structure disintegrates with all the epic, terrible stature of the statue of Dagon in Samson and Delilah, another idol of human pretence laid flat. Tremartini refuses to leave Hoppy, so the duo make ready to fight off advancing Japanese soldiers with a Tommy gun: DeMille fades out as Hoppy releases his first, furious bursts in a battle that can only end one way, fading into the existential void of the screen dissolve. Even when Wassell and his charges finally manage to get aboard a passenger liner, the Janssen, crammed to the gunwales with refugees, with Wassell distracting her captain as the wounded men are sneaked aboard at the stern. Even then their ordeal isn’t over, as the ship has sneak out of harbour and elude Japanese patrols, saved by a fog that obscures their progress for a time but soon disperses and leaves the ship naked before attacking planes. DeMille was always a consummate technician, with a gift not simply for building big sets and staging good special effects, but for manipulating his actors and human elements in a way that made all that infrastructure almost animate.
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The crash of Hoppy and Tremartini is a particularly clever bit of staging that manages a seamless illusion in the way DeMille has the actors secreted around the set, the jeep tumbling down the slope and slamming to a halt, O’Keefe sliding into view and Thurston seeming to emerge from the wreck. The bridge sequence and ship attack involve special effects and come on with tremendous force and precisely deployed detail, superlatively cut together by Anne Bauchens. DeMille had originally hoped to cast Alan Ladd as Hoppy, casting O’Keefe instead, normally an RKO contract player who appeared the previous year in the Val Lewton-produced The Leopard Man, whilst another Lewton player, Edith Barrett, is glimpsed briefly as the mother of the small boy, dying in a thunderous peal of bullets. The film’s supporting cast is replete with character actors and stars on their way up or down, with faces like Yvonne De Carlo (originally slated to play Tremartini), Louis Jean Heydt, Victor Borge, former silent movie Tarzan Elmo Lincoln, Milton Kibbee, George Macready, Miles Mander, and Doodles Weaver all tucked in there somewhere. It shows the degree to which a DeMille production was a sort of tide pool for an entire industry, much in the same way that the events he depicts operates the same way for a whole society. If the film lacks something that DeMille’s best work always has, it’s a potent central romance with a strong female character at the axis of the drama to galvanise the larger canvas with intimate emotions. Hoppy and Tremartini’s doomed love is too naïve for this, and Madeleine and Bettina remain essentially marginal figures.
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The personal drama likewise resolves cutely as Wassell encounters Dr Wayne on the Janssen and meets his wife (Catherine Craig), realising that Madeleine never did marry him; meanwhile Madeleine has been rescued from the wreckage of the sunken ship by a PBY, and hears Roosevelt talking about Wassell on the radio. DeMille nonetheless sustains the sense of running besiegement with all his practiced showmanship until almost the very end of the film. Wassell and colleagues keep on trying to save lives whilst everyone else is trying for one reason or another to end them, as attacking airplanes riddle the ship’s decks and sundry refugees with bullets. The tension between the wartime propagandist facet of the drama and the humane-pacifist streak is hardly resolved, but The Story of Dr. Wassell does add up to a tacit statement that the two can’t always be separated, that a fundamental irony of war is that it’s the scene of extraordinary struggle to save life as well as exterminate it. The final scenes, unfolding once the refugees have reached the safe harbour of Fremantle in Western Australia, see Wassell so used to getting the short end of the stick he expects to be court-martialled and punished for his loose approach to his orders, but he instead finds himself feted as a hero at last. It’s easy to imagine people living through the war laughing and sneering at the screen at this when it was released. But, of course, they still went to see it in droves, precisely because they knew they could rely on DeMille to process life into legend.

Standard
1940s, Horror/Eerie, Romance

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

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Director: Jacques Tourneur

By Roderick Heath

The success of Cat People (1942) took many by surprise. The film’s producer was Val Lewton, a sometime journalist and novelist, and nephew to the once-exalted screen idol Alla Nazimova. Lewton had gained a reputation in Hollywood working as assistant to David Selznick. When the time came for Lewton to break out on his own, he was offered a niche at RKO Pictures. The studio wanted to create a unit devoted to horror films, hoping to make some quick money-spinners after the studio’s engagement with wunderkind Orson Welles resulted in several projects abandoned or dumped at great cost, at a time when Universal Films were still making a tidy mint with their horror brand. Lewton, hired for $250 a week, was given control over his product if he obeyed two basic precepts: the movies he made had to cost under $150,000, and he had to use titles given to him by studio executives. The first project was to be called Cat People, probably in response to George Waggner’s The Wolf Man from the previous year. Lewton determined to use this chance to make something that might fulfil his studio mandate but also meet his own expectations of what a film sporting his name as producer could be. Lewton put together a team of like-minded collaborators, including screenwriters DeWitt Bodeen and Ardel Wray, editor Mark Robson, and director Jacques Tourneur, a talent Lewton had met several years earlier when both worked on Selznick’s production of A Tale of Two Cities (1936).

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Lewton laid out a formula he later summarised as, “A love story, three scenes of suggested horror, and one of actual violence,” and always worked scripts over himself without credit, working in carefully interpolated details and knitting a unified sensibility. Cat People proved a forlornly romantic tale of psychic distress, alienation, and fear of crumbling sanity and aberrant sexuality, possibly presenting a highly coded commentary on Nazimova. Such fretfully implied notions struck a chord with wartime audiences, along with the ingeniously orchestrated suspense sequences that exploited fear of the unseen. Rumours that Cat People saved RKO from bankruptcy might have been exaggerated, and RKO brass hardly felt like celebrating what seemed a disreputable success. But the film’s impact was real, and Lewton and Tourneur were quickly asked to make a follow-up, this time handed the title I Walked With a Zombie, taken from a magazine article written by Inez Wallace. With characteristic litterateur impulse, Lewton decided he could fit that title to a variation on Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, an idea that might have seemed interminably pretentious at first airing.

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Tourneur was the son of French master silent filmmaker Maurice Tourneur. Young Jacques had travelled to Hollywood with his father, who made films there including The Last of the Mohicans (1920) and The Mysterious Island (1925), but soon the family returned to France. Jacques made his directorial debut with Toto (1933) before returning to America and working for a time as an assistant director, before graduating to helming B-movies like Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939) and Phantom Raiders (1940). Tourneur and Lewton’s shared experience as émigrés with respected relatives and cultured backgrounds now fending for themselves in a tough racket seems to have been a crucial aspect of their accord, as well as Tourneur’s gift, inherited from his father, for creating cinema with careful visual textures based in intricate lighting and set dressing. Lewton was a rationalist interested in psychology and sociological insights, whilst Tourneur was credulous of the supernatural, a divide that might have resulted in clashing visions but which proved entirely appropriate as the two men laboured to carefully smudge perceptions of just what their movies were about, and deploy a then-radically minimalist and suggestive sense of menace. I Walked With a Zombie saw input from another émigré, Curt Siodmak, who had started his career in the German film industry and was becoming one of Hollywood’s familiar creators of fantastic cinema, penning the same year’s Son of Dracula over at Universal for his director brother Robert.

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Not as dense with references and ideas as The Leopard Man or The Seventh Victim (both 1943) after it, nor as compressed as a nightmarish metaphor as Isle of the Dead (1945) or penetrating as a tale of the rational and irrational at war as The Body Snatcher (1945), I Walked With a Zombie is nonetheless the height of Lewton’s creed, a lushly composed, sinister-hued tone-poem. Where Cat People had been notable for creating a contemporary, urban style of horror movie, I Walked With a Zombie might have nudged Lewton and Tourneur into more familiar territory, voyaging off to a sequestered isle where the rules of life and death feel more mutable. The esoteric world of the voodoo creed was often sensationalised and caricatured as a crude amalgam of mainstream religion and bloodthirsty cult practiced by primitives, but fascination in the topic had been fed by works like William Seabrook’s The Magic Island and Wallace’s journalistic report. Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) was one of the first real screen zombie movies. Halperin introduced an explicit consideration of zombie-making as a logical extension of slavery and business exploitation of a workforce as well as a device of interpersonal domination, presaging the modern tendency to use zombies as a metaphor for, well, anything you care to think of. But the notion of separating the zombie from this background would have to wait until Night of the Living Dead (1968) many years later.

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The opening credits pull off the trick of turning the hype title into a poetic missive, as two figures walk along a beach under a dappled dawn sky, iconographic versions of the film’s heroine Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) and the hulking menace of the night, the zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones), strolling along in placid amity, perched between earth and sea, night and day, black and white, states of being in life and death. “I walked with a zombie…It does seem an odd thing to say…” Betsy accepts a job offered to her by an agent (Alan Edmiston) on the Caribbean island of St Sebastian, one that means good pay and a chance to escape a bitter Toronto winter: the promise of palm trees beckon to her with the voice of paradise in a snow-smothered city. On the last leg of the journey, Betsy voyages on a sailing ship across a black sea, crew members carved into a Gustav Dore etching by lantern light. “Byronic character” Paul Holland (Tom Conway) stands on the stern, gazing out to sea with a stark and silent affect.

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Paul takes unseemly pleasure in shooting down Betsy’s delight in the beauty: the glow in the water is the “glitter of putrescence,” the flying fish jumping because “bigger fish want to eat them.” The coachman (Clinton Rosemond) who takes her to Holland’s home chuckles indulgently at the notion they live in a beautiful place and says, “If you say so, miss.” The island is named for a statue of the saint that stands in the compound of the Holland family, a figurehead carving that once festooned the bow of the slave ship that brought the modern-day islanders to it, depicting the Catholic martyr executed by arrows. The same figurehead now offers cruelly piquant decoration and spiritual symbol of human suffering imposed on both self and others as well as the perpetual need for redemption: the descendants of the slaves call the figure “Ti-Misery”.

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Cat People had commenced with a title card sporting a fake quote from a work supposedly written by the psychiatrist Louis Judd, a character in the film, declaring that “Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low place, the depressions in the world consciousness.” This could also be the thesis statement for I Walked With a Zombie, although the prior film’s evocations onerous social mythology guarding the gates to transgressive sexuality here gives way to a more overt concept for the insidious grip of the past. St Sebastian doesn’t seem to have quite entered the twentieth century yet. Paul Holland and his half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) are men produced by the polarised shores of modern western civilisation’s best seats of learning, as one was schooled in the US and the other in England. They’re blessed with social status and advantage as they manage the sugar plantation that is their inheritance along with all the guilty self-knowledge of being the descendants of slave masters. The brothers span old world and new uneasily, lacking even the strange kind of certainty the Voodoo faith offers those who practice it. Paul maintains a hard and morose attitude, whilst Wes is slowly declining into alcoholism in trying to throttle his lingering anger and heartbreak. Their mother Mrs Rand (Edith Barrett) is the nominal voice of rationality, offering calm maternal advice with good sense, taking up the practice of voodoo itself with the hope of encouraging safe behaviour from islanders.

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The Holland compound is first envisioned without a human presence, instead offered with Betsy’s narrated emotional associations for its various spaces and rooms heard on sound as Tourneur’s camera explores its environs. A homestead built around the ruins of an old military installation, the compound is at once fairy-tale castle fitting for discovering knowledge of self and love as well as confessions of madness, a cradle for bad dreams and septic memory as well as delicate fantasias. The Saint Sebastian figurehead abides, metal arrows jutting from his carved ribs, with a fountain’s water trickling down his form, in place of blood, tears, and lapping seawater. An old watchtower rises at the heart of the compound, gothic interpolation in a colonial landscape, haunted by echoes tears and white-draped somnambulists. The tower is the scene of Betsy’s rude introduction to her charge, Paul’s wife Jessica (Christine Gordon), whose apparently mindless, perpetually somnambulant wanderings scare Betsy after she’s awoken in the night by the sound of crying. The tears were those of servant Alma (Theresa Harris), celebrating in the inverted rituals of birth and burial seen on the island, mourning for the child being cursed with life and joy for all dispatched to peace. Betsy meets the sight of the blindly wandering Jessica, advancing on her up the watchtower interior, with the film’s single scream that brings others to gently lead away Jessica.

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Betsy arrives at the Holland compound to do a job but she quickly also finds herself slotted into various roles required by the household. Alma is happy to have a lady to care for, and Paul and Wesley are both pleased in their different ways to have an attractive young lady for company, much as neither can escape Jessica. Alma’s presentation of a brioche to Betsy for breakfast makes for a gentle gag as Betsy is initially intimidated by the prolixity of food only to find it collapses – a joke that presages the darkness and menace Betsy confronts, which likewise proves mostly illusion and a small amount of consequence. Betsy soon finds herself drafted into the family quarrels when she encounters Mrs Rand, who asks her to get Paul to leave aside the whiskey decanter that usually decorates the dining table. But this simply peels the scab off a festering wound, a fraternal hatred that cannot heal, just as Jessica cannot live nor properly die, played out in spasms of liquor-loosed rage and tense decorum held together by a well-ironed dinner jacket. Betsy finds herself transfixed by “love, deep through the heart” for Paul, and, knowing it’s an impossible ardour, resolves instead to cure Jessica, talking family doctor Maxwell (James Bell) into trying a dangerous cure through insulin shock, and then listening to Alma’s suggestion she try the “better doctors” at the houmfort, the centre of voodoo worship on the island.

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I Walked With a Zombie doesn’t simply transplant Jane Eyre, but revises and inverts many of its inferences and basic concepts, getting the jump on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea by a couple of decades as a work considering classic literature’s relationship to the modern world’s viewpoints. Bronte’s portrayal of madness and repression was partly rooted in diseased transplantation and racial paranoia, as embodied in the figure of Rochester’s creole wife, who then infests an annex of the English country mansion to occasionally escape and offer feral threat. Betsy, avatar of Jane, travels from a cold climate into the sweat-stoking environs of the tropics, where the cycle of life and death is fast and blatant. Here the placidity of zombified Jessica strikes a radically different posture, identifying Jessica in her way as the perfect version of a certain ideal of femininity – blank, pretty, “a great big doll” as Alma calls her. The tormenting visage that set brother against brother, has been literally objectivised, reduced to perfect, empty, decorative existence. Tourneur’s depiction of the air of studious repression that subsists in the Holland household diagnoses people urgently trying to keep up facades in spite of knowing full well the futility of such efforts; Jessica is the only person who can perfectly play her part because she has been emptied of all inner life. Such a fate has been imposed on Jessica by her mother-in-law, an act of spasmodic anger from a rational and decent yet momentarily vengeful woman. Or, at least, so Mrs Rand thinks, holding herself responsible for evil thoughts that seem to have become manifest in the real world. All these people might count themselves masters of their nut shells if not for bad dreams.

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The power of the mind to create its own reality is one of the obsessive refrains of Lewton’s films, their overseeing creator’s way of mediating the irrationalism of his genre turf with his convictions about life. His series was mostly made during World War II, and whilst never overtly paid heed to it, still they often betray a searching concern for a basic, humane sensibility in the face of an age demanding everyone turn themselves into parts for an engine of warfare, betraying a pedagogic edge on occasions in the urgent plea to retain finer feelings and instincts. The portrayals of characters who give themselves up to dark and compulsive, eventually maniacal worldviews – Irena in Cat People, in The Leopard Man, Captain Stone in The Ghost Ship (1943), General Pharides in Isle of the Dead, and Master Sims in Bedlam (1946), all diagnose a problem of morbid obsession that in several cases shades into definite cases of megalomania, to, as Judd describes it in Cat People, give in to a temptation to release evil into the world. In this mould, Mrs Rand’s attempts to safeguard her family and the people she’s made her responsibility have the best intentions but also have made her vitally susceptible to temptations of misusing power. The beguiling Harris had appeared in Cat People where she played a waitress who diagnosed character by the desserts they ordered, and Lewton began a habit of using black actors in ways that were for the time all but radical in their normality and fresh, everyday demeanour. Here Harris is a very ordinary, worldly person – “She didn’t impress me none, hollerin’ around in a towel,” she quips after being chided for upsetting Betsy with her ritualised tears. But she’s also a figure who initiates Betsy into a nocturnal world where magic is a possibility and existence is charged with unseen forces: “Better doctors,” she whispers with the strange light of promise in her eyes and hints of things marvellous at bay.

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I Walked With a Zombie is a panoply of the carefully crafted and deployed landmarks of physical and dramatic detail which accumulate into a small, isolated universe at once tangible and dreamlike, something the Lewton’s brand is justly famous for, and perhaps at its height here. The arrows jutting from the statue of Ti-Misery, one of which will be repurposed into a weapon of relief. The ruined tower, exterior crawling with vines, interior with its stark, blank, shadow-drenched walls and gleaming, spiralling steps, haunted by the dead-eyed, white-draped “beautiful zombie.” The drums that announce midnight arts of sugar syrup-pouring and the blown conch horn that calls the faithful to worship at the houmfort, economic and spiritual life-bloods. The gently hummed song of the sailors and the oracular songs of Sir Lancelot. The dappled leaves of the Holland compound and softly lit interiors with gently waving curtains and mosquito nets and a copy of Bocklin’s “Isle of the Dead” on the wall, announcing future Lewton adventures. The precisely-charted way-stations on the path to the houmfort. A sword thrust through an arm that does not bleed. A store-bought doll that becomes the avatar of a woman. A droning voice through a door that promises the beatification of a strange god. The visuals are decorated by the elegant curlicues of Wray and Siodmak’s dialogue, rendered in a style consistent with the rest of Lewton’s films in refusing mere naturalism, sometimes tending towards elegant curlicues of romanticism reminiscent of Hemingway (“Since knowing you I’ve learned how sweet and fine things can be between a man and a woman,” Paul tells Betsy, via the incomparable instrument of Conway’s rum-rich voice) and resolving in outright elegy in the final voice-over.

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All Lewton’s films weave in fragments of folk culture, usually in songs. It’s a way of communicating the flavour of any locale but also offering subtler orientation, of mental and social reflex, exposing the underlying cultural lexicon and habits of thought in any place. I Walked With a Zombie depends even more crucially upon such flourishes, as culture as a mode of retention and transmission is part of its deep meaning. St Sebastian’s culture is defined by terrible schisms of experience and the way such motifs join, mix, blend, become something new and strange, to itself as well as the outside world. Paul pointedly refuses to offer any separation of them and us in his accounts of the island’s history, indicating all are marked by old crimes and deep sorrows and blighted lives, and, possibly, racial mixing that’s invisible but conscious. The folk-culture reflex is embodied most obviously by the Trinidad-born troubadour Sir Lancelot, who plays a chorus-like street singer. His warbling in the streets of the island’s large town alerts Betsy to the true nature of the triangle between Paul and Wes and Jessica, much to Wes’s embarrassment, as the duo converse at a café table. This seems a moment of pure happenstance, as the singer insists it is, offering apologies with gentlemanly forthrightness: “I’ll creep in just like a little fox and warm myself in his heart.”

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The singer however returns as day has become night, Wes has drunk himself into a stupor, and the moonlit surf washes the shore, to offer grim warning to Betsy that she will be woven into this story (“The brothers are lonely and the nurse is young – and now you must see that my song is sung.”) to play out its last act. The feeling of an unseen conspiracy evinced in this scene constantly nudges the surface of things throughout I Walked With a Zombie but never properly resolves. The influence of the Voodoo practitioners seems to have potency, but of a kind that’s impossible to deduce entirely, perhaps really guiding events and creating monsters or perhaps merely feeding susceptible minds with solutions when life feel terribly random otherwise. Only Tourneur’s director-as-god actions knit a conspicuous chain of events, as when he cuts between the rituals of the voodoo practitioners and the people they’re supposed to be influencing. Similarly, the script refuses to entirely discount any point of view; Wesley’s vision of Paul as a cold and vicious creep is analysed and found to be, in part, the result of Paul’s being married to an unfaithful narcissist, but also reflects truth about Paul himself, a general cynicism given exquisite permission.

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The following year, Lewton would contort a dictated sequel to Cat People into Curse of the Cat People (1944), into a wistful evocation of troubled childhood, but there’s a quality of the childlike to all of Lewton’s films, unfolding as they do like a child’s nocturnal adventure, overactive imagination conjuring monsters in dim places and imagining threats in every corner. Betsy’s moment of fear in the tower upon first seeing Jessica occasions the film’s only scream, wrung from her in anxiety for the unknown and the foreboding rather than real threat. “I used to be afraid of the dark when I was a child, but I’m not afraid anymore,” Betsy tells Paul, unconvincingly. Betsy vehemently denies being what Paul calls her, “a frightened girl,” and yet everyone on St Sebastian seems on some level beset by childish instinct, a desire for certainties that never come, lost and locked in their dreamy states of solitude and faith. Eventually, Betsy will oblige herself to lead Jessica to the houmfort in search of a cure, an act in defiance of the dark and Betsy’s own, tremulous anxiety as well as self-abnegation. The trek to the houmfort is the central sequence of I Walked With a Zombie and one of the greatest moments in horror cinema, indeed, of cinema in general. Nothing overtly frightening or spectacular takes place; it is rather an exercise in pure mood that depicts and transmits the process of being walked through a succession of devices designed to inculcate credulity and susceptibility in the face of unknown forces.

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Tourneur’s camera glides along with Betsy and Jessica, the silk threads of Jessica’s nightgown flickering in the breeze, waving sugar cane obscuring and crowding, turning the escape into the landscape into a claustrophobic experience whilst the call of the conch and the tattoo of drums offer elusive guidance. Totems of obscure meaning and disconcerting effect litter the path. A lamb carcass dangling from a tree, a ram’s skull on a pike, a human skull neatly set up on the dirt, a wind chime hung from a frame humming eerily. Guarding the way is the towering form of Carrefour, the supposed zombie guard set to fend off unwelcome visitors from the houmfort, who can only be passed by those wearing a special badge. He’s glimpsed at the very start of the sequence, backlit and menacing, and soon to be picked out in Betsy’s torch, staring-eyed, seemingly oblivious yet formidable. Alma has pinned a badge on both Betsy and Jessica, but Betsy’s is lost during the trek, so she has to shuffle carefully past gripping Jessica close. They move out of the sugar cane down through passages between twisting trees and vines, the whistling wind now riven with drums, drawing them on.

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Tourneur exploits the studio-bound recreation of the tropical island setting here to create a zone that’s realer than reality, something straight out of dreams, a scene you can watch over and over again and still feel you’ve never quite grasped the essence of it. The houmfort itself proves a scene where the worshippers gather in a religious ceremony that has an aspect of parochial familiarity, like the male congregants in neat shirts and ties, and the incantatory, in the intense, ritualised dancing and thunderous drumming that builds a sense of frenzied anticipation. The sudden cessation of the drumming presages no momentous arrival but the muffled sound of a godly visitation emanating from the hut at the heart of the houmfort. Except, as Betsy finds when she makes her appeal to Dumbala, that the voice emanating in the dark is that of Mrs Rand. Betsy’s own attempt to work good instead provokes a new possibility of danger as the voodoo faithful recognise in Jessica something unnatural. A member of the congregation who dances with a sword, called the Sabreur (Jieno Moxzer), punctures Jessica’s arm with it: seeing that the wound seems not to bleed, the worshippers decide she really is a zombie, and begin a campaign to draw her back to the houmfort again presumably to destroy her in ritual fashion. They send out Carrefour for this first, resulting in a close encounter for Paul and Betsy forestalled by Mrs Rand’s barked commands for the guardian to go away. But the resulting stir, and Wesley’s angry insinuations, stir new police interest in Jessica’s illness, and the threat of possible arrests forces Mrs Rand to explain her conviction of her own guilt.

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I Walked With a Zombie offered something of a challenge to Lewton, as zombie movies up until this one depended at least in part in a traditional, paranoid vision of black people as more credulous to superstition and engaging in primitive rites, often intending harm upon some milk-skinned woman. Some, like White Zombie and, later, Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) and Plague of the Zombies (1966), got around this by portraying white characters who have subsumed and perverted voodoo practices or totems. This is also true, after a fashion, of this film, where Mrs Rand has subsumed the role of priestess to further her agenda, but through not taking it seriously, leaves herself vulnerable to its temptations. As intimidated as they are by the sight of Carrefour lurching out of the shadows like the personification of the blighted past lurching out to torment the living, he’s actually an agent of good, for the rest of the voodoo congregation act not to harm but to initiate an act of healing and to remove the canker that blighting lives in their vicinity, as well as the shadow of black magic behind it. The white characters define their own rationalist creeds against an alternative faith, but they’re also, in the end, utterly enthralled by the notion of such powers.

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The very end offers Mrs Rand’s aide as voodoo priest giving a eulogy to the eased pain of the living and the deliverance of the dead, good and bad as they were in life. That confirms that above all voodoo is another mode of religion, and that the zombie is a creation, if it’s anything, symbolises the refusal of the past to take its place as past. Wesley finally moves, obeying either his own fraying line of reasoning or the demands of the voodoo drums, to end Jessica’s pain and his own, allowing her to leave the Holland compound and then stabbing her through the heart with one of the arrows plucked from Ti-Misery’s chest. This is intercut with the Sabreur with his incantatory dance style, seeming to guide actions with a store-bought doll embodying Jessica, and plunging a pin through the simulacrum. Cause may be effect, but either way, Wesley walks out into the sea with Jessica’s body to drown and cheat Carrefour of his prize. Tourneur offers another of his most beautiful vignettes as the bodies of Wesley and Jessica are found lolling in shallow water by men fishing by torchlight, pluming flames and Jessica’s bloodless face both specks of brightness against the black sea and a horizon vanishing towards opaque eternity. The bodies are carried back home to the tears of Wesley’s mother and the solemn self-knowledge of Paul and Betsy, both grieving and delivered. Te-Misery abides still, but with one less barb in him.

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1940s, Auteurs, Italian cinema, Political, War

Paisan (1946) / Germany, Year Zero (1948)

Paisa’ / Germania Anno Zero

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Roberto Rossellini

By Roderick Heath

Out of ashes, creation. The Italian neorealist film movement was in large part a pragmatic solution to shortages of film stock, actors, and other paraphernalia of a movie industry that had been gutted by war, invasion, and the collapse of a regime. This unlikely renaissance was propelled purely by the urgent, guttering need to describe, record, understand, communicate, and grapple with the immediate reality shared by artists and public alike. Presaged by Luchino Visconti as he dared counter Fascist rectitude with a portrait of insidious transgressions in Ossessione (1943) and even by Mussolini’s preeminent director Alessandro Blasetti, neorealism gained its true clarion with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), a bleak wartime thriller that retained conventional elements in its portrayal of partisan resistance and Nazi brutality, but essayed in terms that seemed to blow like a fresh, cold wind dispelling a miasma. Of course, filmmakers had done most of the things the neorealists would do already; others had shot movies on location, utilised non-professional actors, and dealt with pressing realities of the age. As World War II unfolded, filmmakers around the world had begun incorporating the methods of documentary into their movies, as well as adopting a terser, more stoical and spacious dramatic style.
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But neorealism went further in tossing out the polish of studio cinema and hanging entire movies by a framework that would have seemed desperately flimsy just a few years earlier. The new creed was instantly recognised and celebrated as something new, and held up internationally as proof something worthy and honest could emerge even in the midst of calamity. Neorealism’s impact was destined to be deep and permanent: far more movies today than not rely on some blend of its methods. And yet the movement itself was very short-lived, the number of works produced under its specific dogma scant. Neorealism’s anointed directorial heroes would have long and robust careers but most would often be the subject of long sideways glances from some who saw traitors to a cause long since laid to rest. Part of neorealism’s stature certainly had roots in the terrible glamour of World War II and the din of collapsed empire. For a few brief moments in the twilight of war, a sense of enveloping commonality and hard reckoning existed as a shared psychic experience. Neorealism would fade out as prosperity came back and society got back to the regular business of winnowing out losers from winners.
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Of course, neorealism didn’t really die. It changed form, still inflecting the anxious soul of its inheritors both immediate, from the generation of Italian filmmakers who cut their teeth as writers and aides on the neorealist shoots, no matter how delectably formalist they became, to those who would pick up aspects of their method for the New Wave movements of the 1960s and ‘70s and modern independent film. Amongst the major neorealist figures, a cadre that also included Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, Vittorio De Sica, and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, Rossellini had perhaps the most frustrating career, his life charting the tides of the age. Rossellini gained fame making bitterly realistic works conjured with scant resources amongst the rubble, became a most ironic celebrity doomed to have his tumultuous private life overshadow his works as he romanced movie stars and international artistes and always retaining aspect of the rootless hustler, and finished up making intelligent but little-noticed docudramas for TV, still trying to obey his principles. Attempts to exploit the notoriety of his union with Ingrid Bergman produced a string of films including Stromboli (1950), Europa ‘52 (1951), and Voyage to Italy (1954), all box office failures but belatedly admired. Rossellini was running into trouble with critics and audiences even before he concluded his “War Trilogy,” which counts as easily his most famous work today, kicked off by Rome, Open City and extended by Paisan and Germany, Year Zero.
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Paisan might be the most exalted of neorealist works alongside The Bicycle Thieves (1948). Paisan is an episodic film built around descriptive vignettes involving the various acts of the Allied campaign in Italy, each episode depicting a time, a place, a phase of battle, but much more cogently, Rossellini’s vision of the war is as something that may involve countries and ideologies but which happens to people. “These people aren’t fighting for the British Empire,” an OSS agent states in the last episode, referring to the partisans he’s working with, “They’re fighting for their lives.” It’s the essential creed of the film; those for whom war is a steamroller running over their lives, those for whom it’s a distant crackle of gunfire, those who grab the tiger by the tail in chasing the empowerment of combat or those obligated to, all share the experience of plunging into an event that envelopes and reshapes them. Rossellini hired a different writer for each part of the film, but pulled off the task of contouring each, sometimes quite divergent dramatic style into his overall vision, which runs all the way from comedy of manners to heightened tragedy. The actual screenplay was penned by Rossellini, his friends and regular collaborators Federico Fellini and Sergio Amedei, with input for the English-language parts from Bill Geiger.
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The first chapter sees narrative land on the Italian shore along with a unit of American GIs; Italy is going to be reintroduced to itself through the eyes of invader/liberators. A Sicilian-American GI interprets; a local bigwig grasps a thread – he doesn’t know anyone by his name from his family’s home town – to disdain the entire enterprise. The bridge of cultures is immigration, the mutual understanding narrow and shaky, the lingering spell of dictatorship still potent. The GIs surge out of the dark, the Italian townsfolk gathered in scantly lit abodes in fretful anxiety waiting to see how things play out, finding the Americans indistinguishable at first from the Germans. The GIs get a local teenager, Carmela (Carmela Sazio), to guide them through mines the Germans have planted; Carmela leads them to a ruined castle, a fitting defensive position. Whilst the rest of the unit goes off to patrol further, Carmela is compelled to remain behind to be sure she won’t alert the Germans, with Joe (Robert Van Loon) assigned to watch her and hold down the fort. The castle is a ghost of a long-dead Italy where princes gallivanted and empires reigned; now it’s a husk, riddled with vertiginous and labyrinthine passages but still a good place for armies to play “childrens’ games, only the bullets are real,” as one of the German soldiers describes their adventures. Language is a form of geography: Carmela and Joe try to understand each-other in their scant and fragmentary knowledge of each-other’s language and navigate by the few familiar landmarks in their mutual languages speech – Joe counts off the limit of his Italian: “Paisan…spaghetti…bambina…mangiare…”
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War has no time for small epiphanies. Joe is shot by a German who spots him lighting his cigarette through one of the open castle windows. A Wehrmacht unit occupies the castle and discovers Carmela, who has hidden away the bleeding, dying Joe. Sazio and Van Loon’s quality as performers swiftly describe the appeal of the non-actor to the neorealist style. There’s no hint of the theatrical to them, none of the years spent perfecting unnatural stances or ways of interacting. Sazio’s blowsy, slouchy adolescence with just the faintest rigour of adulthood coming on, is all the more affecting because it’s so familiar from life and so rare in movies of the time; Van Loon radiates a sincere, bashful charm. But when the time comes Sazio perfectly registers Carmela’s woozy distress and resolve as she looks upon the dying Joe, marking her determination to take revenge. Rossellini starts his war with the world in miniature, boy and girl, caught between nations, languages, political systems, and sparring armies. Carmela takes up his rifle and, as the Germans throw dice to see who’ll get to rape her first, manages to shoot one. Joe’s unit returns to find their man dead and Carmela missing. They assume she killed him. Rossellini however privileges the audience to her real fate: the Germans have dragged her to a cliff edge and thrown her off. Rossellini’s stark, almost off-hand revelation of this before fading to black and moving must have seemed like a slap in the face to a 1946 audience, and it’s still potent. The little universe of humanity, with all its will, casually exterminated, another great drama lost to all knowing, its actors left lying about like refuse.
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The second episode, unfolding in Naples, might represent a certain caricatured ideal of the neorealist style, as it depicts a similar fractious relationship defined by both understanding and the absence of it. Exactly this theme lies at the heart of Paisan and perhaps all Rossellini’s works – his later, mature movies like Voyage to Italy contemplate the disconnection in personal terms, the difficulty, particularly for intelligent but introverted people, to escape and expose their inner experience sufficiently to be understood by those close to them. Here, the material is more worldly and immediate, and urgent as a pungent and palpable need. The protagonists here are another Joe, this one an African-American MP (Dots Johnson), and Pasquale, one of a gang of homeless children who haunt the streets and plazas of Naples. Some of the kids pick up the odd tip helping GIs between bars and night spots, and rob them if they get half a chance. Pasquale attaches himself to Joe and leads him about town. After Joe passes out in spite of Pasquale’s warnings, the kid steals the MP’s boots. A few days later, Joe spots Pasquale trying to rob from the back of a truck. He nabs the waif and forces him to take him to his home and return his boots. But upon catching a glimpse of the subterranean world where he and hundreds of other penniless, dispossessed people live, Joe leaves the boots to Pasquale and drives away.
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As in De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves, the emphasis here is on the children left in desperate poverty in the war’s aftermath, and the plot revolves around the possession of desirable, useful, even life-saving objects – the boots, akin to the bicycle in the De Sica film. The climactic moment of moral confrontation establishes common empathy and the abandonment of a selfish sense of justice, but also skirts the edge of triteness. Rossellini however complicates this sketch in witty and biting ways. GI Joe here is a black man, one who murmurs bitter recollections of his home being a shack, all too aware that his relative elevation as a player of the war project will probably only be temporary before returning to life as a second-class citizen. Perched on a rubbish heap with a bewildered Pasquale at his side, Joe sings “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen” in a ragged but impressive voice, near-blind with booze but still all too aware of his marooning between worlds. The fulcrum of the episode is a scene in which Pasquale takes Joe to a puppet theatre. The rapt audience watches a scene from Orlando Furioso being played out, in which the great Christian knight slays a Moorish foe. Joe, groping through the fog of booze to comprehend the essential drama, starts cheering like the others in the theatre as if they’re watching a boxing match, but for the nominal villain. Rather than let Orlando win, Joe leaps onto the stage and starts trying to box the puppet. Rossellini draws together many ideas here – the delightful absurdity of Joe’s assault on the puppets turns him to a Quixote-ish hero with comic zest, but Rossellini also notes the deep racist tradition locked into the Euro-American self-concept in the ritualised defeat and suppression of the African.
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There might even have been a quality of mea culpa to this. Although a leftist, Rossellini had been close friends with Mussolini’s son Vittorio, and owed his start in the film industry to this, not long after the Fascist regime had been warring in Libya and Ethiopia. Joe’s surrender of his boots at the end comes not with the guilty look of the conscience-appeasing bourgeois but the slow and considered abandonment of a poor man’s fierce and persona ethic in the face of another, overriding demand, a glimpse into a bottomless pit of need that refuses even to honour Joe’s nursed grievance. If Rossellini diagnoses rotten aspects of society that can be left to safely decay amongst the rubble here, the third chapter, which takes place in post-liberation Rome, asks what will replace them, and sees with glum certainty a kind of slick, alienating capitalist-consumerist cosmopolitanism descending. The nightclubs are filled with American soldiers on leave with money and luxury items to be had, and young women eager for both. Francesca (Maria Michi) is one of them, a hardened, bravura urban adventurer and prostitute who finds her eye caught by a young soldier, Fred (Gar Moore). When another chippie objects to her occasional sideways glances, the two women brawl, attracting MPs who clear the joint.
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Francesca comes across Fred on the street and lures the tired and tipsy soldier back to a rented room. Fred seems disgusted with the idea of sleeping with a prostitute, reminiscing instead as he drifts off to sleep about the fresh-faced and pure girl he met on the day the Allies rolled into the city to the cheers of the Romans. Francesca is that girl, of course. She leaves her real address on a note with Fred as he sleeps, but the next day dismisses it as a note from a whore, screws it up, and tosses it away before heading off with his fellows. This episode has a concise, plaintive, short story-like obviousness to its arc, one that partly conceals the insidious sense of humour Rossellini employs, particularly in the deadpan dissolve from the joyous optimism of the city’s release to a shot with a title over it reading “Six Months Later,” the open and eternal city now a den of rude and raucous behaviour, a transition that would feel quite at home in a modern satire like The Simpsons. The beatitude of liberation, a moment of idyllic promises, gives way to slick operators and resentful misogyny: “You wouldn’t last a day if these guys went home,” Francesca yells at her rivals, but it’s certainly just as true for her. Fred’s wistful reminiscences of the recent past are Francesca’s too as she’s able to fill out his anecdote with her own memories of a very recent but long-lost arcadia.
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Rossellini’s tart sociology sees the desire of the soldiers for cheap booze and quick sex as a market in a land where humanity is the cheapest commodity, trampling the tenuous human connections of the age, whilst hypocritically demanding everything and everyone retain the unsoiled lustre of great days. Innocence, if you believe in that sort of thing, has been defiled; certainly everyone is changed, the by-product of the age’s upheaval and collapsed structures, leaving everyone an instant and irreparable nostalgic. Although perhaps the most conventional episode in the film with the faintly poetical and sentimental quality to Francesca’s monologue and the obvious central conceit, this vignette feels in some ways like the most influential in the evanescent emotions and concepts it brings up, in the way it moots concerns the neorealists and their inheritors in Italian film would take up. In the absence of great projects of conflict and revision, individuals drift on different currents, lost to themselves and each-other. The pathetically broken rendezvous at the end, as Francesca waits for the man who won’t come, feels like a quick preparatory sketch for Michelangelo Antonioni’s “alienation” films, particularly the conclusion of L’Eclisse (1962) as well as the forlorn romanticism of Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti’s ‘50s films. Long before he arrived at the pensive interior evocations of works like Voyage to Italy and Antonioni’s works, Rossellini was already wrestling with people wrenched out of alignment with their true selves, lost behind worldly glazes and masks adopted for survival purposes.
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The fourth chapter, by contrast, is a tale charged with daring adventure and high romanticism, if still processed by Rossellini’s cool-tempered, methodical cinema. This one sees young American army nurse Harriet (Harriet White) attending to injured partisans as the Allies advance on Florence. Harriet is familiar with the city, having been there before the war. Asking about one of her old boyfriends, a painter named Guido Lombardi, Harriet learns he’s now a respected partisan leader nicknamed Lupo – the Wolf – by his fellows, and is battling the retreating the Germans and their Fascist allies in the city. Harriet becomes so desperate to find Lupo after hearing he’s been wounded, she links up with another injured partisan, Massimo (Renzo Avanzo), who wants to get back to his family who lives in the same part of the city Lupo is fighting in. The duo exploit the Vasari Corridor, a passage that runs over the Ponte Vecchio into the Uffizi Gallery and forgotten by the Germans, to infiltrate the city. Eventually, when they reach the precincts where the partisans are still fighting, Harriet is devastated to learn from a wounded man that Lupo has died, whilst Massimo dashes away, bullets dogging his path.
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This chapter is the most traditionally thrilling in the film, proving Rossellini if he wanted to could have easily become a great action filmmaker. That’s not to say it’s conventional. Rossellini’s eye is at its keenest here in noting the stark contrast between Florence’s artistic wonders and the smears of blood and bullets pocking its streets – the seed of John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) is here as well as Stanley Kubrick’s war films. White, with her high, strong cheekbones and blend of strong emotion and venturesome resolve, could easily have passed for a movie star of the day, and embodies a still-guttering romantic spirit amidst the carnage. Rossellini recreates the same on-the-fly, danger-charged sensation of authentic war being filmed evinced in Rome, Open City. His tightly controlled sense of perspective avoids the regulation scene grammar for war sequence – no cutaways to the enemy or the like, simply concentrated, often laterally flowing tracking shots following his characters as they progress. Rossellini sensitises the viewer to the exposure in wide, well-lit streets that could make anyone a sniper’s target, and open piazzas as arenas of action. A bedraggled collaborator is marched out before resistance columns, a moment Visconti would recreate in his The Leopard (1963) in taking up the theme of a cycle of rule, revolt, downfall, and new orders bound to ossify.
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Rossellini and DP Otello Martelli pull off one particularly brilliant shot as his camera pivots from the corridors of the looted, deserted Uffizi along with his characters to peer down onto the city streets. There they glimpse the last few Germans massing for retreat. The sequence is an odyssey as Harriet and Massimo, each drawn on through a ridiculously dangerous exercise for the sake of people they care for, encounter partisans whose everyday aspect, fighting in street clothes and idly lunching with food pulled across fields of fire in carts, blurs the line between deadly struggle and holiday jaunt. Other Florentines mass in stairwells and corridors, keeping away from the fighting, a riot of rumour and complaint. Harriet and Massimo encounter people ranging from a retired military officer who surveys the struggle from the rooftop, recalls fighting in “the real war,” and claims to be able to dodge bullets, to a pair of British soldiers who are too awed by the cultural treasures laid out before them to quite notice the life-and-death struggles going on down in those sunstruck routes.
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The fifth chapter is a breath of calm in this storm, depicting a trio of US Army chaplains: Catholic Capt. Bill Martin (William Tubbs), Protestant Capt. Jones (Newell Jones), and Jewish Capt. Feldman, Jewish (Elmer Feldman). The trio visit an old hilltop monastery where the monks are fascinated and bewildered by their visitors. They’re glad to receive the Americans’ gifts of food, particularly their Hershey’s chocolate. But when the monks learn that two of the chaplains are heretics, they anxiously prod Martin over his failure to proselytise to them, to which Martin calmly replies that he feels he has no right to, particularly as they believe themselves to be just as faithful and correct. The monks decide to fast in praying for the souls of the Protestant and Jew, giving up their first good meal in months. The gentle comedy in this sequence, which starts off like a bar room joke, presages Rossellini’s deeper, longer look at the side of religion he appreciated in The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), the noble absurdity glimpsed in people trying to obey both human need and divine obedience. Many another artist would have expressed frustration at the sectarian reflexes of the monks, and one of the chaplains raises in concerted seriousness about just how much use the instruction of people used to hiding from the world is at such a juncture in history. But in the end Rossellini sees value in that detachment. He wants a place left in the world for men of simple faith, holy fools, and people with the ability to go without so that others might gain something, no matter how much those others don’t want it.
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For all Rossellini’s evolving faith in the stripped-down and spontaneous, there was nothing artless about his moviemaking. The first, third, and fifth chapters are carefully fashioned in their lighting and subtle, quietly mobile camerawork, flickers of poetic and spiritual depth allowed to subsist in the lighting caressing the faces of Joe and Carmela and Fred and Francesca, or pooling in the monastery’s corners, and the chiaroscuro battles of light and dark that confirm the influence of the pre-war poetic realists on Rossellini. The harsher style utilised in the second, fourth, and sixth episodes befits tales rooted in more immediate actions and consequences. Fellini’s specific humour occasionally glimmers throughout, with the fairground performers glimpsed at the start of the second chapter providing an islet of bristling medieval colour in an otherwise raw-boned city, the two English soldiers playing aesthete tourists, and the vignettes in the monastery, where the monks offer their blessing in return for a candy bar. The last chapter, which takes place in the Po River valley in 1945, has been called the ultimate iteration of the neorealist creed, as it depicts an episode amidst the war’s end-game.
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The first shot in the episode sees a man’s corpse floating down the river, executed by the Nazis with a sign branding him as a partisan, moving with languorous pathos like something from a dream. The world here has been reduced to a relentlessly horizontal zone of flat earth, rippling water, and wavering reeds, at once desolate but deceptive in its capacity to conceal and trick the eye. Dale (Dale Edmonds), an OSS agent, and some fellow American soldiers are operating with partisans in the reed-clogged river delta. A recent halt in the Allied advance has left these warriors stranded in enemy-held territory without hope of quick recourse. A brief stop at a tavern set up in a shack sees the wearied fighters take stock and recover a little, but it brings down vicious punishment from the Germans, who shoot anyone found in the vicinity of the tavern. A pair of British airmen are shot down in the water and rescued by the partisans, but seen they’re all cornered by Germans, who gun down the partisans as rebels and some of the Allied soldiers when they leap up in protest. That Rossellini and his writers decided to end the film with this chapter suggests a desire not to set the seal on the conflict but to suggest the way it was still a raw, bleeding wound both physically and mentally; the wailing child left amidst splayed corpses by the tavern is totem of the entire experience, a generation of orphans left in the wake of acts of colossal bravery and cruelty.
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RR18
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This episode reduces the war to appropriately barren essentials to match the landscape, stripping out the dramatic familiarities and ironies of the earlier chapters and instead presenting a grim spectacle of struggle and death. Out there in the man-killing surveys of the Po delta lies the futurist anxiety Antonioni works through in Red Desert (1964) and Zabriskie Point (1970) and the mood of incipient earth-swallowing uncertainty he’d approach in L’Avventura (1960), as well as anticipating the post-apocalyptic fantasias of four generations. Dread of the future appropriate for science fiction is hinted at as the Allied captives are forced to listen to their Nazi officer captor’s calm and still-confident belief in the new civilisation that will last a thousand years. A few minutes later the master race are shoving bound men off a boat, the warriors of the Po finding comradely rest at the bottom of the river. Paisan was a big hit both in Italy and on the world cinema scene, and when Rossellini returned with Germany, Year Zero in 1948, it was at the high-water mark of neorealism, as The Bicycle Thieves, Visconti’s La Terra Trema, and De Santis’ Bitter Rice were all released to general acclaim. Germany, Year Zero was however overshadowed, whilst Rossellini’s personal situation had undergone violent upheavals through his affair with Anna Magnani and the death of one of his sons, Romano, from his first marriage, aged only 9. Germany, Year Zero takes up the raw and stricken mood of Paisan’s last episode in a movie dedicated to Romano’s memory, as well as rounding out the war trilogy with a survey of the ruined Nazi homeland and the people left to subsist in the rubble.
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Young Edmund Kohler (Edmund Meschke) is Rossellini’s inheritor of the national ash-heap, living with his elderly father (Ernst Pittschau), a former academic, his older sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinze), and brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger). Hunger is a gnawing and constant reality; the elder Kohler’s poor health is exacerbated by starvation, and the family is trying to subsist on only three ration cards because Karl-Heinz, who fought until the end and belonged to an unspecified regiment suspected of war crimes, is afraid he’ll be thrown in a detention camp, so he remains in hiding. Edmund is so anxious to help out his family at the outset he’s glimpsed trying to get a job as a gravedigger, perhaps the only growth industry in Berlin at this point. He also engages in petty theft and con artistry. He encounters one of his former teachers, Herr Henning (Erich Gühne), who employs Edmund as an agent to sell an LP recording of Hitler’s speeches to the reliable battery of gullible Allied soldiers who hang about the old Chancellery in search of souvenirs. Henning places him in the company of Jo (Jo Herbst) and Christl (Christl Merker), two of the many homeless kids around the city who are growing up very fast, becoming experts in robbery and operating, and Edmund joins them in stealing a bag of potatoes from a train shipment.
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It would be tempting to regard Germany, Year Zero as merely an extra-long last instalment of Paisan, continuing the northward and chronological march to its logical end amidst the shattered husk of the Nazi homeland. But Germany, Year Zero is a different kind of movie to Paisan in terms of Rossellini’s focus and method; the individual portraiture that informed a general sociological viewpoint in the earlier film is here inverted. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Germany, Year Zero met with strident criticism from many quarters. Rossellini had readopted aspects of studio filmmaking, making use of some sets and other moviemaking tricks. One gets the feeling, however, that another aspect of its rejection lay in its pungent and gruelling evocation of a world that lies at the very outermost fringe of redemption. Whereas De Sica’s films like The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. (1953), however grim in depicting poverty, retained a sentimental faith in certain evanescent bonds of amity, shifting to a German setting allowed Rossellini to leave behind all trace of his own romanticism. Germany, Year Zero depicts fascism as having leached into the soil, gripping at the roots at whatever new world might grow from the tainted earth.
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Everyone has become a walking stomach and a register tallying buying power. Henning, who has a clear paedophile’s interest in Edmund and who it’s suggested keeps Jo and Christl close for sexual favours, still preaches fascist essentials to the boy, advising him that the weak have to be cut loose and not allowed to impede the strong from surviving. The owner of the house where the Kohlers live, Mr Rademaker (Hans Sangen), who was forced to take in tenants by the civil authority in the face of the housing crisis, bullies and complains constantly even as he steal power, eventually resulting in the building’s supply being cut off entirely. Eva brings in some extra income, like Paisan’s Francesca, as a nightspot denizen just a step short of outright prostitution, filching cigarettes which a the most reliable currency, only to be disdained by the Rademakers and Edmund. Young Christl, with whom Edmund seems to feel the first glimmerings of attraction, is described by her fellows as a “mattress that gives out cigarettes.” It’s easy to imagine Karl-Heinz as one of the steel-jawed young Nazi angels shooting down Rossellini’s flailing resistance warriors in his previous two films. “Once we were men, National Socialists,” a rubble clearance worker quips at one point, “Now we’re just Nazis.”
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This quip at last gets to the very heart of an issue Rossellini traces the outer edge of again and again in both films, in noting people’s desire to belong to feel part of some great project, a movement, a corpus of humanity blessed with shining import, rather than admit the reality of their circumstance. The Flowers of St. Francis would, eventually, offer a reconciliation of the schism, as Francis and his followers learn to rejoice in the mud. Part of neorealism’s almost religious appeal in some quarters might well have been rooted in the mode’s ability to imbue that kind of identity and overarching narrative upon life, the brotherhood of debris and scarcity and perseverance. Germany, Year Zero offers no such ennobling on a socio-political level, but does dare to suggest family is a substitute, another world in small from which larger structures grow. Edmund’s initial, scampish selflessness as a kid dedicated to his family unit seems to contrasts Karl-Heinz’s fretful and fuming inability to let go of his defeated cause. By the end Rossellini inverts their roles, as Karl-Heinz awakens to a new reality and rids his system of the fascist poison, whilst Edmund is fatefully, and fatally, infected through Henning’s frame for reality, Nazi ideals carried by children who know nothing better. Rossellini’s great anxiety, perhaps a common one at the time, is that all these brutal lessons have blighted an entire generation. So Edmund steals a bottle of poison from a dispensary and uses it to kill his father in the belief it’s the best thing for everyone.
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RR23
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As contrary to swift-formed neorealist dogma as it was, Rossellini’s use of sets allowed him greater, more unaffected intimacy in his lighting and shooting, particularly apparent in the scenes in the Rademakers’ building and the Kohlers’ rooms, where the camera often hovers with actors moving about it like another member of the family, tracking all movements with simple pivots. Rossellini’s evolving aesthetic, which would increasingly attempt to use carefully manipulated settings to describe psychological landscapes (in a subtler manner than the waned expressionist film movement), was becoming more definite here. Berlin’s wreckage is recorded with a documentary maker’s rigorous eyes but also reflects the utter desolation of private universes and illusions. Edmund’s murder of his father leaves him entirely alienated from even the salutary processes of mourning, and he eddies for a long and dreadful day as his confession of his final solution to Henning gains only the pervert pedagogue’s hysterical fury and anxious implorations that Edmund not implicate him in the deed.
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RR24
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Here is Rossellini’s miniature analysis of the life and death of the fascist creed–big-sounding ideals, real murders, and whimpering, pathetic denials of involvement when judgement day looms. In a less crass (if not more subtle) way than the use of lesbianism in Rome, Open City to depict the perverting appeal of the Nazi ideology, Henning’s paedophilia visually describes that deep and invidious process of colonisation of the mind and soul by hateful thinking. Ultimately Germany, Year Zero feels like a statement of intense grief and even exhaustion in the face of a universe of suffering, and Rossellini’s personal loss must have informed the final, despairing image of a young boy’s broken body. And yet it’s not a nihilistic statement. Rossellini intended it as a confirmation that a moral spark would still create shame even in the children of this devastation. Edmund is an avatar for Rossellini’s evolving preoccupation with the gap between the internal and external ways of being, a strange relative to his Saint Francis as like the saint he finds the real monster to battle is not in the world but within, the world only made monstrous by that inner beast. Rossellini grants his boy-man the same stature as he gave to his resistance heroes, as he makes his stand and slays the beast. At the same time he’s just another dead kid in a land filled with them.

Standard
1940s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie

The Mummy’s Hand (1940) / The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) / The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) / The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

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Directors: Christy Cabanne, Harold Young, Reginald LeBorg, Leslie Goodwins

By Roderick Heath

Karl Freund’s legendary film The Mummy (1932) presented its title entity, Boris Karloff’s Imhotep, as a sorcerer and antihero defying time and the gods to wield vast magical power. More recent filmmakers like Stephen Sommers and Alex Kurtzman have taken up this idea for the sake of spectacle and drama better fitting the age of the special effects-driven blockbuster. But I’d be willing to bet good money most people, when they think of the mummy as movie monster, probably instead think of a lurching, ghastly, sluggishly advancing yet relentless engine of murder, swathed in grave wrappings. For the source of this image of the mummy, we must look instead to the four films Universal Studios made about the mummy Kharis. For lovers of vintage horror movies, the Kharis films remain an evergreen trove. Not because they’re deep masterpieces of gothic poetry, richly composed metaphor, or galvanising terror – indeed, part of their appeal is that they’re patently none of these things, or, at least, only offer such qualities as small, shiny gems amidst a whole lot of entertaining ore. They’re lovable relics of an era of filmmaking and a brand of horror that retains a modest brand of charisma, deft ideograms compressing all the freewheeling energy and craftsmanship of 1940s Hollywood cinema. Somehow, the Kharis films manage to incorporate all the major motifs and stylistic quirks of the Universal school within their brief, zippy, unpretentious duration. They’re the sort of movies you see as a kid and love, and see again as an adult and still love, even if they can no longer compel in the same way.

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Each movie in the series is barely an hour long, as quintessential B movie features, made to support other, more ambitious but often less well-remembered movies. All four were made by the smithies of Hollywood film. Only one of these directors, Reginald LeBorg, can be described as any kind of familiar hand in horror cinema, whilst all four handled many a diverse genre in their long, factory-line careers. Christy Cabanne, who helmed the series opener The Mummy’s Hand, had been making movies since 1912. And yet the Kharis films testify to the peculiar integrity of the Universal horror mode, as well as the problems that would eventually choke off their brand. In spite of being cheaply produced, the Kharis films all display the technical resources and effortless class of Universal’s production teams and their gifts for quickly and smartly constructing little, cordoned universes where the shadows are deep and black and things move in the night that should not be moving at all. Universal had a particularly effective ethos when it came to making its B movies, also evinced by the perennially popular Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone. These films, although very often tacky and repetitious, usually had solid writing and a template for atmospheric visuals that could be easily applied by different production teams. The limitations to their strict hour-and-a-bit running times were as usually sharp as the advantages: too many stories develop fruitfully over about 50 minutes and then suddenly careen to a close. This is true of the Kharis films as well.

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The series was doggedly popular in its day regardless, at a time when their cheery, restrained approach to generating a healthy frisson stood in stark contrast to the harsh facts of wartime. The Mummy’s Hand gave the waning Universal horror brand a shot in the arm, whilst also laying down a template most of the entries the studio would purvey over the next six years until running out of steam again, in dispensing with most of the outsized Expressionistic effects in sets and lighting and rendering their attendant themes of tragic stature far more muted, if not entirely jettisoned. The series also accidentally helped point the way forward for the horror genre as a whole, in a manner that unfolds over the four instalments, which begins rooted in the mystique of foreign threat and exotic nightmares welling out of a distant, mythical past, but soon shifts ground to portray murderous forces at large in the balmy eves of the good old USA. The Mummy’s Hand introduces the lore and legend of Kharis (played in the first instalment by Tom Tyler), a former high priest under the Pharaoh Amenophis, who fell in love with the Pharaoh’s daughter Ananka. Following Ananka’s early death, Kharis attempted to revive her by stealing a supply of the sacred, long-extinct herb known as the tana leaf, with its mystic qualities for restoring and sustaining life. Caught in the act, Kharis had his tongue cut out before burial alive, doomed to spend eternity serving as protector of Ananka’s tomb. This story is recounted by the wizened and decrepit High Priest (Eduardo Ciannelli) of a sect called the Priests of Karnak, who still subsist within modern Egypt and have dedicated themselves to protecting Ananka’s undiscovered tomb above all.

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The High Priest is visited by his anointed successor, Professor Andoheb (George Zucco), an archaeologist who uses his position as a respected figure in his field to either fend off other Egyptologists venturing into Arkam, the area where their temple and Ananka’s and Kharis’s tombs are all located, or else arrange their mysterious disappearance. The High Priest explains to Andoheb his essential duties, of which the most vital is sustaining Kharis’s heartbeat by stewing three tana leaves each night of the full moon and feeding it to him. Whenever Ananka’s tomb is threatened and interlopers dare to violate her sacred surrounds, the Priests revive Kharis by feeding him the the juice of nine leaves, sufficient to get him up and walking around, able to kill and overpower any mere mortal. Once the High Priest finishes his exposition, he gratefully settles upon his throne and dies. In this opening, the basics of the Kharis series are sketched out, and all four films revolve around these legendary details, carried over from episode to episode as essential as a superhero’s back story. One detail mentioned here, constantly teased but never fulfilled in the series, are the dire results of what might happen if Kharis is fed more than nine tana leaves, as a greater dose of the mystic herb would render him a rampaging monster. The Priests of Karnak merely keep him alive as a useful tool.

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The first film depicts the discovery of Ananka’s tomb by a gang of footloose Americans. Archaeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his pal, Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), have come to Egypt when Steve is hunting for a new career break after being fired from the Scripps Museum, in spite of a string of impressive discoveries. Babe is itching to get back to the States, but Steve finds a damaged urn that seems to depict directions to Ananka’s tomb in a bazaar. Steve takes the urn to another esteemed man of the field, Dr Petrie (Charles Trowbridge), who agrees with him it is genuine. But Andoheb, who is Petrie’s boss at the Cairo Museum, dismisses the relic as a fake and contrives to drop it, whilst refusing the stake an expedition to the site indicated. Not dissuaded, Steve and Babe get backing from a good-natured nightclub magician, ‘The Great’ Solvani (Cecil Kellaway). Andoheb tries to foil this recourse by approaching Solvani’s daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) and warning her about conmen trying to sucker her father. Marta threatens Steve and Babe with the revolver she uses for trick shooting in her father’s shows, and she resolves to accompany her father on the expedition to make sure he’s not being robbed.

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It takes quite a while until The Mummy’s Hand gets out into the Egyptian wilds, an aspect that betrays a certain level of uncertainty about what level to pitch the movie on. An inordinate amount of screen time is soaked up by Ford and Kellaway’s comedy, although both men were accomplished farceurs and they’re fun to watch. The real pleasure of The Mummy’s Hand, however, comes once it gets going properly and changes scene to the desert. Here Babe accidentally uncovers Kharis’s tomb when he prematurely sets off a dynamite charge, just after the bodies of some of the expedition’s ill-fated predecessors are uncovered by the Egyptian diggers. The archaeologists are astounded to find Kharis’ remarkably preserved body in his casket, but the diggers flee in fear as the black legends about the area seem to be coming true. Meanwhile Andoheb and his agent, a fake marketplace beggar (Sig Arno), keep watch over the camp and when the time comes, Andoheb surprises Petrie alone in the tomb, and feeds tana juice to the mummy, bringing Kharis fully to life. At Andoheb’s behest, the fiend strangles Petrie, the expedition’s chief porter Ali (Leon Belasco), and Solvani during one long night of terror. Soon Andoheb is tempted by beauty and has Kharis kidnap Marta, forcing Steve and Babe to hunt for her. Following Marta’s own theory based on Steve’s urn, Steve finds a secret passage linking Kharis’ tomb to the priests’ temple, and ventures along it.

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The Mummy’s Hand is an object lesson in how old Hollywood could conjure something substantial out of virtually nothing. The budget was a preposterously low $80,000 dollars, and the running time is filled out with interpolated scenes from the Freund film depicting Kharis’ disgrace and doom, spliced with new footage of western star Tyler, who, in addition to his suitably strong stature, looked enough like Karloff to sustain the illusion. Smart use was also made of a set left over from the production of Frankenstein (1931) auteur James Whale’s jungle adventure Green Hell (1939) to fill in for the temple. The script also bears traces of such repurposing, as it offers a slight variation on the famous “Children of the Night” line from Dracula (1931). Otherwise the film relies almost entirely on Cabanne’s long-honed filmmaking skills to make the best of minimal sets, transforming the one, basic soundstage set depicting a crook of the desert abutting a mountain into a fantasy landscape flooded with shadow, occasionally punctuated by the bloodcurdling sight of the mummy’s silhouetted form looming through tent canvas over unsuspecting, sleeping victims.

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Part of the success and entertainment factor of The Mummy’s Hand lies in its straightforward blend of gothic business, with the free-and-easy tone of an adventure movie. It’s probably one of the many influences on Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films, portraying archaeology as a kind of puzzle work as the characters utilise keys gleaned from relics to open up ancient tombs. The mummy, although blessed with a tragic backstory, is offered mostly as a threatening spectre, a spooky threat lurching in and out of the shadows, informed with character only via Tyler’s eyes, showing flashes of fretful, desperate hunger for the tana leaves that sustain his existence. Foran is charming and stalwart, Moran is cute and plucky, at least until the compulsory finale where she swoons to be carried about by Kharis. The film careens through a last reel in which Babe shoots down Andoheb when the priest threatens him, and Steve enters the temple, frees Marta, and sets fire to Kharis when he stoops to try and lick up a pool of spilt tana juice.

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Mummy stories belong to a motif common in storytelling date back to Victorian-era fiction and the vicissitudes of the high colonial days, in fare ranging from a mystery tale like Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone to tales of the supernatural like The Monkey’s Paw. Such stories revolved around the dread fate awaiting those who monkey about with sacred objects of other cultures, and hinged upon western anxieties in the face of contending with those cultures, both warning about the necessity of respecting those cultures whilst also reinforcing the necessity of stoic detachment in the coloniser over the colonised. The Kharis series reframes this subtext to a certain extent whilst also making it more overt, for the series revolves around the clash between the forces of the old world and the new, the echoing memory of millennia of instilled cultural identity as represented by the powers of Ancient Egypt, and the new wind of Americanism starting to blow about the world. There’s an element of absurd but revealing racial profiling, too, as just about anyone who wears a fez is quickly outed as a supporter of an esoteric and murderous death cult. This aspect is often conjoined with finales in which mobs of the citizenry come out with fiery torches to hunt down the monsters. When Frankenstein had offered this trope, it had come as a criticism of the lynch mob mentality. By 1942, it had evolved into a heroic event, based on around communal guarding against threatening foreign invaders.

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But there’s also a theme to the series invoking a schism of faith and desire, identity and yearning. Steve and the spirit he represents is at once passionate about the arcana he digs up but also detached from the spiritual world it represents, the deep wellsprings of other cultural precepts. The Priests of Karnak, including Andoheb and successors Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), Yousef Bey (John Carradine), Dr Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe) and his disciple Ragheb (Martin Kosleck), are beset by the same diverging desires as Kharis himself. That’s the schism between fulfilling their creed, which revolves around the literal worship of the dead and valuing of them above the living, and embracing their sensual needs, inevitably represented by the young women who fall into their clutches. This pays off in images close to those popular on pulp magazine covers of the time, heroines strapped to altars, threatened with phallic intrusion as the fallen priests threaten them with injections of tana fluid to make them immortal, with the priests intending to join them for an unending life of erotic pleasure.

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Quickly and inevitably, Kharis, embodiment of the past’s insidious persistence in the presence of all modernity’s glaring light, is brought to American shores, to haunt the outer precincts a modern land lacking much consciousness of such a deep past. The Mummy’s Tomb, the second episode, easily manages this change of scene, whilst also introducing some peculiar aspects to the series. Although The Mummy’s Hand was demonstrably contemporary if the clothes the characters wore were anything to go by, the sequel is set thirty years after the first film, but again seems entirely contemporary to 1942, to the extent of one character receiving a commission during the film. The fourth film is set twenty years after the third, which means over a half-century passes in the course of the series, making it a science fiction tale of sorts. The Mummy’s Tomb also anticipates aspects of modern franchise cinema, as it brings back Steve and Babe, now thirty years older, but with the brutal intention of killing them both off. Steve is now reclining in happy retirement after Marta’s death, living with his sister Jane (Mary Gordon), recounting his old adventures to his indulgently disbelieving doctor son John (John Hubbard) and his girlfriend Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox).

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Turns out Andoheb survived the bullets Babe filled him with, and that Kharis was only lightly singed by fire. Andoheb, now old himself and palsied (a great touch from Zucco), still lurks in the old Arkam temple, handing over responsibility to Mehemet Bey, his successor, with the assignment of taking Kharis to America so he can kill the Banning clan in punishment for plundering Ananka’s tomb. Mehemet secures a job as caretaker of the cemetery of Mapleton, the small New England town where Steve has retired. He sends out Kharis, who strangles Steve in his house. The following night, the mummy does the same to Jane. Babe comes to town to attend their funerals and recognises the tell-tale mark of mould upon the victims’ necks as mould from Kharis’ bandages (“A greyish mark…a greyish mark!”). Babe fails to make the police listen to his warnings so he feeds the story to some interested newspaper men, but soon finds himself cornered in an alley by Kharis and killed. An academic researcher, Professor Norman (Frank Reicher), certifies from a scrap of bandage John finds that there really is a living mummy on the loose. Mehemet, unable to suppress lecherous designs upon Isobel after glimpsing her in the woods with John, has Kharis snatch her out of her bed. When the Mapleton sheriff (Cliff Clark) organises a posse, he’s alerted to the presence of the Egyptian at the cemetery. Mehemet tries to stab John and gets a bullet in his gut for his pains. Kharis seems to be burned up along with the Banning house when he’s driven there, Isobel is rescued, and all ends well.

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The Mummy’s Tomb is the most sketchily written and disposable entry in the series, bumping off the likeable protagonists of the first film with a remarkable lack of compunction. The film kicks off laboriously with nearly ten minutes’ worth of flashbacks to The Mummy’s Hand to pad out an exceptionally simple storyline. But it’s still entirely enjoyable, in part for reasons that feel mildly consequential in horror cinema history. This episode was directed by Harold Young, who surely had the best movie to his credit of any of the series captains, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), and there are flashes of the spacious, lushly lit, carefully pictorial style he brought to that film here and here. Shots late in the film of Kharis carrying Isobel through the night are often reproduced in books of genre history, and for good reason: they retain an iconic form of beauty and encapsulation of the mystique of swooning, silk-draped femininity in the clutches of a septic, perambulating id. Transposing Kharis into the leafy, pacific environs of Mapleton allows this exotic monster, avatar of cultural and religious unease, to lurch about in quaint, very normal surrounds. Kharis keeps perturbing the perfectly ordinary New Englanders, be they couples in their beds or young mashers parked in their cars, as his shadow falls upon them and each feels the discomforting sensation of death passing them by.

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Whilst this was hardly the first horror film set in a modern western setting, I can’t really think of a precursor that utilised such quotidian environs, and Young’s visuals, emphasising Kharis melting in and out of the shadows in humdrum streets and semi-rural surrounds, capture a quality that would pass on through ‘50s sci-fi works like I Married A Monster From Outer Space and The Blob (both 1958) and then back into horror movies as diverse as Halloween (1978) and the works of artists as diverse as Stephen King and David Lynch, in placing a malevolent force in the midst of suburbia, a portal of pure surrealism astride the banal. The film is also fleshed out by the Austrian-Turkish actor Bey’s fascinating presence. One of the few actors of Middle Eastern heritage to gain any prominence as a Hollywood actor in the day, Bey’s dashing, matinee star looks and ability to project an air of silken menace make for a rare combination in this sort of thing. Bey reportedly liked the role best amongst his performances, and he plays Mehemet less as a glowing-eyed fanatic than as a meditatively religious being willing to do what it takes to restore a key tenant of his faith, but brought down in the end by his inability to suppress his sensual self.

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Another significant introduction for this entrance came in Kharis himself. Tyler had been replaced by Lon Chaney Jnr, who had become a fully-fledged horror star in the previous year’s The Wolf Man, and Universal sought to capitalise by casting him across the full roster of their familiar monsters – he would also play Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula. The irony of this is that, at least at first, Chaney makes much less impression in the role than Tyler managed, as his Kharis isn’t allowed even to show the character in the eyes that Tyler could. That said, what could be the first real moment of proper characterisation for Kharis arrives here, as the mummy retreats fretfully whilst Mehemet tells him of his plans to mate with and impregnate Isobel: Kharis’ memory of the terrible wrath of force beyond in the face of such blasphemous acts is strong enough to momentarily make this zombified remnant cringe in fear. The Mummy’s Ghost, the third series instalment, saw directing duties taken over by former Max Reinhardt assistant LeBorg. LeBorg had already directed Chaney in a neat little chiller, Weird Woman (1944), an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s great black magic tale Conjure Wife, and would occasionally return to the genre over the next twenty years, including for the interesting Diary of a Madman (1963). LeBorg’s background with Reinhardt and European sensibility apparently familiar with the Germanic imaginative world of the liebestod might explain why his entry emerges as the oddest and most intriguing of the quartet.

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Whilst not violating the already well-settled series formula until its final few minutes, The Mummy’s Ghost is the first entry to make itself more explicitly about Kharis’s search for Ananka, and also needs no flashbacks to pad out its crisp, well-developed storyline. In an ingenious little vignette, Kharis, after breaking into the Scripps Museum where her body and other artefacts are collected, attempts to touch her bandage-wrapped form, only for her mummy to disintegrate into dust. Meanwhile, miles away, a young woman, Amina Mansori (Ramsay Ames), awakens with a cry in her room, having felt the touch of the mummy: Ananka’s spirit now inhabits her body, as a distant descendant. Amina is attending college in Mapleton, and her boyfriend Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery) is a student of Professor Norman. Norman likes to regale his students with tales of the mummy that terrorised the town a few years before. Norman himself is still trying crack the secret of the artefacts and specimens of the tana leaf retrieved from Mehemet’s possession. Finally translating some inscriptions and boiling up nine tana leaves, Norman is shocked to see Kharis burst his way into his rooms. Kharis, after lying dormant since the fire, has been revived by the scent of the tana juice, and he kills Norman before drinking it. Amina, drawn out in a somnambulant daze by Kharis’ presence, collapses near the scene. Meanwhile Andoheb dispatches another acolyte, Yousef Bey, to America to track down Kharis. Yousef attempts to lead Kharis in recovering Ananka so they can both be transported back to Egypt, but realisation that Ananka is now living within Amina leads them to track and kidnap her.

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If the guiding tension of the series is between the inflexibly arcane and the blithely, obliviously modern, then the figuration of Amina/Ananka is a clever new dimension for it, affectingly embodied by Ames. Amina carries inscribed in her genes and spiritual heritage the memory of a land stretching back to the dawn of human kind, inhabiting the spry, clean-cut environs of the college and her American lifestyle like a suit of easily discarded clothes. Unease about the possibility of an interracial marriage is mediated through the prism of Amina’s anxiety that her identity, bound up with her strange fits of detachment and sense of living in two different times and worlds. LeBorg makes atmospheric use of the old, abandoned mine where Yousef operates from, the modern, industrial equivalent to the tombs and temples of Egypt, equally desolate and deserted and forsaken by the ways of men, equally cyclopean in the scale of both construction and ruination. Here Yousef, once he actually has Amina in his grasp, again succumbs to the desire to possess her. This time however, knowing that Amina is really his beloved, Kharis rebels, throwing off the yoke of the priests and hurling Yousef from a great height to his death. After he fends off an attack by Tom, Kharis carries Amina off into the countryside. Since her first meeting with the mummy, Amina’s hair has become increasingly streaked with coils of white, and now in his arms turns swiftly into an ancient, parched, white-crowned mummy. Tom and another posse, this time led by canny New York detective Walgreen (Barton MacLane), give chase, only to see the benighted duo of ruined creatures sink into a swamp.

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This coda blends truly odd romanticism and faint but definite morbid sexuality with heartbreak, as Tim and his pet dog are left staring into the black waters where Kharis and Amina vanished. It’s a forlorn ending, an overtone new to this series, although it does revive the spirit that had been central to Freund’s film and the first wave of Universal horror films in general. Chaney’s casting in the role, which seemed so negligible on The Mummy’s Tomb, also proves worthier in The Mummy’s Ghost, as Chaney wields enough expressive intensity in body language to charge Kharis with a deep and implacable will, his stumbling, grasping forward motion achieving a sense of the genuinely remorseless to his wanderings and killings, fingers curling and limbs twitching when victims give him the slip. The last episode in the series, The Mummy’s Curse, is the first to offer a jarring lapse with established continuity rather than merely bending it. Somehow the chase witnessed at the end of the previous movement covered a few thousand miles, for now Kharis and Amina supposedly last vanished into a Louisiana bayou. That said, the shift in locale is mined for all the magnificently corny atmosphere and Cajun accents director Leslie Goodwins could muster.

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Years after Kharis and Ananka vanished, a new federal operation is underway to drain, clear, and build a road through the same swamp, stirring the disquiet of locals who have kept the memory of the mummy and his bride alive. Two archaeologists, Zandaab and James Halsey (Dennis Moore), arrive with official permission to dig for the two mummies, to the irritation of the project manager Pat Walsh (Addison Richards) and the intrigue of his daughter and secretary Betty (Kay Harding). Zandaab is of course the latest of the Priests of Karnak (by this point in the series always called the Priests of Arkam), and he has an acolyte, Ragheb, posing as one of the road workers, stirring up fright amongst them and stabbing the occasional busybody as he searches for Kharis. Ragheb does locate the mummy, and stashes him in a ruined nearby monastery, but Ananka remains missing. Until, that is, an excavator partly uncovers Ananka (now played by Virginia Christine). Digging her way out of the ground and stumbling through the swamp, she’s picked up by Halsey and Betty on their way back from a date. Apparently without any memory of either of her previous lives, the worker camp’s doctor Cooper (Holmes Herbert) diagnoses her as amnesiac, and encourages Halsey to use her an assistant to keep her occupied. Ananka proves to have intensive knowledge of archaeology and Egyptology without any idea where it came from, but when she attracts the attention of Zandaab, the priest recognises her as the princess, and sends Kharis out to hunt her down.

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Although not quite as intricately lit and decorously framed as The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Curse is nonetheless the most visually engaging episode in the series, as the setting allows Goodwins to exploit that mist-riddled foliage of the bayous and rough-hewn rural buildings, and generate some proper creepiness, in a manner looks forward to the later phase of regionally-made and set horror movies. One scene stands as legitimately unsettling in a manner virtually nothing else from the Universal horror cycle can match today, in which Ananka and Cooper listen to the sound of Kharis approaching, a mere scuffling sound that portends the arrival of a force that refuses all reason and annihilates anything that stands in its path. Cooper steps through the tent flaps to behold something from the back corners of a nightmare looming out of the dark. Several scenes take place around a cafe run by Cajun chanteuse Tante Bertha (Ann Codee) and her diminutive husband Achilles (Charles Stevens), a zone where a fecund folk culture and old-world atmosphere still subsist even as the labours of the work crew pierces and cleanses the fetid reaches of the swamp.

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The ruined monastery is a floating world of crumbling delight, thrust up over the swamp on a rise, crumbled walls and roof again mimicking the ruins of Egypt. Here Zandaab and Ragheb set up base but first have to contend with a zany local (William Farnum) who is the “self-appointed caretaker” of this monastery, demanding the duo and their pagan paraphernalia depart instantly, obliging Kharis to strangle him. Ananka, when she first sees Zandaab, seems to recognise him as a fellow, approaching him in a daze and striking a pose with hands jutting from the sides of her hips, a gesture suggesting the subsistence of an ancient and mysterious creed. The film’s best scene, and perhaps the most arresting in the series, is Ananka’s revival: first seen as a clay-smeared hand thrust out of the soil, followed quickly by the rest of her, Ananka sheds the earth (and her mummified appearance) as she gropes her way through the trees, following the glow of the sun, rejoicing in the heat as it bakes dry the mud on her and restores her life as a descendant of the sun god.

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This moment has a genuine charge of the strange and numinous, imbued in part through Christine’s excellent physicality in this scene, worthy of comparison in its way with Boris Karloff’s work as Frankenstein’s Monster for conveying the idea of flesh and bone reanimated against all will and sense, but finding a balm in the glow of the sun as it feeds her and restores her. Christine proves the most interesting of the lovely young ingénues Universal placed in the series (except for future The Big Sleep star Martha Vickers, although she only appears for a very few moments in The Mummy’s Ghost). The only real problem with this entry is a lack of any more new ideas, sending Kharis around the block a few times for more random strangulations. The theme of lechery amongst the Priests is palmed off onto Ragheb, who kidnaps Betty in his desire to make her his immortal bride, and when Zandaab censures him, Ragheb stabs him, stirring the wrath of Kharis.

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The filmmakers seem to have been aware this was likely to be the last entry, so at least the ending works to bring a proper close to the series. But it does so in a way that lacks much thrill: Ananka is finally, rather lamely dosed with tana fluid and restored to a mummified state, whilst Kharis is buried under a pile of rubble when trying to kill Ragheb, who is also killed, ending the line of priests and all who know the secret of the tana leaves. It’s worth noting the series’ consistent stylistic feature: Frank Skinner’s endlessly repeated musical themes, most of them written for Son of Frankenstein (1939) and slightly adapted, constantly throbbing and surging on the soundtrack like an erratic heartbeat. The Kharis films never quite capitalised on the wealth of potential encoded in their fascinatingly specific and rich trove of folkloric detail and recurring detail, and the dark fantasies of love through the ages and twisted eroticism that slide inkily through its bloodstream. To a certain extent, Terence Fisher would draw these out more in his concatenated remake, The Mummy (1959). But the Kharis series, once again, is one you love for what it is.

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1940s, Action-Adventure, French cinema, Romance

Remorques (1941)

aka Stormy Waters

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Director: Jean Grémillon

By Roderick Heath

Jean Grémillon was little-known outside France until relatively recently, in spite his place as one of the progenitors of French cinema’s deeply influential “poetic realist” style. Some of his lack of repute might have stemmed from his wayward career, which suffered through a series of bruising switchbacks in fortune, taking him to zones of both great success and ignominy. A violinist by training, Grémillon’s interest in the link between music and film’s sources of rhythmic propulsion was stirred when he was employed as an accompanist for silent film screenings, and became fascinated with the arts of film editing. He soon started making experimental short movies and then documentaries. When he advanced into feature films in the mid-1920s, he found initial success with an aesthetic approach that attempted to forge a new path at a time when cinematic style was being dominated by German Expressionism’s overt weirdness, Russian cinema’s showy montage schemes, and Hollywood’s straightforward efficiency. Grémillon set out rather to mix naturalistic aspects, including location photography and realistic storylines, with careful visual and dramatic stylisation.

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Marcel Carne, soon to be probably the most significant of the poetic realists, worked as an assistant on Grémillon’s first movies, and absorbed his ideas. In spite of initial success, the coming of sound saw Grémillon’s efforts to adapt foiled by audiences struggling with the new format, so he went to make films in Germany and Spain. He regained traction at home when he started working with French cinema’s big new star Jean Gabin, who was infamously difficult to manage on set, and yet with whom Grémillon found some measure of rapport. Grémillon became well-known for making romantic melodramas that tackled ordinary lives through a prism of vivid, heightened situations, and a feel for the less-travelled corners of French provincial life and labour, particularly Brittany, usually with strong admiration reserved for ordinary workers and labourers. The bleak years of the Occupation saw Grémillon’s creativity raised to its highest pitch in the eyes of many, with the three films he released during the war, Remorques, Lumière d’été (1943), and Le Ciel est à vous (1944), usually cited as his greatest achievements.

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Grémillon’s career ran out of steam in the mid-‘50s as he tried and failed to make several ambitious historical movies, and he went back to making documentaries before dying at 61, whereupon his friend Henri Langlois, the legendary director of the Cinémathèque Française, read a eulogy celebrating Grémillon’s role in modern French film and condemning the studios who cheated audiences of more great Grémillon works. Remorques was a particularly troubled production, as the outbreak of World War II had halted the initial shoot. Grémillon had originally wanted to make it as authentic as possible with location filming around Brest and on ships in his depiction of the working lives of the crews of ocean-going rescue tugboats. But he was left without enough footage, and a brief recommencement of filming in mid-1940 was quickly scuppered by the end of the Phony War. The film’s two stars, Gabin and Michele Morgan, soon fled to America ahead of the Nazi invasion. Grémillon, left to ride out the tides of war and occupation, eventually managed to finish the project by shooting model sequences. His efforts to get the film patched together were rewarded as Remorques became a big hit when it was finally released in cinemas in late 1941.

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Although it placed many constraints on filmmakers, the Occupation proved an ironic boom time for French movies, as they had no imported rivals to worry about. The delay for Remorques‘ release might even have been beneficial to the vision of Grémillon and his collaborator, the brilliant poet-turned-screenwriter Jacques Prevert. The cumulatively desolating tale of masculine mission and fleeting passion rendered pathetic in the face of inexorable fate and death found in Remorques, which might have struck an audience in the anxious pre-war days of 1939 as too dour, as happened to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, surely packed the power of public myth two years later, when the country had been beaten to its knees. Remorques – the title, literally translated, means something close to “Tuggers,” although the film’s usual English title is Stormy Waters – opens with a swooping model shot descending on a mock-up of the old, fortified section of Brest, the great French sea port. The opening sequence depicts a social ritual, a wedding, an event for the crew of the tugboat Cyclone, captained by André Laurent (Gabin), as one of his crewmen, Pierre Poubennec (Marcel Duhamel), is marrying Marie (Anne Laurens). The wedding offers a panoramic view of both the tug’s crew and their ladies, and the ways of relating between the two camps.

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The first flush of young love is plain in the just-married couple, whilst another crewman, Tanguy (Charles Blavette), is the half-witting target of common mockery because his wife Renée (Nane Germon) is having affairs behind his back. Laurent has been married for ten years to Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud), and they express themselves at first as a perfect union, barely able to believe so much time has passed since their own nuptials. But Yvonne confesses to her husband, in a quiet moment away from the drunken bonhomie of the celebration, that she gets very nervous when he’s away at sea, but immediately dismisses the problem as trivial when Laurent laughs disbelievingly at her words. A messenger interrupts the gaiety with word that a ship is in trouble, and the crew have to return to the Cyclone and get under way, just as a thunderstorm rolls in from the sea. One crewman, Le Gall, is late getting aboard because he’s been having a quick one with Tanguy’s wife, and Laurent dresses him down for it. The tug travels out into the increasingly violent storm, ploughing with agonising difficulty through heavy seas, but eventually beats their main competitor, a Dutch tug, to the crippled ship. Captaining the Cyclone is actually the closest thing Laurent can withstand temperamentally to a desk job, as he used to regularly make long voyages and be away for months at a time during the early days of his marriage to Yvonne. During the night with their husbands off at sea, Yvonne cheerily entertains Marie, but also confesses her dangerously frayed nerves, which are exacerbating a creeping heart ailment diagnosed by her doctor Maulette (Henri Poupon), a man she describes as too good a friend to be fully honest about how bad her disease has become.

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Meanwhile, the Cyclone nears the crippled cargo ship, the Mirva XV. The Mirva’s owner-captain, Marc (Jean Marchat), is reluctant to be rescued however, as the bill will be large. He bullies and berates his crew and his wife Catherine (Morgan), who return the contempt happily, whilst Marc refuses to rig a tow rope for the Cyclone, nominally in his anger at their slowness in coming to the rescue. Bedraggled and irate, Catherine at first demands he think of his crew and her before his own hip pocket, and when he continues to screw everyone around, she and some other crewmen abandon the Mirva and row over to the tugboat. This proves a foolhardy exercise that creates great hazard for all involved, including getting two of the just-married Poubennec’s fingers crushed and amputated. Finally, Marc lets the Cyclone take the Mirva in tow, and by morning the seas have calmed. Travelling along the coast, the improperly tied tow rope breaks, forcing Laurent to string a new one. This accident gives Marc an idea, and just as the two vessels enter Brest harbour, he contrives to have the rope give way again, and then makes his own way to dock, cheating the Cyclone out of its salvage prize. Laurent, smouldering with rage, hauls Catherine back aboard her husband’s ship, and clobbers Marc once he gets an earful of his obfuscations.

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Gabin and Morgan had first been featured together in Carne’s Port of Shadows (1938), one of the canonical works of poetic realism’s flowering, and Remorques similarly locates itself in a smoky, gritty, lightly stylised version of a working port. Taking on such a milieu, Grémillon courts romantic evocations in essaying seagoing stoicism and embracing the rich atmosphere of Brest and the tugboat community. But Gremillion also emphasises the wearying, nauseating experience of spending hours being tossed about in a tin can on the open ocean, and delves into this job as a rough and dangerous business that regularly claims lives or leaves its practitioners scarred and mangled. Laurent is extremely proud – perhaps to a fault – of his record as a captain, although he’s really only an employee for a shipping company. He complains bitterly after one job goes wrong that now the company will be pleased his record has been spoiled: they don’t like their underlings so unbowed. The humanitarian aspect of the tuggers’ ventures is constantly suppressed in the face of fiscal demands and the daunting realities of the angry ocean. Laurent’s forceful presence and hitherto unquestioned competence as a captain have given him standing and respect unrivalled in his world, befitting France’s top male movie actor.

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Gabin, whose career had been boosted playing the voice of plebeian cynicism amidst the decaying aristocratic world in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), had been the perfect embodiment of romantic fatalism in the likes of Pepe Le Moko (1936) and Le Jour Se Lève (1939), playing figures pushed into criminality, defying authority until their luck runs out, people close to the very bottom of society’s priorities but invested with unique stature by cinema’s ennobling imagistic force, through which even the most wretched character can become the axis of the universe. Gabin’s role in Remorques pushes this persona and the attendant aesthetic to almost hallucinatory extremes, but also quietly revises and undercuts it. Still the working class hero, Laurent is however also a confident authority figure, one whose looming downfall is informed more by personal blindness than malign fate and social degradation, whilst still invoking something close to cosmic when the axe falls. Laurent’s laughing disinterest in his wife’s delicate warnings of trouble brewing soon gives way to more urgent implorations and finally a memorable crack-up when Yvonne lets loose on his egotism; even his expressions of tedium and exhaustion are symptoms of his overweening sense of himself as necessary stalwart and linchpin. “People always know where to find me,” he says when chewing out Le Gall, setting the stage for his own degradation.

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Catherine’s entrance into Laurent’s world, appearing out of the sea like a siren, her remarkable feline eyes burning bright and wrathful in the face of her husband’s sleaziness, seems at first just another absurd vignette in such a working life designed specifically to further goad Laurent’s stern professionalism. But soon of course Laurent is utterly smitten with this lady as she parts ways with Marc once in port and takes refuge in a hotel. She calls Laurent over for a talk, and he lends a sympathetic ear as she explains how once she was a desperate youth in Le Havre who snatched at the first offer of marriage just get out of her rut. Meanwhile Laurent’s sad-sack boatswain Kerlo (Fernand Ledoux, one of classic French cinema’s most quintessential faces) muses on life’s absurdity with proto-existentialist humour when he notes to the cook, “It’s impossible to escape boredom. I know, I’ve tried everything.” Much of Remorques is set at night, with overwhelming elemental forces looming on the horizon when not already thundering about Grémillon’s protagonists. Photographer Rene-Jacques took a much-loved picture of Gabin during the production which he entitled “La Homme de nuit,” a perfect encapsulation of a certain brand of archly masculine mystique, the iconic French hero almost but not quite dissolving amidst rain and murk.

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Remorques is obsessed with this quality, but is also more sophisticated as it injects irony and inspects dichotomies until they lose shape. The special effects Grémillon was obliged to shoot for seagoing scenes are weak, but they’re employed in a manner that fleshes out this sense of primeval furies on the loose, as the ships, expressions of human will and rigour, bob amidst crashing waves, staying afloat under all assaults. The warning call of the Cyclone, loud and strange enough to be audible and identifiable from miles away, pulling in the crew for action and alerting the ships they sail out to help of their presence, sounds vaguely monstrous. It’s an appropriately bloodcurdling sound for when the tug circles the disabled Mirva under flare light, wounded ship and prowling tug dancing around on heavy seas.

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The dichotomy between the reasoned, orderly, settled world left behind back in port is illustrated with perfect economy, and no small technical skill, by Grémillon when he stages a camera movement retreating through the window of Laurents’ apartment, a shot of Yvonne and Marie left behind to their contemplations passing invisibly through the glass into wild rain, in a moment that presages, and in some ways outdoes for thematic relevance tied to cinematic effect, the more famous nightclub roof shot in Citizen Kane (1941). These contrasted spaces, calm, well-found home and chaotic universe, are presented in near-surreal contrast, but Grémillon carefully probes appearances and quickly finds termites in the structure of domestic bliss, as Yvonne is slowly being killed by anxiety although she never ventures out onto the sea herself, slowly dissipating whilst playing out the role of loving wife. “Everyone’s got troubles,” Laurent rebukes Catherine when she first arrives on board: “They should be left at home. Like women.” But his neat distinctions don’t stand up to any pressure.

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Catherine, the one piece of salvage successfully recovered by the Cyclone, is cast as sylph temptress tossed onto the shore by the storm to lure in the virtuous Laurent. Except that no-one in Remorques quite fits their part, and Catherine, trying out her land legs again after years entrapped with the despicable Marc, reaches out to Laurent as the closest thing to a friend. Soon they’re drawn into a quick fling both are willing to mistake for eternal passion, before the call of responsibility takes Laurent back to Yvonne’s side and Catherine prepares to move on with the simplicity of someone who knows this drill, giving Kerlo a keepsake to give to his captain as a memento if ever he needs one. Morgan’s eyes, rimmed with tears and phosphorescent with melancholic triumph, attract Gremillion for an epic close-up in her last moments on screen here, as she wishes happiness for Laurent even as she’s already moving on. Remorques manages to coexist in both the rugged vicissitudes of a genre film close to the Warner Bros. working class action films and the Women’s Pictures of the same era.

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But Grémillon also stands back to consider how the two styles relate to each-other, the web of cultural assumptions and personal fantasies invested in both, the tension between the official doctrines of manly workaday pride and the feminine art of knitting a safe space, whilst adding that most French of topics, infidelity, the hunger for passion that, like the storm, sets all settlements in riot. Arching over all is a metaphysical aspect, something close to the cosmic level found in Frank Borzage’s films, if essayed in a grimmer hue. In spite of the unions civic, sexual, and contractual in Remorques, everyone is some form of solitary vessel floating around the others. “Unhappy people easily recognise one another,” Kerlo tells Catherine: “Life would be too sad otherwise.” The undercurrent of proto-feminist feeling that flows through the film, with both Yvonne and Catherine fighting in their way to avoid being dragged down by the contrasting yet ultimately similar obsessions of their husbands, is wound in uniquely with its accidental status as an Occupation-era film, as frustrations are voiced, taboos abruptly ruptured, suppressed feeling suddenly explode, everything suddenly thrown into flux.

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Grémillon would take this confluence further on Le Ciel est à vous, where he would cast Renaud as an aviatrix valiantly pursuing a flying record, purveyed as a metaphor for resistance against the fascist yoke. The first half of the film is close to one, long sequence unified as a series of interlocking events, commencing with careful deployment of the complex mesh of personalities and tones of the wedding, an event that encompasses modes of expression from pompous homilies to wine-soaked bawdiness in the margins, and seguing directly into the Cyclone’s voyage out to rescue the Mirva. This is a sequence of careful, layered physical detail, interwoven with the continuing arguments and running jokes of the crew. The crew of the Cyclone, and the attention of the audience, only finds relief the following day when the tugboat returns to port, after the storm has died. The watery sun invades the humdrum parlours and cafes, presenting the illusion of returned stability and rationality, and washes over the coastline, just in time to catch Laurent and Catherine walking on the beach. There they toe the flotsam left on the sands, and retreat into an abandoned beachfront house where they play-act creating a home, whilst finding a good stage to finally enact what’s been arcing between them unacknowledged.

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The serious romantic travails are contrasted lightly with Tanguy’s cuckold status, a popular subject of allusive jokes and teasing around the tug. Laurent encourages him to confront his wife, but Tanguy is swiftly disarmed by her dissembling chattering. Later, Laurent, weighing up his own rapidly evolving hypocrisy, tells him to forget what he said, as no-one outside a marriage can really understand what makes each one persist. By this time he’s committed his own crime by being hard to find, away with a woman who’s not his wife, discovered by one of his crew combing the coast on a motorcycle. Yvonne’s awareness that her husband has probably been off with another woman precipitates a gruelling scene of marital grievance-airing, punctuated by Yvonne’s frantic demands Laurent recognise the reality of her problems. Her shots at his very identity, his pride as a worker and leader and a man, by claiming he likes to own things, from his boat to his wife, drive Laurent away in a fury, believing his marriage finished.

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The atoll of romantic fulfilment Laurent tries to retreat into with Catherine proves exceptionally short-lived, as Catherine predicts: “The storm is coming to get me. I know what he’s crying. ‘It’s over. You’ve been happy too long. Now it’s time to go.’” Quintessential fatalism for poetic realism, the doomed lovers sprawled on a hotel room bed, transient feelings from beings snatching a moment of bliss. But Remorques shifts into a more intense and spectacularly woeful key for its finale, as Yvonne experiences a heart attack, bringing Laurent back to her bedside for a desperate interlude of pathos as Yvonne suddenly dies begging for Laurent’s avowal of love, his anguished scream echoing out to the others waiting in his apartment. When he appears to them, he’s just the staring shell of a man, obligated to answer the call of duty even in the eye of utter desolation. He paces down to the dock to join the Cyclone, which has to go out on a mission, in another stinging irony, to save their Dutch rivals.

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As Grémillon tracks Laurent’s progress through the drenching rain and the cold stonework and wrought-iron forms of the Brest waterfront, a strange liturgical recital begins to resound on the soundtrack, invocations of saints and angels dogging his footsteps, surging on to a creepy orchestral accompaniment that cuts out just before Laurent orders the tug to get under way, heading out into the dark. Grémillon’s background in music surely played a part in executing this fantastical yet perfect matching of vision and sound in a climax that counts as one of the strangest, bleakest, and greatest in cinema. It’s an incantatory moment that sets the seal on a domestic tragedy that has a conventional moral aspect, but which expands thanks to this startling flourish into something far more wild and unique. Here Remorques generates a frenzied aspect of baleful prayer, offering a requiem for an entire falling, drowning world, the end of a cinema genre and a human age.

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