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

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

Director: Frank Wisbar

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By Roderick Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1940s, Chinese cinema, Drama

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

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Director: Mu Fei

By Roderick Heath

When we think of Chinese cinema, the dashing products of Hong Kong’s industrious studios or the works of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland filmmakers like Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige probably come to mind first. The great flowering of filmmaking seen in the 1930s and ’40s known as the Golden Age of Chinese Cinema is, by comparison, still an obscure and patchily known field. Often voted the greatest film ever made in China, Spring in a Small Town was, much like its characters, almost a victim of history’s heedless motion. One of the last works produced before the ascent of the Communist government, director Mu Fei’s movie was controversial right from its first screening because of its subject matter, and soon was buried and reviled as a petty, indulgent distraction for decades. Fei died barely four years after making it, when like so many others, he was trying to revive his career in Hong Kong.
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The very subject of Fei’s film is the moment of its making, that brief period between the defeat of the Japanese invaders and the Maoist takeover. Fei strove to record that time on a psychological as well as external level, and he depicts it as a moment of collective exhaustion, disorientation, and yearning. For a film hailed as such an achievement, Spring in a Small Town is disarmingly modest and sparse on the surface, describing a chamber drama of finite emotions and domestic concerns. The essential elements of Fei’s tale could easily come from some transcribed Chekhov play, though the actual source was a short story by Li Tianji, who adapted it for the screen. The setting is a ruined mansion, the characters members of a once-prosperous and powerful clan now damaged and declining, their aging servant, and an interloper. The title announces ambiguous, counterintuitive purposes. Spring refers as much to the promise of postwar regeneration as to the turn of the seasons, but the drama’s cloying fixation is a single family’s interior lives rather than the community implied in the title. The implication is, that something like this drama was occurring in small towns across the country, and the film represents the spiritual story of the age.
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The lives of the Dai family are defined by two ruins: the demolished old town wall, a remnant psychic boundary in the mind of the townsfolk and a signifier of the lost social specifics of Chinese social life, and the Dai mansion itself, a more recent victim of war, which sits like the discarded husk of a past and irrelevant existence that depressed scion Liyan Dai (Shi Yu) haunts like a ghost in his own life meditating on his lost inheritances, beset by ill health, which he thinks is tuberculosis and his wife Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei) dismisses as neurosis. Yuwen makes the trek each day into town to fetch groceries and medicines for her husband, usually taking a detour to walk along the ruined wall with the slight vantage it offers over the flatlands surrounding her world. Lao Huang (Chaoming Cui) is the old family servant who maintains what was once a standalone cottage in the estate, but which is now their refuge. He declares the mansion can be repaired if they tackle it piece by piece, but such resolve is beyond Liyan. The one bright spot in the family is Liyan’s younger sister Xiu (Hongmei Zhang), a schoolgirl on the verge of her sixteenth birthday.
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When not engaged in her pressing domestic duties, Yuwen, who can barely stand looking at her husband, retreats into Xiu’s room to work on her needlepoint. Liyan confronts his wife, trying to talk her into letting Lao Huang go to town instead because he worries about her and finally admits he’s pained she seems to have accepted the miserable situation they’ve all fallen into. The tenuous balance of tolerance sustaining that situation is disturbed when a face from the past climbs over the estate boundary. Zhichen Zhang (Li Wei), a former schoolmate of Liyang’s, left the distract before the war to become a doctor and now has returned to see his friend, who is stirred from his melancholy to greet his pal happily. What Zhichen doesn’t know at first, however, is that Liyan has married Yuwen, who comes from the same town as Zhichen and was his great love.
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Fei’s unusual storytelling devices are in evidence from the outset, working like the title to create a faintly ironic, distancing impression, but which cumulatively help Fei gain a rigorous grip on the viewer. As each character appears on screen for the first time, he flashes the name of the character and the actor in the role on screen, diffusing the theatre bill-like precepts of movie credits from the 1930s into the texture of the film itself, as if to announce both that the identities of these figures and their nature as fictitious entities are vital to what Fei is trying to convey, another ironic touch. Yuwen narrates in the second person as though remembering and experiencing, dropping details like how Huang always tosses medicine out the back door because of a superstition, and noting the painful peculiarities of her marriage not by registering emotions, but facts, such as sometimes, when she’s walking on the wall, she doesn’t go back until night, often doesn’t exchange a word with her husband during their required daily contacts, and declares “I’ll never think about anything ever again.” Liyang tries to confront Yuwen about this elusive, resigned habit she’s developed, and suggests that they should probably split up, an idea that Yuwen, who in spite of everything takes her wifely duties seriously, can’t countenance.
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Yuwen’s method of deploying details as devices of inference and implication is also Fei’s method. Zhichen arrives clad in western clothes as opposed to the Dais, who wear more traditional garb, signaling both the stagnancy of life in this small town as well as the attempts to maintain a link with traditions that have been shattered, and also Zhichen’s promise of the exotic. The doctor has been working as an army surgeon, following the war around as he rattles off all the cities he’s been to to Zhichen: he’s been engaged with the history that has rolled over the top of the Dais. Both world-weary Yuwen and fresh-faced Xiu signal their stirred desires for the doctor by giving him gifts: Yuwen has Lao Huang take him a potted orchid and Xiu a bonsai tree.
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Fei was only in his early forties when he made his masterwork, but he was already a highly experienced and acclaimed figure on the Shanghai film scene. He had worked as an assistant to Hou Yao, a pioneer of early Chinese cinema, before his directing debut with 1933’s Night in the City. His creative verve as a distinctive and inventive artist with a deep interest in studying and celebrating the national culture in the face of a pummeling epoch was quickly acknowledged after he made Blood on Wolf Mountain (1936), seen by some as a metaphor for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria Song of China (1935), a celebration of traditions that became one of the few Chinese films of the era to gain U.S. screenings; and the long-lost Confucius (1940). He filmed several Chinese operas and included elements of that form when he shot the first Chinese film in colour, Remorse at Death (1948). Here, too, he incorporates a musical aspect in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, when Xiu sings to her family and Zhichen as they row a boat along a river. This scene, a nominally festive interlude where the newcomer seems to have stirred the clan from their malaise, is reminiscent of the jollity momentarily patching over coming ructions in the snow sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), another film concerned with changing societies and the decline of aristocratic cultural mores, whilst the emotions percolating within each of the four boaters, obvious to the camera but not each other, are caught with exacting focus by the director. Spring in a Small Town is certainly on one level about the culture Fei wanted to buttress, seen as subsisting in a state of flux, with awful wrenches behind and ahead. The inconsistent power supply in the town means nightly blackouts, rendering the inhabitants time travelers moved arbitrarily between present and past, the jagged, inescapable immediacy of the light bulb and the floating dreaminess of candlelight. Yet the impossibility of recapturing the past or even cutting the losses of the present is constantly stressed.
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Fei’s feel for placing his actors in settings attentive to the interplay of space and action, nature and human works, echoes Jean Renoir’s subtle, yet cumulatively forceful sense of mise-en-scene whilst skewing his visual effects close to the harmonic ideals of Chinese visual art ,where nature and structure are supposed to exist in balanced interaction. What is disrupted in the ruined mansion and the broken wall, the relation between the functional, resilient constructed form and the teeming, invasive strength of natural growth, is still intact in the less luxurious, near-ignominious, but perhaps healthier life in the cottage. The theme of a troubled marriage and the interloper who promises disruption bears a distinct similarity to one basic plot motif found in another postwar movie type, film noir. However, where noir’s exploration of the blasted and alienated mood out in the boondocks after the great conflict was sublimated into criminal parables, here it is in a domestic drama that violence is exchanged for emotional flurries and the spectacle of psyches twisting in on themselves. The closest western cinematic relative to Fei’s work here is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Both movies describe potential adulterous affairs, intensely personal, almost eventless tales all the better to unravel the tight wrapping on survivors of wartime, revealing the frustration wrought by subordinating personal desires to communal needs and faced with new choices completely at odds with the settled values all that fighting was supposed to defend and the habits of stoicism. Lean’s graphic, cosmopolitan approach where the repressed emotions unexpressed by the characters are enacted via the filmmaking is largely different to Fei’s style, which is mostly closer to the quietly observant humanism of Yasujiro Ozu.
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The exception to this quiet, observant approach is the most unusual and celebrated device Fei deploys, during scenes of interaction between Yuwen and Zhichen: Fei breaks up the scenes with dissolves, sliding woozily from moment to moment, stance to stance, communicating the force of the couple’s restrained ardour where the structure of time and reality seems distorted, the disparity between psyche and exterior inside the characters registered as a stutter in the film technique. Here Fei’s formal experimentation anticipates New Wave filmmaking’s obsessive fascination for using the texture of cinema itself as a dramatic tool. (Martin Scorsese is one filmmaker who has often employed a similar technical idiosyncrasy. Of course, Scorsese took on a vitally similar theme of thwarted, honourably withheld passion in The Age of Innocence (1993), whilst many of Scorsese’s films deal with a similar notion of characters who feel entrapped by socially imposed identities.)
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Fei’s work here has perhaps echoed through contemporary Chinese film since its rediscovery in the 1980s, with directors as temperamentally diverse as Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien visibly engaged with his legacy. A lengthy, one-shot sequence of the family dining as a vibrant unit resembles Hou’s experiment with sustaining transfixing interaction in long takes in Flowers of Shanghai (1998). The focus on a pair of lovers whose affair must remain superficially chaste inevitably echoes Wong’s In The Mood for Love (2000), whilst the concept of life’s stages as akin to seasons was revisited in The Grandmaster (2014). The first encounter when Yuwen is called out of the cottage by Liyang to meet the guest, who has no idea that his friend married his former flame, sees Zhichen’s shock revealed in a sudden close-up, versus Yuwen’s slightly more prepared, fiercely dissembling glare. Yuwen is quietly transformed by the return of her lover, and not quite in the moony, readily pathos-stirring way of many a guilty romantic heroine.
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Wei Wei’s brilliant performance communicates how Yuwen’s wiry energy and frustrated imperious streak as a waning former belle of the ball have been forcibly converted into their opposite, a languid torpor and an archly dutiful subservience to her role, as if the best revenge she sees for the life she is leading now is to lead it unimpeachably. It’s all in her fingers, as she constantly folds her hands in the proper stance of attention, but lets her fingers strangle each other in increasingly fretful and agitated repression as Zhichen’s tenure at the cottage continues. Although almost always a pillar of quiet, boding rectitude, Yuwen’s coquettish streak occasionally shines through her façade, as does her fearsome passion, which seems sometimes poised to manifest as aggression. Her tendency to seek solitude and seclusion, far from being an asocial or introverted quality, keeps her restrained, as she often seems on the verge of pouncing on the men in her life to break them to pieces or ravage them in frenzy. Fei repeatedly depicts Yuwen lounging on her bed or sitting, apparently immobilised but clearly fixated. Soon it emerges that Yuwen and Zhichen’s long-ago romance was stymied by his lack of standing and worldliness, not even knowing how to get a match made, and then his departure for university, leaving Yuwen to be snatched up by the upstanding and propertied Liyang, only for everything that made him a good match to fall apart. Liyang remains unaware of Yuwen and Zhichen’s past, and he hits upon what he thinks is a good way to make his friend happy and start building the family up again: marrying Zhichen to Xiuhe. The sprightly teenager seems charmed enough by the doctor to be open to the idea, while Yuwen covertly boils at the idea, but agrees to suggest the match to Zhichen. Meanwhile, Zhichen’s own ministrations seem to be working for Liyang, who’s able to leave the house and enjoy himself with the family.
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The giddy, happy drunkenness of Xiu’s birthday celebrations becomes catalyst for tipping the characters closer to their moments of personal moral crisis. Yuwen seems to set out purposefully to seduce Zhichen in his room in a sequence charged to melting point with sexual tension that can only be squandered, the cloud-streaked full moon above a recurring image, as if dictating the strange tides of the human heart. The acme of the romantic longing comes when Zhichen suddenly sweeps Yuwen up in his arms, a few breathless paces away from the bed. He then slowly lowers her and detaches again, the moment gone forever. Zhichen flees, trying to lock Yuwen in rather than let her presence taunt him. She laughs at him through a glass pane in the door and then punches the glass out to release herself, erotic energy transmuted into sado-masochistic violence. Zhichen rushes to repair her wound, essentially reveling in his own grudging emotional impotence.
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The promise of revival Zhichen brings with him as an emblem of a functional and modernising world beyond the river proves in large part illusory, as he stirs Liyang from his depression and gives hope of recovery. Instead, he can’t escape the roundelay of history any more than his friends, and the contradictions he represents sends his patient into crisis. Fei implies that, in the same manner, the confused and contradictory impulses of China’s entry into the modern, westernised world had done it more damage than good, unable to cleave from the pillars of old faiths and not yet able to erect effective replacements—the electric light still gives out at night, the medicine doesn’t always work. Liyang seems to become aware at last that something is going on between his wife and his friend, and the husband, always stringently honest and self-searching to the point of being infuriating, tells his wife he has to get better or he might as well die and stop burdening her.
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The beauty of Fei’s filmmaking and his refrains to nature’s cycles are both ironic in counterpointing the septic tendencies of humans toward fruitless introspection, but also suggest that frailty is in itself a mere aspect of nature. The process of reconstruction has to be first accomplished on the interior level before the will can be found to start piling up the bricks and mixing the mortar. This is a process Fei reflects on early in the film when Liyang tries half-heartedly to do just that, plucking fragments of brick from the rubble of the mansion and stacking them. It’s a fleeting stab at action by a man of no skill or resolve who ceases when he notices his wife watching, perhaps with scorn or with pity or a mixture of both, from a distance. Xiu has the elastic resilience of youth, the promise of a new time living in her gawky limbs. Nihilistic temptations are before the older characters, with Liyang making overtures to Zhichen for the doctor to help him end his life, an act that could clear the way for him and Yuwen. Resisting the inducement to cross that line proves an unstated, but vital aspect of what Fei is depicting, as much as the doctor and the housewife resisting their emotional impulses in trying to reknit the fabric of a civil life in a way that’s more meaningful than mere habit.
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Eventually Liyang attempts suicide on his own with his supply of sleeping pills—a classic version of the Chekhovian gun, as those pills are given allusive import throughout the film, to the point where Zhichen even replaces some with placebos, possibly anticipating such an act—finally bringing this quandary to crisis point. Xiu fearfully begs Zhichen to save her brother, and rather than being left to expire, Liyang’s act proves his friend’s and family’s devotion to him holds fast, his courting of death instead providing a perverse reason to live. Zhichen departs the small town for the sake of himself and the Dais. But whilst the final shots replicate the early ones, they come with pointed difference, dispelling the notion that cycles mean stasis. Yuwen had essentially raised Xiu, but Xiu’s recognition that Zhichen and Yuwen love each other has transformed their relationship. Zhichen walks the road out of town accompanied by Xiu and Huang, having reconnected with his society, whilst Liyang, leaning on a crutch but moving under his own steam, joins his wife on the ruined wall where she stood alone before, giving some hope that the spring really has arrived. The last line of the film, fittingly, is Xiu inviting Zhichen back for the summer. Spring in a Small Town finally offers a very hard-won affirmation.

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1940s, British cinema, Mystery, War

Green for Danger (1946)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sidney Gilliat

By Roderick Heath

Outside London, 1944. During the second, lesser-known but very bloody Blitz turned on the city by Hitler, V-1 bombs, nicknamed “doodlebugs” for the insectlike drone of their rocket propulsion, rain on southern English. These flying weapons are a unique blend of the amusing, for the sound of their jets is like a noise a small child might infuriate an elder by making, and the terrifying, because when the engines cut out the bombs crash to earth in total silence, people on the ground within earshot are stricken with a moment of heart-stopping impotence as they cannot know if the bomb will explode close enough to them kill them. This backdrop of hapless besiegement is both an immediate plot device and psychic overtone vital to Sidney Gilliat’s Green For Danger, adapted from a popular detective novel by Christianna Brand.

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The setting is Heron’s Park Hospital, an Elizabethan manor house in a village on the distant fringes of the city, requisitioned and expanded to serve as an emergency clinic taking care of civilians mangled as collateral victims of the war, as the unmistakably mordant drawl of Alastair Sim explains in voiceover. Sim plays Brand’s recurring hero, Inspector Cockrill, and his voiceover is the report he’s writing to his commander about his latest case, dropping alarming hints about things about to unfold, as when he notes the apparently banal progress of a postman and mentions that “he would be the first to die.” The postman, Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott), speeds along a lonely country lane with a V-1 zooming overhead, and once he arrives at the post for rescue party volunteers with whom he works, reports dryly that the bomb was chasing him. The sound of the evil device still drones above, and then suddenly cuts out. Higgins listens for a moment, then, in reflexive fear, ducks just before an explosion erupts and the rubble of the destroyed building pours down on Higgins and company, all accomplished in what seems to be one, astonishing shot (close examination reveals a crucial, near-invisible edit). Fire gutters amidst clouds of dust. The office’s undamaged radio continues to operate, the voice of an infamous Lord Haw Hawlike female Nazi broadcasting propaganda threats and signing off with the eerie catchphrase, “This is Germany calling…this is Germany calling.”

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Gilliat had become well known working with writing partner Frank Launder before the war, penning the film that gave Alfred Hitchcock his springboard for a move to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes (1938). They also created for that film the comic characters Caldicott and Charters, played by actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. The characters so perfectly epitomised a kind of preoccupied, even cloddish, but basically okay English gentleman that they were carried over to several other films, including Night Train to Munich (1940) and Dead of Night (1945), and helped give Gilliat and Launder the clout to set themselves up as auteur filmmakers and, like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, create their own distinctive brand. The duo were in their element during the war and just after it, their special blend of dry-trending-black humour and drama connecting with an invigorated and engaged audience hungry to have their day-to-day lives acknowledged. The team’s early films Millions Like Us (1943), Waterloo Road (1944), and The Rake’s Progress (1945) studied the mores of life on the home front with intimate empathy and an acute sense of the human absurdity amidst the official heroics. After the war, they engaged subjects like crime and urban poverty, in London Belongs to Me (1948), and Anglo-Irish relations, with Launder’s I See a Dark Stranger (1946). As with other British filmmakers who thrived in this period, including Powell and Pressburger, Alberto Cavalcanti, David Lean, and Carol Reed, the 1950s brought waning fortunes that forced many to head overseas or face decline, but the duo prospered again when Launder directed and Gilliat produced the hugely popular, disreputably funny The Bells of St. Trinians (1954), birthing a series.

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Launder loved farce and broader comedy, and was rewarded with the more solid directing career, but Gilliat was the more talented filmmaker, his elegantly cynical side meshing with an intuitive understanding for both noir and neorealist stylistics blowing in from abroad, and displaying elements of both in concurrence rather than in imitation of those movements. Gilliat’s sensibility found its greatest expression in Green For Danger. Importantly, this was a postwar film that nonetheless harkened back a mere two years, which could well have felt like a lifetime, making it partially a work of hurried anthropology bent on capturing the mood of the time before it slipped away. Rather than the unvarnished, docudrama look of a lot of wartime filmmaking, however, Green For Danger retreats to the studio to create the self-contained world of Heron’s Park—a mishmash of old and new, Renaissance gables abutting concrete blockhouses, stained and plate glass, where the workaday can suddenly morph into the menacingly shadow-ridden and alien: Powell and Pressburger’s idealised classical English landscapes of A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are now riddled with the permanent mark of modernity, reflecting its jagged new sense of self.

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The setting has a curious similarity to the far more remote and overtly nightmarish precincts of Isle of the Dead (1945) and the lofty nunnery of Black Narcissus (1947) in the sense of being both insulated and besieged. Like Black Narcissus, Green For Danger is in part an oblique, metaphoric study of the mental exhaustion wrought by the oft-idealised Blitz spirit depicting the cost of lives led in painful sublimation and self-sacrifice through the figure of a young woman turned baleful psychotic. This jury-rigged jangle of a workplace can also be likened to the hospital staff, a team of people forced to subsist in close proximity, working long, exhausting shifts with little respite for several years in the midst of explosions and broken bodies. Gilliat’s camera introduces the crucial players and potential suspects in the mystery about to unfold, Cockrill’s voiceover noting their names before their faces are revealed.

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Mr. Eden (Leo Genn) is the great surgeon and former suave playboy of Harley Street. Dr. “Barney” Barnes (Trevor Howard) is the anaesthesiologist who’s made perpetually tense by both a troubled professional history and his toey relationship with beautiful, inevitably popular Nurse Fredericka “Freddi” Linley (Sally Gray). Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) is the coolly efficient and commanding head nurse silently eaten up by her lapsed romance with Eden, who seems now to be fascinated with Linley. Nurse Esther Sanson (Rosamund John) is a quiet, good-humoured, but damaged young woman, daughter of a family friend of Eden’s whom Eden has taken a paternal interest in, whilst Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) is the hospital’s one-woman morale booster and likeable busybody. Tensions begin to manifest as the team emerge from a lengthy operation. Linley nettles at Barnes’ proprietorial attitude and breaks off their engagement. Bates swoops about directing work with hawkish intensity and then watches Eden move off with pained longing. Woods prods Sanson about her condition when she seems woozy. An alarm bell calls them again to action, as Higgins is brought in. He’s a John Doe who has been pulled from the rubble with a broken leg, dazed and reciting the propaganda radio’s lines in delirious terror.

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Linley replaces Sanson for night shift on the ward and chats with Eden about her problems until the sound of a V-1 overhead drives the two into each other’s arms in the anguish of waiting for the explosion, which fortunately goes off elsewhere. Eden kisses her in the heat of the moment, backs off shamefacedly and begs forgiveness, but Bates has glimpsed them through the window and assumed the worst. Sanson arrives back at the nurses’ quarters, quietly distraught: the death of her mother, crushed under her house and left to slowly die by a rescue team, is still a raw wound. Sanson also identifies Higgins before the surgical team operate on his leg. Recovered from his delirium, Higgins narrows his eyes suspiciously at Barnes before he can put him under and says “You’ve got a nerve.” Barnes decides to anaesthetise him on the operating table, but something goes wrong. Higgins stops breathing as he goes under, and in spite of Barnes’s quick efforts to give him more oxygen, he dies on the table from causes no one can determine.

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Heron’s Park’s new administrator and chief surgeon Mr. Purdy (Henry Edwards) hopes at first to pass the death off as the inevitable result of the risks his people must take. When assured Higgins wasn’t an emergency case, he instead pressures Barnes to step down pending an investigation and help shield the hospital—and him—from blame. “I merely suggested that I was hoping the gesture would come from you,” Purdy suggests. “The only gesture I feel like making is far from polite,” Barnes retorts. He joins the party the hospital staff are throwing to blow off steam and tries to patch up with Freddi, whilst Eden contends with Bates’ spiky, forlorn jealousy. “You’re sick of me, and I’m sick of myself,” she says as they’re thrown into dancing together during the Paul Jones mixer. Bates breaks away, turns off the record player and shouts out to the staff that she knows Higgins’ death was actually murder and that she has proof.

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The early scenes of Green For Danger are a master class in setting up a complex interaction of plot strands and human elements. The mechanics are readily familiar, obeying the basic precepts of whodunit detective fiction—setting up a cast of suspects, affording them all the opportunity for murder, bringing in a canny detective to disassemble the enigma—but the quiet excellence of the characterisation and the sharpness of the dialogue quickly nudge the film out of mere generic efficiency into something ebulliently enjoyable. Wilkie Cooper’s excellent photography, with future great DP Oswald Morris as camera operator, aids Gilliat in creating a probing, subtly mobile mise-en-scène with an interest in contiguity of space and action, such as the startling moment of the building dropping on Higgins’ head, that echoes Hitchcock’s fascination with such effects and looks forward to its use by many later filmmakers. For the most part, the film unfolds with a quiet realism, and yet Gilliat easily nudges it toward poles of ethereal strangeness and stygian menace. The early shot introducing the cast of suspects sees the camera adopting the position of prostrate patient, pivoting to note the masked, near-anonymous faces of the medical personnel, at once angelic and threatening in their concealing surgical whites. The hospital dance sequence is an intricate play of individuals in the midst of public revels, randomly stirred to bring both pleasant and nasty surprises to the participants. Lovers and the lovelorn are brought together, but then rearranged into less neat pairings, the change-partners motif played for both droll comedy and swift character illustration. The gang of medical heroes interact as a tight-knit, almost incestuous bunch, whilst warnings of dark and dangerous things unfolding are batted off with flip humour and drunken mordancy.

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The dance is scored to an impudently catchy jazz version of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.” As Eden appeals to Sanson to give up working at the hospital and tries to make her wake up to the corrosive effects of her mother’s possessiveness, Eden’s fellow surgeon Dr. White (Ronald Adam) darts into the frame, grabs Sanson’s wrist, and draws her away, chanting along to the music in comically unnerving fashion, “Don’t you believe a word he says, a word he says, a word he says…” Bates’ public eruption and ill-advised, almost exultant announcement of having discovered the hospital is as rotten as her own sense of self, segues into the film’s most alluring and well-staged sequence. Bates flees the manor house and darts through the dark hospital grounds, whilst Bates keeps catching glimpses of a fleeting shadow dogging her footsteps. A hand grabs her out of the dark; it’s Eden, claiming to be worried about her. Bates accuses him of pursuing her, and escapes his grasp. She enters the deserted, darkened operating theatre and searches for her secreted piece of evidence. Bates realises that she’s not alone in the darkened room: in a revelation that’s quite bone-chilling on first viewing, Bates sees a figure in full surgical gear standing in the shadows wielding a scalpel. Bates’ scream draws Linley, who’s been drawn to the surgical block for her own mysterious reasons; she finds Bates sprawled in the theatre, stabbed to death.

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This sequence is an utter, sustained delight not just in the deftness of Gilliat’s staging, replete with camera movements racing with Bates through the aisles of a gentle English garden turned nightmarish zone of threat, but in the webs of association it evokes to the modern viewer, the prototypical edge to it all. Horror films had been entirely banned in Britain during the war, and here Gilliat skirts the edges of the genre with relish. The source of horror is no spook or monster, but a masked, gloved, homicidal maniac, an aspect that, considered with the film’s visuals, feels uncannily predictive of places the horror genre would go many years later, particularly Italian giallo cinema, which would follow Green For Danger in taking detective fiction and retaining its investigative plot patterns, but drag them into a zone of the irrational, filled with killers reduced to blank avatars of psychological menace. Much like Mario Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1963) and its many children, like Halloween (1978), the solitary woman is stalked through familiar environs where the wind churns the bushes and autumnal leaves into an engulfing furore. As with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the villain is tethered inescapably to obsession caused by the possessiveness of a parent.

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As in Coma (1978), the institutions and paraphernalia of modern medicine are mined for the not-so-hidden anxiety and disquiet they hold for many, the barren, empty corridors of a hospital at night, the creepy impersonality of the surgical outfit, and the inherent anxiety in putting yourself into the hands of people charged with your protection but who might nonetheless betray that trust. Gilliat mischievously repeats a bleak visual motif—earlier he had framed Bates staring from without into the nurse’s station where Eden was kissing Freddi, boxed out by both life and the frame, and again just before Higgins’ operation, and finally in gazing through the window of the theatre door at her dead body. Darkness gives way to light, and Bates’ murder brings Inspector Cockrill to investigate, first glimpsed dodging this way and that at the threat of a V-1 and finishing up hanging from a gate in anxiety until the explosion goes off and leaves him to recover his dignity. Cockrill is a strutting bantam cock, a canny and incisive operator who also happens to be a self-conscious egoist and showy agent of justice, about as different as it’s possible to get from both the Columbo school of sly, misdirecting investigator and the scruffy, earnestly neurotic kind all too familiar from most recent detective TV shows.

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Cockrill is more like an overgrown schoolboy, pivoting playfully on spinning chairs and almost poking people with his umbrella, blowing his nose in front of surgeons, gloating with joy as Barnes and Eden finally lose their cool and get into a fistfight at his feet. Sim had been a popular supporting comic actor for many years in British film, but his performance here turned him into one of Britain’s oddest, biggest movie stars, warping his native Edinburgh lilt into a burlesque of a southern accent that’s alternately soft and stabbing, disarming and provocatively insinuating. It might be worth mentioning that as well as being a dark thriller and interesting pressure-cooker character study and period time capsule, Green For Danger is also one of the funniest films ever made, with Sim entering the film as both plot game changer and comic relief with his impudent, almost insulting sense of humour and buffoonish streak. The narration not only allows Gilliat to do quick storytelling but also introduces Cockrill as a character in the film long before he actually appears, which isn’t until well

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“Very well—pause for 30 seconds while you cook up your alibis,” Cockrill tells the assembled medicos. “Did you get us here just to insult us?” Barnes asks. “I only like to strike an informal note,” Cockrill replies. “You scare the life out of her like any flat-footed copper off the beat,” Barnes rebukes Cockrill after his interrogations cause Sanson to have a hysterical fit, to which Cockrill retorts, “The police force has not a monopoly of fallen arches Dr. Barnes. Ask any chiropodist.” Grilling Barnes over the procedures of his anaesthetising, Cockrill recognises nitrous oxide as “so-called laughing gas.” “Actually it’s the impurities that cause the laughs,” Barnes notes. “Ah—just like our music halls,” Cockrill quips. “Are you trying to make me lose my temper?” Eden asks the inspector as he prods him over his love life. “That was only a secondary object,” Cockrill admits. Cockrill is a unique creation, a postmodern character from before the idea was coined, one who points out and makes jokes out of the clichés in the story he both represents and detects. His presence lets Gilliat reflect on how familiar the tropes of detective fiction were in 1946, whilst also acting as a perfect plot disruptor by reflecting the neurotic insecurities of the suspects back at themselves.

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When Eden takes Freddi out for a romantic and secretive moonlight tryst in the hospital grounds, Cockrill suddenly emerges from the shadows to airily finish the quote from The Merchant of Venice Eden uses as a chat-up line, and then casually brushes aside a bush to reveal a similarly hidden, eavesdropping Barnes to say goodnight. Here and there, glints of sharp satiric comedy appear amidst the drollery, including another interestingly anticipatory moment early in the film when the blowhard Purdy is first glimpsed, schooling his staff in that most dreaded of postwar arts, management and team-building, pointing to his chalkboard marked with explanations of the principles of positive and negative thinking, and his putting these ideas into practice by having the waste bins relabelled as salvage bins. Cockrill is found lounging in bed, reading a detective novel: his face lights up in glee, having clearly guessed who the murderer is, and so turns to the back page, only for his face to drop in disappointment, his guess wrong. Green For Danger could have finished up a tonal stew with a less disciplined director, but instead it weaves together with the spryness of a dance, as Gilliat set himself the task of pulling off a feat Hitchcock had pulled off before him and Robert Hamer would afterward with Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in extracting humour dry as a martini from dark situations. Gilliat may even have had ambitions of following Hitchcock, and with one film at least accomplished it. The film does become more conventional on a cinematic level once Cockrill enters the picture, though he acts like a bull in a china shop investigating the murder.

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The actual crux of the mystery is the surgical gown the killer wrapped Bates in; it apparently was stabbed twice, but Cockrill notices that one stab wound was an attempt to hide the fact a hole had been cut in the gown, possibly to remove a crucial piece of evidence the gown sported. Meanwhile, four tablets from a bottle of poisonous pills have been removed from the murder scene, and Cockrill warns the others that there’s one pill for each fellow suspect for the murderer to use. But when Freddi lets slip that she noticed something important about the crucial surgical gown, the killer instead seems to try to kill her by sabotaging the nurse’s quarter’s gas supply, almost choking her to death as she slept. The fortuitous arrival of Sanson just ahead of Cockrill sees Freddi rescued in the nick of time, with Sanson dragging Freddi from her bedroom but losing grip on her and dropping her down the vertiginous Elizabethan staircase. The method of attempted murder here again points to the killer’s still unclear method of executing Higgins, but Cockrill still can’t quite fathom the method. He convinces Freddi, battered but uninjured, to help him by pretending to be badly hurt, requiring skull surgery, and pressing the others in the circle of suspects to reproduce their function in Higgins’ operation. This gives the murderer the opportunity to repeat their modus operandi, something Cockrill recognises they’re bound to do because the murderer is actually insane, no matter their worldly motives.

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And motives they have. Barnes might have been after revenge on Higgins because of his seemingly personal knowledge of the professional mishap Barnes was investigated and exonerated of years before. Eden might have wanted to silence Bates. Woods might have covered up the truth of her twin sister’s fate: Woods told everyone her sister had died at the start of the war, but she has actually become the “Germany Calling” propaganda voice that haunted Higgins. Another part of the unusual beauty of Green For Danger is its lack of a stand-out hero. That’s actually a common feature of much WWII-era cinema, especially those that actually deal with the exigencies of coping with the war. There is emphasis on teamwork and mutual reliance (and like a lot of such films, the credits list characters by the relative organisational rank of the personnel): the innate professional commitment of the characters is the chief value that has been both violated, and yet holds fast elsewhere.

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But Green For Danger doesn’t idealise the commune entirely and all of the protagonists are notably fallible. Cockrill, in spite of his cocky cleverness, is outflanked on occasion, and the finale is a particular disaster for him. Barnes and Eden seem to be offered as a polarised pair, provincial middle-class and urbane swashbuckler. But Gilliat refuses to reduce either to a type, with Barnes’s slightly pathetic chip on his shoulder and Eden’s covert decency emerging even as they compete for Freddi’s attentions. Howard had just become a major romantic movie star thanks to Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), whose epitome of the wartime ethos Green For Danger could well be burlesquing, as Gilliat probes for self-destructing irrationalism behind the stiff upper lip and laughingly notes the commonplaceness of the dalliances Lean’s film portrayed as singularly fearful. Importantly, Eden represents the kind of slightly soured, faintly arrogant but ultimately good playboy that Gilliat was so fond of as to seem like a personal avatar, a figure usually played by Rex Harrison in Gilliat’s films, including in The Rake’s Progress and The Constant Husband (1956).

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The quartet of nurses are even more interesting and diverse, ranging from Woods’ hearty presence as the team’s supplier of emotional ballast hiding a lode of humiliation, to Bates’ severe passion, as sadomasochistic and indiscriminate in her self-conceived tragedy as anything the killer does: “That hurt didn’t it? Now you know how I feel,” she comments with a quiet triumph after shocking Barnes with the news of Eden and Freddi’s kiss. Even Freddi, cast by fate as the confused object of affection and local glamour-puss, is thoughtful and aware of her naiveté as a problem, musing on how she considers Barnes “a better sort of person than I am altogether” and contemplating the nonlinearity of her emotional commitments. John’s Sanson is the quietest, the frailest, the least noticeable, so, of course, she’s the one to watch out for. John isn’t well remembered and didn’t appear in many films, eventually quitting acting after marrying a politician. But she was momentarily one of the most interesting British female stars of her time, discovered and given several leading roles by Leslie Howard before his death, usually playing quietly stoic heroines rising to the challenges of wartime in films like The Lamp Still Burns and The Gentle Sex (1943).

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As with Howard, Gilliat exploited that image in casting John as Sanson, whose emotional fraying makes her an object of concern for her colleagues and counts her out of the erotic roundelay eating everyone else up. Sanson retains flashes of droll humour and charm in between fits of anxiety, as when, intruding upon an argument between Woods and Eden over his play for Freddi, she notes Woods stamping out and asks Eden, ever so coolly, “Anything the matter?” The title finally becomes clear as the penny finally drops for Cockrill right at the edge of his risky stunt costing Freddi’s life: a smudge of black paint on Woods’ gown gives away the ingeniously simple trick Sanson has used, painting a bottle of carbon dioxide, usually coloured green, in black and white to mimic an oxygen cylinder, and slowly poisoning the person under anaesthetic. Freddi is saved in the nick of time, and Cockrill reveals how his thinking finally saw all the pieces snap together, in recognising that the gown found with Bates had a similar paint smudge on it before it was doctored.

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Most cleverly, when Sanson is revealed as the insane murderer, John, instead of letting Sanson’s lunacy off the leash in being caught, becomes even quieter, unnervingly exactingly polite and explaining her motives with nonchalant simplicity, nominally for revenge against Higgins who had headed the rescue team that unwittingly left her mother to die—only her eerily wide eyes signal a frustrated animal’s fear, absent of reason and convinced of her the rightness of her course of action until she keels over, killed by those self-administered poison tablets, a fate Eden tries to save her from, having guessed she was the culprit, and having an antidote ready—except Cockrill wrestles the syringe from Eden’s hand before he can administer it, mistaking his actions for an attempt to kill Sanson and evade justice. The bitter undertaste to the conclusion of Green For Danger is its last great touch, undermining the usual feeling of correct order restored and avoiding the sense that somebody heedlessly evil has gotten their comeuppance: instead the ultimate truth the film communicates is that the effect of war has turned a lovely young woman into a homicidal maniac and worn everyone else ragged. The film concludes on a joke that nonetheless still echoes the theme of professionalism as its own virtue: Cockrill offers his superior his resignation at the end of his report to express his regret over the resolution of the case, “in the confident hope that you will not accept it.”

Standard
1940s, Crime/Detective, Film Noir

The Big Sleep (1946)

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Director: Howard Hawks

By Roderick Heath

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” – Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

Raymond Chandler, a former oil company executive who had found himself jobless in his forties, turned to writing crime fiction for survival and to expel the cynical passion that had built up inside him. Inspired by the genre’s early master, Dashiell Hammett, who had already lapsed as a novelist, Chandler began writing short detective stories before achieving a smash with his first novel, The Big Sleep. Where Hammett’s diamond-hard prose and stringent sense of human motive blended a peculiarly Dickensian imagination with a hard-earned understanding of street realities, and Chandler’s rivals like James M. Cain and Jim Thompson were paring down their words to hard blocks of chilly analysis, Chandler brought intricate, even florid, visual and experiential prose as well as literary awareness to the form. He turned the private eye tale into a type of neomythology. Chandler’s singular hero, Philip Marlowe, became his tarnished knight-errant, anatomising a corrupt society whilst retaining his decency under a veneer of cool scorn and world-weary alienation.
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Chandler’s writing was inimitable on the page but he swiftly inspired a raft of strong cinema. The first film based on his work was Murder, My Sweet (1944), taken from his second novel Farewell, My Lovely, and cleverly cast Dick Powell as Marlowe, his boyish face from his ingenue days turned anxious and leathery and thus a good mix for embodying Marlowe’s peculiar persona. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), greeted as shambling revisionism in its time, actually got to the heart of Chandler’s often outmatched, fool-of-fortune hero to a striking degree. Dick Richards’ more traditional Farewell, My Lovely (1974) cast Robert Mitchum as a tough, aging man tormented by his own failures. But the best known and arguably most perfectly iconic Marlowe, however, was Humphrey Bogart, who played the role for Howard Hawks in The Big Sleep.
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Playing private eyes, gangsters, and other urban warriors was already second nature for Bogart, who had finally cemented his film stardom by playing Hammett’s distinctly grubby Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Bogart was an unlikely figure for such roles, as he came from a blue-blood New York clan, but youthful experiences in World War I, where according to lore he received a facial injury that gave him his signature lisp, and a spell of rank poverty during the Depression chiselled worldly knowledge deep into Bogart’s face and voice. He became American cinema’s image of the tough, savvy man of action until his death from cancer in 1956. The Marlowe Bogart plays in The Big Sleep isn’t quite the sad-sack he increasingly became in Chandler’s books, but a swift-tongued, poised, occasionally insolent swashbuckler with a moral streak that never feels forced, but rather flows from his refusal to be bullshitted.
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Hawks made The Big Sleep as a follow-up to his and Bogart’s first collaboration, To Have and Have Not (1944), which had made a star out of model Lauren Bacall. Bacall and Bogart’s on-screen chemistry lit up the screen, whilst their off-screen affair was common knowledge and ended Bogart’s troubled second marriage. Hawks and his formidable task force of screenwriters, including future Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, sought to create another vehicle for the couple’s electric appeal. They seized on Chandler’s work, even though they couldn’t work out who killed whom at one point, and soon found the author couldn’t remember either.
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Of course, The Big Sleep, although a mystery and a crime drama, isn’t really about its plot. Its connective tissue is provided by entwined incidents of romance and evil, rather than riddle. Narrative velocity is provided as Marlowe sinks up to his neck in the proliferating consequences of the perversities of a family of American aristocrats, who have turned the national dream into an id-inflected nightmare purely by dint of self-indulgence. The animating mood of Chandler’s novels, captured beautifully in this film in spite of its buoyant segues, is one of miasmic corruption and evil welling out of a still-callow, urban America that’s infected with secret appetites fed by feudal princes of the underworld, creating a noxious symbiosis that can only be battled by someone who understands it intimately. Bogart, who had found his real break in cinema playing hood-eyed heels ready to break teeth and plug bellies, was ideal to play such an intimately conversant hero, hard knocks and rude facts impressed upon his persona. Marlowe’s first appearance in the Sternwood Mansion sees him immediately fascinated by effetely competent butler Norris (Charles D. Brown), and the thumb-sucking teenaged seductress Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), who, as Marlowe puts it, tries to sit in his lap whilst he’s standing up.
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Marlowe is hired by Carmen’s decrepit, wheelchair-bound but still whip-sharp father General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to find the most sensible way to get rid of a blackmailer who’s calling in Carmen’s gambling debts. Marlowe’s interaction with Sternwood is a marvellous introduction to the strange adventure upon which he’s about to embark, the General mentioning that he imagines his daughters “have all the usual vices besides those they’ve invented for themselves,” and coolly notes, “If I sound a bit sinister as a parent Mr. Marlowe, it’s because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy.”
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Sternwood is quietly pained by his recent abandonment by personal bodyguard and companion Sean Regan, who usually took care of such unpleasant business for Marlowe. Marlowe soon realises that Regan’s disappearance is on the minds of others, as Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Bacall) tries to find if he’s been hired to find Regan. Marlowe rebuffs her in a verbal skirmish of quips, insults, and innuendo, and then gets busy tracking the apparent blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) to a rare bookstore he owns. There, Marlowe pretends to be a camp dilettante, annoying Geiger’s chicly dressed, but covertly brassy shopgirl Agnes (Sonia Darrin) and noting the apparently forbidden trade of the shop. Marlowe consults an employee in a neighbouring shop (Dorothy Malone) who is able to point out Geiger to him. Marlowe follows Geiger to his house and whilst staking the place out hears multiple shots, followed by two cars fleeing. He finds Geiger dead and a very high Carmen sitting by the body.
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The most difficult challenge for Hawks and crew wasn’t Chandler’s knotty plot, but rather the litany of crimes, depravities, and illicit acts encompassed by the story, nigh impossible to portray under the rules of the Production Code. Carmen’s drug addiction, Geiger’s pornography racket that has her in thrall, Geiger’s gay relationship with his gunsel Carol Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty), and sundry other aspects had to be conveyed via nudge-and-wink devices, like Marlowe glimpsing a flustered-looking man looking for access to the locked back room in Geiger’s store’s, or Marlowe recoiling when he sniffs a concoction near Carmen in Geiger’s house, the girl not stark naked as she is on the page, but draped in a Chinese bathrobe. Major story developments had to be changed, too. Regan could no longer be Vivian’s husband as he was in the book, just as the identity of his killer had to be carefully smudged. Yet The Big Sleep still conveys an atmosphere of impeccable sleaze, as the dialogue and action constantly trace the sordid world it sees lurking behind urban brickwork, suburban rose bushes, and brownstone mansions alike. Hawks and company even make an overt joke out of the barely censored material when he has Agnes repeatedly cut off from finishing her angry description of a hood pal as “a pain in my—”. The Big Sleep conveys a pervasive relish of the dark side of American life that makes it stand apart from a lot of the noir films that would follow it, feeling closer in spirit to the boastful, struttin’ blues of guys like Muddy Waters and, much later, many a hip-hop star.
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Like those artists, The Big Sleep simultaneously brags and conspires with the audience to delight in its carnality and brutality in a manner partly detached from the oncoming noir pattern of stark moral parable. Toughness, terseness, cool under pressure, a capacity to look at the meaner things in life and love and still sling off a devastating wisecrack: not only does the film revolve around such traits, but positively fetishizes them. Sometimes it does this to a grimly hilarious extent, like the traditionally shoehorned time-out for a song, where Bacall warbles lyrics bouncily reporting the tale of a “sweet, sweet guy” who socks his lady in the choppers.
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The specific appeal of the private eye genre has always been about the detective’s independence from the state-sponsored moral force represented by the police. Marlowe’s breezy confidence in sticky situations is quickly confirmed, as he spirits Carmen from Geiger’s house, tells Norris and Vivian how to handle the situation, and then returns to study the crime scene and work out what happened. A police inspector pal of Marlowe’s, Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey), calls him out to a seaside pier, where a car containing the Sternwoods’ murdered chauffeur Owen Taylor has crashed into the water. Ohls, who recommended Marlowe for his current job, half-jokingly suggests Marlowe might have rid the family of a problem by killing Taylor.
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Marlowe soon strides with characteristic directness into the thicket of double-crosses Geiger’s death causes amidst his coterie of associates, including reputed creep Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), who may or may not have killed Taylor for Carmen’s porn pictures, but who’s certainly trying to squeeze the Sternwoods again with them, with Agnes as grouchy confidant and Lundgren gunning for whoever he thinks killed Geiger. Events and personalities collide in Brody’s apartment in a hilarious and then brutal critical mass that sees Marlowe sarcastically outwitting not just Brody but also Vivian, who tries to cut a separate deal, and then Carmen, who turns up wielding a pistol to collect her photos. Many directors might have let this sequence devolve into an extended exposition punctuated by random, gun-wielding interlopers. Hawks turns it into a bedroom farce, linked to the screwball comedies he helmed in the 1930s and would direct again in the near future, except with blackmail and murder added to sex. Marlowe casually calls out Agnes and Vivian out from the curtain behind which they are hiding, with Marlowe and Vivian’s frenetic argument interrupted by an exasperated Brody.
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Later, in a subtle, but brilliant encapsulation of Hawks’ technique, Marlowe, now holding the gun and the aces, grills Brody over his actions before Taylor’s death. Brody sits in a chair and Marlowe prowls on the far side facing the camera. Brody shifts his position as he explains, trying to avoid Marlowe’s excoriating gaze, and the camera pans slightly back and forth, tracing this little dance of power, with Brody quite literally shifty, Agnes looking on poised like a praying mantis dying to chew Brody’s head off, and Marlowe’s potency visually stated. A moment like Marlowe kicking Lundgren in the chin after challenging him to pick up a gun only confirms his mastery, a spasm of physical violence as precise and immediate as any kung-fu battle and quicker to the point. Of course, Marlowe was also himself perhaps the most knocked-out and beaten-up hero in the history of literature, and here he gets the crap knocked out of him by a couple of stand-over artists and his lights turned off by a thug with a fist full of pennies. The Big Sleep is set in wartime, instead of being a quasi-period piece, an off-hand detail confirmed by the rationing stickers on the cars and the habit of chief villain Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) referring to Marlowe as “Soldier”—which he is, lone warrior keeping the home front in order.
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One fascinating aspect of The Big Sleep is that as an action film made during World War II, the age of Rosie the Riveter, Hawks is in a wonderland where his love of gender blurring can be given free rein, free from the usual justifications for having the classic Hawksian lady on hand, as female taxi drivers who can flirt hot and drive cool could be introduced without comment. Marlowe has starkly memorable interactions not just with appointed love interest Vivian but with a complement of strong vivid, hardboiled gals of various persuasions, from Agnes to Carmen, to cute librarians, cigarette girls, gangland wives, and, most deliciously, Malone’s embodiment of an everyday wet dream, the trimly bespectacled geek girl who archly transforms into drop-dead babe for a bout of backroom sex between incidents in the case. Malone’s star was as instantaneously sealed by her appearance here as Bacall’s was giving whistling instructions in To Have and Have Not. Vickers is similarly marvellous as the protean Carmen, swerving from frightened kid to coquettish seducer to wrathful dope freak, and yet, amazingly, her career never went anywhere after this. This was also true of Darrin, who’s brilliantly spiky as Agnes (“Whadda those look like, grapefruit?”), the proverbial cookie full of arsenic.
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No director of his—or perhaps any—era had such finite understanding as Hawks of the film actor as a lodestone of both singular personality and ensemble reaction, and how to use this to enrich rather than take over a film, especially when it came to the ever-mercurial nature of sex appeal. In Bogie and Bacall’s combusting on-set romance he had a force of nature at his disposal, and yet The Big Sleep had to be retooled to make the most of it to ease studio worries over Bacall’s less well-received sophomore work in The Confidential Agent (1945). So, scenes were added sporting charged conversations where the couple assess each other’s sexual style through horse racing metaphors, and a late scene is laced with intimations of S&M as Vivian voraciously kisses a trussed and bloodied Marlowe. The whole thing adds up to one of the sexiest films ever made, a rare achievement not just considering the time of its making but also its usually more businesslike, overtly macho genre. Part and parcel, too, of the film’s greatness is the almost relentless stream of great dialogue provided by the awesome trio of screenwriters, with Jules Furthman rounding out the work by Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Speech in The Big Sleep is not, however, just a series of verbal displays of cleverness like too much modern film and TV writing. It’s given form and shape by the niceties of streetwise communication, and usually predicated on characters testing each other, feeling out motives, fishing for revelations, toughness made apparent not just in slugging and shooting, but also in verbal wit and dexterity and their capacity to hold onto knowledge, another form of power. The General’s aged, ruined form (“I seem to exist mostly on heat, like a newborn spider”) conceals a man who has no need to ration truth, which puts him at an advantage over just about everyone else, but also signals how far out of the running he is now.
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Verbal currency is certainly at stake during Marlowe’s first conversation with Vivian, where she tries to wheedle facts out of him, but is instead provoked to quick displays of anger. Bogart’s Marlowe turns his weaknesses into strengths through his verbal nimbleness. “So you’re a private detective,” Vivian greets him, “I didn’t know they existed except in books or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you are a mess, aren’t you?” An opening barrage many could not recover from, but Marlowe replies, undaunted, “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.” There’s a pair of clever in-jokes lodged in this line, as Bogart had been forced to wear platform shoes opposite Ingrid Bergman on Casablanca (1943) and had often ridiculed his early career playing Joe College types who say “Anyone for tennis?” Marlowe’s quip deprecates both himself and the actor playing him, but in a way that gives both stature and potency. Similarly knowing are Marlowe’s exchanges with Carmen, where he calls himself Doghouse Reilly in parody of stock tough-guy shtick, the filmmakers wise to Chandler’s strategy of kidding the genre’s clichés just a little to clear ground for his own. By comparison, Marlowe’s interactions with Mars see two alpha males assessing each other’s qualities almost delicately, though even Mars is finally driven to note irritably, “You take chances Marlowe.” “I get paid to,” the private eye replies. Ridgley’s performance is nicely understated, never trying to come on like the tough guy.
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Mars is a gambling boss who proves to be shepherding the Sternwoods’ darkest secrets even as his associates, like Geiger, try to profit from them. Even when the case seems over, with the Sternwoods’ blackmailers dead or locked away, Marlowe comprehends that some deeper game is being played, especially when Vivian is apparently robbed by one of Mars’ goons after a big roulette win. Marlowe realises the robbery has been staged, and is seemingly connected to the disappearance of Mars’ wife, who supposedly ran off with Sean Regan. Marlowe cops a beating for his continued interest, but then encounters Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), Agnes’s diminutive but poised boyfriend, who offers to sell interesting information. Before Marlowe can pay him off, he witnesses a unique bit of cruelty, as he spies on Mars’ main thug Canino (Bob Steele) extracting Agnes’ whereabouts from Harry, who’s loyal enough to lie, and then bullying him into drinking poison. Even for Marlowe, it’s so nasty and depressing a spectacle that he spends the rest of the film restraining a glimmering ferocity that finds equal expression in forcing Mars’ wife Mona (Peggy Knudsen) to recognise the monster her husband is. Marlowe finds Mona with the help of Agnes, whose words of regret for Harry’s death are, “I got a raw deal.” Agnes puts Marlowe onto the actual whereabouts of Mars’ wife, and he arrives at a rundown service station where a kick on the door brings out the gun-wielding, nerveless owner Huck (Trevor Bardette) and, more portentously, Canino, solicitously inviting Marlowe in to make an easier catch.
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Hawks’ classical, spacious mise-en-scene is at its most open and free-flowing through The Big Sleep. Cuts only come when necessary, as Hawks generally prefers to choose camera set-ups that allow for nimble shifts of focus. His camera drifts with and amidst characters in settings like the Sternwoods’ mansion and Mars’ gambling palace, where geography is at once carefully unified and hard to read, camera peering through into adjoining rooms and the sense of secret forces always at work, a notion confirmed when Mars offers to let Marlowe see the rooms behind the gambling tables. Marlowe replies, “No thanks, I’ll go out with the rest of the suckers.” Hawks avoids the more expressionistic edge of noir for the most part except for odd moments, as when Marlowe eavesdrops on Jones’ death, the silhouetted victim and villain seen through glass with the camera deftly taking up a position where it can see Canino through a gap in the door, privileging the viewer. Yet the frames are often flooded with darkness, the lighting a careful alternation of dark zones and hazily embracing lights.
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The camera quite often becomes the observant eye that Marlowe is, reading promissory notes, car registration slips, street signs, or spying on a stick-up going down. Such are the readily absorbable details of the modern world, the signs and wonders Marlowe’s understanding depends upon, but, of course, nothing compared to reading people, like Vivian’s insolent mandarin visage when Marlowe first sees her. Praising any single performance in The Big Sleep feels pointless because of the general excellence, the machine-tooled refinement of the actors’ rhythms, which make the film seem to work like a racing engine, fast and efficient and utterly integral. Hawks’ beloved, rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue patterns turn all that great dialogue into an aural dance of precise musical intensity.
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The typically cheap Warner Bros. sets, swathed in mist and rain (more rain falls in the course of the film probably than in the average L.A. year), nonetheless imbue the film with its pervasive air of enclosing gloom, and even when Marlowe heads out of town the landscape offers no respite. Even a moment of overt slapstick to relieve the mood—Huck running for the hills at a shot from Marlowe—is still rendered as a moment of hysterical energy, particularly thanks to Max Steiner’s scoring. In spite of its nominal pretences as an account of the very real dangers and depths of American society and idealised vision of the battle against them, some perhaps well known to members of the cast and crew, The Big Sleep, as its weird, pithily poetic title suggests, is far from realistic. It is indeed one of the most fervently delirious works from classic Hollywood, moreso than John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s most stylised creations in The Maltese Falcon (1941). This is a world of golems lurking in the shadows (Canino), lesser imps and demons (Brody and Lundgren), capricious witches (Agnes and Carmen), royal priestesses (Vivian), ruined kings (Sternwood), and thieving pretenders (Mars), with Marlowe as muddied knight-errant. The tale occurs in a zone of the fantastic, a grotesque netherworld where every character is harbinger of either sex or death.
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The evolving relationship of Marlowe and Vivian, who turns out to be hiding with Mona in a last-ditch effort to put Marlowe off the scent, pays off naturally as she not only frees him, but proves gutsy and loyal enough to help him trick Canino. Canino finishes up on his back with a gut full of bullets, and Marlowe sets out to entrap his boss. In the book, it was revealed that Carmen shot Regan in a moment of druggy, jealous anger when he rejected her advances, and that Mars has both covered up the crime but used it as a way to siphon the Sternwood fortune. Here that’s passed over and inferred in favour of a fiendishly nasty climax (one Hawks would later recycle in 1966’s El Dorado) that sees a casual aside earlier in the film, Mars’ invitation for Marlowe to step outside when his goons are patrolling, turned into a trap. Marlowe drives the criminal out of Geiger’s house so that his own thugs machine-gun him down, his fate traced out with ghoulishly memorable concision by a line of bullet holes erupting through a door before his limp and perforated body falls back. Hawks fades out on the sound of police sirens as Marlowe and Vivian face each other in a moment of triumph, but before their besiegement actually ends, poised between past and future, with the pure moment of anticipation now theirs—the immediate prospect that at last someone’s going to get laid. However you view it, The Big Sleep is one of the classics that define classic Hollywood.

Standard
1940s, Drama, Erotic

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Josef von Sternberg

By Roderick Heath

After the collapse of his partnership with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg’s career, which had traced the upper limits of success as a film director, went into near-terminal arrest. The flagrantly sensual, imperious, outrageous expressionist of the silver screen was out of place in the aesthetically and morally leashed era ruled by the Production Code. Whilst Sternberg lost the big budgets and rapturous, unfettered stature he had in the early ’30s, his grip on sound cinema strengthened, and some of his final films, as patchy, brilliant, and forsaken as Orson Welles’ later work, stand amongst his best. He made a marvellous skid row version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1935), but his involvement with Alexander Korda’s big-budget adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius proved a disaster when star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident and Korda pulled financing. Sternberg kept making whatever films he could in the next 20 years, even travelling to Japan to make Anatahan (1953). The Shanghai Gesture, destined to be the last complete work he was able to make in Hollywood, remains one of his most obscure, but is also a prized cult object. The Shanghai Gesture was based on a play by John Colton, a property that several Hollywood big shots, including Cecil B. DeMille, had tried to film. But the potato was just too hot: a lurid, fetid moral melodrama about revenge and degradation set in a high-class brothel. The Hays Office ordered more than 30 revisions to the script before it was finally deemed acceptable, including a shift of setting from bawdyhouse to casino—even then, the potency of the piece was inescapable.
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Sternberg proved the guy gutsy enough to do it, and legend has it he did it whilst lying on a couch all through the shoot. The resulting film is many things, amongst them Sternberg’s expression of enraged contempt for how clean and bogus Hollywood had become. Even the film’s opening credits includes a jab at the hierarchism of the industry as it offers a page in praise of “Hollywood extras,” whose anonymous, massed contributions helped so many films. Another early title assures the viewer that this is a pre-War story, whilst Shanghai of the day was at the centre of an enormous tussle of civilisations, “its fate undecided.” But of course, Sternberg’s time and place is not the real Shanghai of the 1930s, but his imagination’s conjured nexus of mystique and depravity.
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The linchpin of this mythic world is Mother Gin Sling’s gambling establishment in the heart of the old International Quarter. The Shanghai Gesture feels on some levels like the evil twin of Casablanca (1942), with which it shares the setting of a popular nightspot and gaming house at a world crossroads—with Marcel Dalio playing the overseer of games in both—where an old romance comes back to haunt the owner. But The Shanghai Gesture is the virtual negative image of the more famous film: the owner is a woman, and the old romance not only can’t be healed, but sparks a merciless vengeance the moment chance presents itself. For Sternberg, it was also a thematic return to the state of rootlessness and the corrosive nature of erotic need, which tend in his films to lead directly in to one another, expressed through the exotica of unstable 1930s China in Shanghai Express (1932). But whereas that film emphasised mobility and hope, The Shanghai Gesture is again an inversion, a static, sucking whirlpool of evil.
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The production design turns Mother Gin Sling’s into just such a maelstrom, the terraces of the casino interior evoking a tiered descent into Dante’s levelled hell where the roulette wheel spins on and on in the lowest circle, racking up cash and souls. “It smells so incredibly evil,” Victoria “Poppy” Charteris (Gene Tierney) murmurs in sublime delight shortly after arriving and surveying the motley denizens: “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination.” Sternberg immediately acknowledges through his as-yet innocent, yet already perverse anti-heroine that this is psychological wonderland and repainted reality, where the audience is encouraged to use their own imaginations to fill in the lurid details. Sternberg’s narrative enters Mother Gin Sling’s not with Poppy but with another young woman, an American former chorus girl and exiled chippie, Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks), who’s introduced being shuffled down the street by an angry landlord and his comrades to a cop for failing to make the rent. Luck, or something like that, is on her side, as two of Mother Gin Sling’s cabal, “Doctor” Omar (Victor Mature) and gone-native English financier Percival Montgomery Hower (Clyde Fillmore) pass in a car and, taken by her looks, pay off her debt and take her to be assessed for a job as decorative furniture in the casino.
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Mother Gin Sling’s hardly seems like a safe repose, however, as a player’s attempt to shoot himself is dismissed as “Saturday night.” This week’s would-be suicide is regular player Boris (Ivan Lebedeff). Gin Sling makes her first appearance after his failed attempt, chastising him: “I thought we were good friends. Why do you choose my place as a springboard to the upper air?” Gin Sling is the film’s fetishistic heart and villain, as archly formalised in her dragon lady affectations as Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader or any other pulp villain, whilst also recalling the icon of stylised femininity Sternberg always tried to turn Dietrich into. She treads the aisles and stairs of her palace with angular precision, a high-fashion Nosferatu in her rarefied castle. Poppy is brought to this establishment by an asinine guide to the lowlife (John Abbott) in search of cheap thrills, but it soon proves that Poppy has some yearnings to be a cheap thrill. Poppy swaps politely barbed words with Gin Sling when introduced: Poppy teases her about her unlikely name, and Gin Sling pleasantly insults her back by suggesting her name might have been something as generic as Poppy, with the suggestion that there’s scarcely a thing different about where each of them has come from and where they’re going.
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Gin Sling learns from a circle of rich businessmen she counts amongst her regular customers, including Van Elst (Albert Bassermann), that her establishment is the target of strict new laws being imposed by corporate interests on Shanghai. “This is not a moral crusade, which might be easier for you to oppose than big business,” Van Elst warns Gin Sling, on giving her the news she has to clear out. “What do you call this?” ripostes Gin Sling’s bookkeeper (Eric Blore), referring to Mother Gin Sling’s. The herald of change is a newly arrived representative of the India-China Trading Company, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who is also Poppy’s father. Gin Sling doesn’t recognise the name and is scarcely interested or concerned by this threat, until she finds that Dixie was a former girlfriend of the incoming plutocrat.
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As Dixie describes one of his signature physical mannerisms, Gin Sling suddenly realises that she knows Charteris, and a look of lethal intent comes upon her. Her plot starts in encouraging Omar, her spruiker, pimp, and in-house gigolo, in his attentions towards Poppy, drawing the young woman, who’s fresh from a girls’ school in Switzerland, down to the roulette table, where she gambles with increasing fervor while spouting that eternal line of the neophyte, “I can stop anytime I want to.” But Gin Sling keeps her tethered to the tables by giving her a ready line of credit. Poppy’s real character begins to appear from behind the shield money and social insulation provide. She proves to be a spoilt, dictatorial brat with streaks of outsized carnal desire and contempt, and her jealousy is carefully stoked to a white heat by Omar’s simultaneous attentions to Dixie. Gin Sling barely bats an eye when Poppy is quickly reduced to a drunken harpy decorating her bar.
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Whilst not as floridly stylised as Sternberg’s earlier works, like Shanghai Express, Docks of New York (1928) or The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Shanghai Gesture is just as hypnotic in its less shadowy, but equally artful images, where characters are turned into stylised types defined by physical attitudes and modes of dress. The visual style suggests a touch of Art Deco infused with Sternberg’s prior baroque sensibility, with more emphasis on flow and geometry as organising principle—planes, angular lines, elegant curves and circles explored with tracking and crane shots, particularly the grand, slow descent of the camera into Gin Sling’s casino pit. As opposed to the tangled, semi-surrealist forms of The Scarlet Empress that entangled the protagonists, here, the interiors are spare and spacious, yet just as organic and entrapping, the carefully constructed physical expression of Gin Sling’s understanding of the most putrid parts of her customers’ psyches. The wide shots offers mural-like studies in form and content, as rich and sprawling with detail as the decorative artwork that clads the walls of the casino and Gin Sling’s abode (notably, that artwork was provided by the Chinese-American actor Keye Luke). Close-ups reduce the actors, particularly Munson in Gin Sling’s finery, to kabuki masks of stylised affectation and the fanning shapes of her increasingly ornate pseudo-Mandarin hairdos. It’s easy to think of Dietrich in the part of Gin Sling (in fact, Munson, who’s probably best remembered as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, 1939, had, like Sternberg, been Dietrich’s lover in the ’30s), but Munson’s blend of icy malignance and an arch survivor’s cautious precision is excellent. The way Munson walks through Gin Sling’s joint, blind to the human cacophony about her as she contemplates her upcoming consummation with the gait of an empress walking a tightrope is sublime physical characterisation.
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The Shanghai Gesture may represent one time when a censorious attitude from studios and the revisionist instincts of the director made for a work far superior to the source. Colston’s hysterical work was sordid and racist in the extreme, and like many such works (including another film starring Huston, 1932’s Kongo, which was a remake of Tod Browning’s silent film West of Zanzibar, 1927) offers insights into the hothouse nature of sexual fantasy in the Western mind of the era, channelling images of sexual sadomasochism and the simultaneous desire to protect and pillage virginal white femininity through racial Others. Sternberg’s reordered narrative and new characters constructed an infinitely more ironic piece of work. He added two significant characters, Dixie and Omar, to offer protagonists who are observers and alternate voices in the story. Dixie’s American garrulousness is present mostly to deflate the pretensions of the two versions of the Old World, Chinese and European. Her earthy, experienced sensibility directly contradicts the fetid sexual and racial politics at play in Gin Sling’s revenge on Charteris, and she retorts to a jealously bossy Poppy who’s accusing her of trying to steal Omar with a roaring putdown that notes that real character has nothing to do with birth or lot in life. In the finale, Dixie is the lone character who manages to detach herself from the awful spectacle of blackmail and cruelty with cheeky humour. Sternberg delights in throwaway character actions, from the Sikh policeman directing traffic with imperious elegance in the midst of urban chaos, Gin Sling’s accountant gleefully scooping out the night’s profits like a kid fondling his Halloween candy, or Dixie mucking about at a swanky dinner trying to leaven the oncoming mood of disaster.
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Omar is Sternberg’s archest conceit, a character who fits neatly into the line of such Sternberg alter egos as Count Alexei in The Scarlet Empress, whilst painted interestingly as a corrupter who knows but doesn’t much care that he’s a zone of moral nullity because he’s a creation of multiple worlds, a misfit who’s found his place as an imp of Gin Sling’s Satan. A self-appointed doctor (or maybe not) and a self-described mutt of the East with part-French, part-Armenian heritage and Damascene birth, Omar is a conceited lothario who seems to think he’s Greek chorus to his own life. He’s given to perpetually reciting appropriate passages from Omar Khayyam (“If you wanna, you can listen to that Persian tripe, I’m goin’,” Dixie tells Poppy at one point.). He greets his weekly paycheck, dropped from the bookkeeper’s booth to him in the casino pit, with a sarcastic salaam and plays Gin Sling’s bait to get and keep Poppy on the hook. Mature, several years away from major stardom, is splendidly smug in his role as he wears his character’s bogus exoticism on his sleeve and slouches through the film with the lazy sensuality of an experienced libertine until the very finale reveals something more serious long dormant in him. Tierney, another soon-to-be star who would prove an uneven actor, capable of performances both refined and stiff, is equally fun here as the prim British fashion plate who steadily devolves into a neurotic addict and harridan, glimpsed in one marvellous moment seated on a bar top, whining for attention and satisfaction, delivering a backward kick of one foot like a stroppy yearling to a wine glass and sending it flying. Her behaviour wavers between poles like delirium, as she soaks Omar’s face with a G&T before pleading forgiveness in desperate erotic obeisance. Great touch here: Omar holds up his robe to hide their kiss from the room, perhaps less out of gentlemanly discretion than embarrassment to be seen kissing such a brat.
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By comparison, Huston’s performance as Sir Guy, like Munson’s Gin Sling, seems to belong to another species: the world’s aristocrats, who specialise in much daintier cannibalism. Sir Guy is a suave man of the world who seems to have long burned out all his excess passions and now only has a measured solicitude to him. Gin Sling first tries to contact him when he’s in a meeting with the International Quarter’s bigwigs, and when told she plans to keep phoning until he answers, he simply unplugs the phone and gets on with his business. Gin Sling then sends a Russian coolie (Mike Mazurki) over to Charteris’ apartment block to fire a bullet through his window. A fascinated Sir Guy understands the implied message that the coolie will try to kill him if he doesn’t let the winds of arranged fate steer him towards Madame Gin Sling’s place.
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Gin Sling invites Sir Guy and other doyens of Shanghai’s European community for a soiree on Chinese New Year. Gin Sling has some kind of hold on most of them, through threat of scandal or humiliation. She provides a dining table arrayed with little statuettes of each guest; the figurine of Poppy has its head strategically removed. An intervention by Omar, who sells a necklace Poppy pawned for gambling funds, alerts her father to her increasingly fraught, indebted nightlife. He calls her to his office where he announces he’s sending her out of the country. Poppy seems grateful, and Sir Guy sees her off on a plane, leaving him free to venture to Gin Sling’s lair and find out what she’s on about with maximum savoir faire.
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Gin Sling’s Chinese New Year banquet proves to be rather a delirious theatre of cruelty, a banquet where revenge will be served at sub-Arctic temperature, a sequence of slow-uncoiling poison and suppressed hysteria, punctuated by nervously raucous laughs and Gin Sling’s potent, whiplash-like threats to keep her guests in their seats for the purpose of dealing up to Sir Guy a certified public scalding. The evening entertainment starts with a wild spectacle of women in cages being sold off to fishermen as sex slaves, angling just outside the window of the casino’s dining room, a show Gin Sling explains that has only been staged for her male guests’ edification.
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Gin Sling assures her guests this is a show for the tourists only based on past practice, but the show looks frighteningly real, and soon Gin Sling has all but stated that once she was one of those girls, kept at bay by having the soles of her feet cut open and pebbles sewn inside to stop her running off. What exactly happened between Sir Guy and Gin Sling back when he was a young adventurer under a different name is only partly revealed in what follows, as Sir Guy certainly married her back when she was the daughter of a good family, and had a child whose apparent infant death sent Gin Sling running off in a wild grief. Now she believes Sir Guy abandoned her and stole her family’s wealth. Sir Guy is initially confounded as he realises who Gin Sling is, a possibility that seems impossible to him. Gin Sling’s neat line of recrimination is, however, disputed as he claims her family’s money is lodged in a bank even though he thought her dead.
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Still, Gin Sling trots out the crown of her bitter banquet: Poppy, who returned to Shanghai on her own, now thrust into her father’s sight, poured into a glittering silver gown, bow-legged and tousled and swinish in mood and humour, clearly having been treated to every degradation under the sun by Gin Sling’s minions, and having enjoyed it. The tar-thick sense of evil eroticism lurking under the surface of the film finally oozes out here, and plays out in the exchange of close-ups of Huston and Munson, grim wounding and malicious pleasure underneath their studied surfaces. Sir Guy’s attempt to make a graceful exit is forestalled by Poppy herself. Wild-eyed in her drugged-up rage, Poppy has pretences to play the same bitch-queen as Gin Sling, only without the finesse or the smarts. She levels a gun on Dixie, proposing to shoot her for presuming to attract Omar’s eye. Only Omar’s quick intervention stops her.
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Meanwhile, Gin Sling unsheathes a peculiar kind of reverse-racism as she gloats in her triumph over Sir Guy and his weak genes, only for Sir Guy to reveal his own secret: Poppy is his and Gin Sling’s daughter, the child who didn’t die, and so she’s gone to great effort to reduce her own offspring to a wretch. Gin Sling’s attempt to intervene and restrain Poppy in her newfound aggression is met with utter contempt that only grows when Gin Sling tries to argue maternal right, cueing Poppy’s immortal line, “I have no more connection to you than with a toad out in the street!” Mother Gin Sling, her title all the more perverse now that it matches her status, reacts with less than restrained maternal chastisement, whilst Sir Guy, poised on the threshold between dreadful past and empty future, hears a gunshot. Omar has already delivered the epigraph earlier: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit, Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.” “You likee Chinese New Year?” the Russian coolie asks, for one of the most casually, coldly sarcastic final lines in film history.

Standard
1940s, Horror/Eerie

The Seventh Victim (1943)

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Director: Mark Robson

By Roderick Heath

Not the most popular or famous of Val Lewton’s epochal series of low-budget horror films made for RKO Studios, The Seventh Victim is the deepest, the most original, perhaps the darkest, a film that tends to weave a powerful spell on those who tune into its peculiar wavelength. The fourth film in Lewton’s horror cycle, it was the directorial debut of Mark Robson, who, like Robert Wise, had worked as an editor at RKO. He was promoted after Lewton’s first director collaborator Jacques Tourneur graduated to bigger-budget productions, and who would go on to a long career with many strong films as well as some shamefully shoddy late career labours that bespoke cruel truths about the decline of the studio system and the talents it fostered.

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Tourneur’s films with Lewton had clearly reflected both men’s status as immigrants, fascinated and alienated by the American landscape. Robson and Wise were more parochially alert, and facilitated a shift in focus in Lewton’s series to foreign and historical settings, where a similar sense of unfamiliarity could be sustained. The Seventh Victim looked back to the initial success of Lewton’s series, Cat People (1942), and to silent melodramas that had blended aspects of realism with fable-like storytelling precepts, like Victor Sjöstrom’s The Phantom Carriage (1920) and D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan (1922), whilst also looking forward to many films, and indeed genres that didn’t yet exist. Jacques Rivette would strive to recapture its atmosphere with several films, particularly Duelle (1976). Alfred Hitchcock may have remembered it in the most famous scene of Psycho (1960). Roman Polanski would engage its ideas for Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Dario Argento channelled it for Inferno (1980). Stanley Kubrick would partly remake it as Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Hints of its influence are detectable in urban horror stories of Abel Ferrara, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma.

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One reason for this slow yet indelible effect of The Seventh Victim was that it followed Cat People in proving a horror film could be set in a completely contemporary urban landscape, transformed into a world of dreamlike vignettes and private netherworlds, and unlike its precursor was able to do so without any hint of the supernatural, presenting a situation where human folly creates horror. Robson’s directing wasn’t as smoothly fluid and sophisticated as Tourneur’s had been, but to a certain extent his neophyte coolness helps exacerbate the sequestered mood. Like all of Lewton’s productions, the title came down from RKO honchos. But the erstwhile Ukrainian aesthete, who had immigrated to the US in the company of his aunt, the silent tragedienne Alla Nazimova, took an active interest in every level of his creations, as Lewton excelled his former employer David Selznick in fulfilling the ideal of producer as auteur. Lewton’s approach had a twofold strangeness stemming from linked urges, as he tried to set his dramas in a demonstrably real world, but also psychologised his narratives, and pared them back to simple, almost fairy tale-like precepts, an approach which Lewton would take to an apogee with the next film, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which bypasses horror altogether in spite of the title, and becomes instead a gothic-edged children’s film. Lewton’s fondness for deliberate naïveté is also apparent in The Seventh Victim, which tells the story of young Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, in her first role) and her coming of age whilst on a Snow White-like adventure in the concrete forests of Manhattan. The film kicks off with a quote from John Donne, a quote so suitable it serves almost as the mission statement of the horror genre: “I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”

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Like many fairy tales, this one starts with an exile from home, albeit a place that’s not really a home. The two Gibson sisters, Mary and older sibling Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) are orphans. Jacqueline has earned a living whilst Mary has grown in a girl’s boarding school. Called before the principal Mrs. Lowood (Ottola Nesmith) and her aide Miss Gilchrist (Eve March), she is told that her sister has been out of touch, and her tuition hasn’t been paid for six months. Mary is offered a post at the school, but Gilchrist encourages her to make a break: “It takes courage to really live in the world,” she says, both as imploration and warning. The narrative’s use of staircases as symbology is plain in the first shot, showing the main staircase in the school, with religious-themed stained glass windows above it, as Mary ascends through a throng of other students, an intimation of Mary’s status as an almost holy innocent about to swim against a tide of human decay. Her departure from the school is one of the brief yet indelible, almost magical Lewton moments, as she smiles both sadly and wryly to herself, descending the stairs this time, in listening to the students in the classrooms being chided and reciting Latin conjugations and Romantic poetry. Mary’s excursion to New York sees her come in contact with a peculiar sprawl of vividly contrasted personalities, most of whom are engaged in duels with their own mortality and searching for meaning in existence.

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Mary learns Jacqueline has sold her successful cosmetics business, La Sagesse, to her former assistant Mrs Esther Redi (Mary Newton), and seems to have vanished. Mary begins following a breadcrumb trail, firstly a clue provided by one of La Sagesse’s employees, Frances Fallon (Isabel Jewell), who leads her to a boarding house run by the Italian immigrant couple, the Romaris (Chef Milani and Marguerita Sylva), above their restaurant in Greenwich Village, where Jacqueline has rented a room that proves to contain an ominous array: a noose suspended above a chair, waiting for someone to take their place at the end of the rope. Such disturbing discoveries point Mary to the morgue in search of her sister, and this leads her to another person seeking out Jacqueline, Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont). A prominent lawyer, Gregory says that he loves Jacqueline, but keeps his marriage to her secret from Mary. Such secrets teem in the situation Mary finds herself in, as she soon learns the nature of adulthood seems to be ever-metastasising confusion.

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This Snow White gains a single dwarf as helpmate, diminutive private eye Irving August (Lou Lubin), who is taken with her vulnerable desperation. When he’s warned off the case by a bigwig, August’s interest only intensifies, and after checking out La Sagesse, tells Mary that there’s a mysterious locked room in the factory where Jacqueline might be held prisoner. Mary and August steal into La Sagesse, whereupon both freeze up when faced with the long, dark, ominous corridor down to the secret room. Mary can’t work up the will, and instead encourages the timorous August to go in her stead. August finally does disappear into the dark, then reappears, moving strangely and silently, not answering Mary’s appeals, until he drops dead on the floor, bleeding from a wound in his chest.

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This terrifically eerie sequence, with the photography (by Nicholas Musuraca) and lighting turning humdrum factory space into a nebulous zone of existential danger and infernal threat, is one of the great moments in the Lewton canon. It also provides an interesting contrast to the famous pool scene in Cat People, which it sustains a similar concept and mood to, insofar as that it pays off with actual violence rather than mere self-induced fright. Except that, fittingly for the film’s themes, August’s death later proves not to have been a malicious killing but one caused by fear, fear of the dark and the quiet just as beset the interloping pair. The way Mary encourages August to venture forth into the dark in her stead reveals the degree to which Mary is still a child, getting the adult to go where she daren’t, whilst the pair of them also resembling a couple of kids standing outside a haunted house daring each-other to go in. But Mary’s has growing capacity as an adult to persuade, an ability to make another do something that has an unexpectedly ugly consequence because of her weakness. This resonates interestingly with the Lewton films on either side of this one, with the ponderings of the nature of free will in The Leopard Man, and the more urgent contemplation of a desire to impose will with fascist overtones in The Ghost Ship (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945): indeed in the Lewton cycle this tendency is considered a genuine evil. Later in the film group will is exerted on an individual for destructive ends.

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Mary loses her innocence here, and is sent running out into the night. Riding the subway back and forth in a daze, she’s startled to see two society swells propping up a third who seems passed out drunk, except that the third’s hat tumbles off and she recognises August. Mary chases down a transit cop, but the duo slip off with their charge, making it all seem like some nocturnal imagining. The mood of this scene, with the clamour of the train, sharply contrasts the pellucid silence of the factory scene, and yet compliments it, presenting another perversely claustrophobic, alienating urban environment. I can’t think of another scene like it in film before it, except perhaps in a Hitchcock film like Blackmail (1929), but it certainly anticipates in acute ways the fascination with New York’s fecund, deteriorating infrastructure in ‘70s cinema as a wonderland for evoking anxiety, and specifically a sequence like the one in which Nancy Allen dodges a killer on the subway in Dressed to Kill (1980).

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One of the Lewton series’ singular qualities was this way the filmmakers were able to turn limited resources and set-bound productions into precisely atmospheric invocations of place. Just as The Leopard Man (1943) captures the mood of a town on the fringe of the wild, The Seventh Victim follows Cat People in tangibly recreating the feeling of a big city in the hours when its streets might as well be wilderness. That canard of “eight million stories in the naked city” is suggested in Mary’s visit to Missing Persons, a simple tracking shot absorbing an array of similarly befuddled by the ease with which it’s possible to get lost in a big city, even as August tries to reassure Mary that it’s only “nine miles long and three miles wide.” The most overt poetic invocation in The Seventh Victim comes from an actual poet character, Jason Hoag (Erford Gage), in whose mind a searchlight above the Manhattan rooftops becomes “Cyrano’s sword,” cutting through “the blue cloak of a prince.” Jason invokes Cyrano de Bergerac, Byron, and is glimpsed at one point sitting “at the foot of Dante,” that is, under a mural in the Romaris’ restaurant under the boarding house, named for the poet. For the jocular Mrs Romari, all intellectual and emotionally complex propositions are humour. “Do you actually want to find your sister?” Jason asks Mary, who catches his eye when she first arrives at the Romaris. Mrs Romari laughs at him, but Jason’s sense that tracking down Jacqueline might involve soul-rending damage proves prescient. The gentle, Hart Crane-ish poet, who’s haunted by a romantic tragedy that killed his burgeoning career, begins finding his way back to functionality as he’s stirred to action on Mary’s behalf. Jason learns he’s not to be Prince Charming, but finds other things that make the effort worthwhile.

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Another peculiarity of the Lewton series is the fashion in which it touches on metatextual ground without quite making it overt. Similar characters and roles recur from film to film, whilst actors appear often in interestingly, deliberately contrasting parts. For instance, here the velvet-voiced Ben Bard, who had played a stern but empathic policeman in The Leopard Man is here the leader of a Satanic coven. The Seventh Victim features the most explicit example of this tendency, as Tom Conway reiterates his role from Cat People, the psychiatrist Dr Lewis Judd. Except that he’s not quite the same Judd. For one thing, the character in the other film was mauled to death. For another, this one isn’t as coolly amoral, even if he seems at first just as superciliously obnoxious, phlegmatically brushing off a secretary’s pleas for help for her alcoholic father: “Dipsomania’s…rather sordid.” It soon proves that both Jason and Gregory have reasons to distrust the psychiatrist, who was seen with Jacqueline and Jason’s former sweetheart years before, shortly before they both vanished. Echoes of Cat People’s emotional quandaries are also apparent, the fear over loss of a loved one to mental instability and the abuse of privilege by a physician. The possibility that Cat People might indeed have been a story written by Jason as a j’accuse screed aimed at Judd, converting emotional damage into metaphorical terrors, is entirely conceivable. It’s clear enough why Lewton and regular screenwriting collaborators DeWitt Bodeen (who co-wrote this with Charles O’Neal) would bring back this character: his insolent charm, given body by Conway who was a minor marquee star, provides an engaging cynical, worldly counterpoint to the idealists and placeless drifters who populate the film, as well as a constant hint of sexual evil. Except that here the filmmakers take a chance to divert the outcome of the previous drama, as if deliberately engaging in an act of self-reflexive revision.

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Judd first appears approaching Gregory as an apparent emissary from Jacqueline, shaking down the lawyer for money to support her, and remaining cagily impenetrable about what exactly is going on. He then goes to Mary, offering to bring her to Jacqueline. He takes her to an upmarket hotel, but finds that Jacqueline seems to have vanished: “She’s left me to meet them alone,” he murmurs in alarm, and flees, leaving a bewildered Mary to face “them” alone himself. The knock at the hotel room door Mary answers proves however to be Jacqueline, glimpsed only for a few seconds like a fleeting mirage. Few movie characters can ever live up to the levels of mystique as are built up about Jacqueline (notably, like Rebecca de Winter, Jacqueline is spoken of in rather awed terms, and identified by totemic monogrammed effects), and that makes the Brooks’ appearance here all the more unique. When she’s finally glimpsed, with her weird Egyptian-flapper hairstyle and haunted, moon-bright eyes, it’s only for a few seconds: Jacqueline raises a finger to her lips, warning Mary to be quiet lest she attract any of the people searching for her. She’s undoubtedly corporeal and acting for real reasons, but also, seems like some emissary of the underworld, urging silence like an enforcer of taboo and mystery. The film’s obsession with doors and staircases – leading Mary to Jacqueline, Judd wryly comments, when presented with two staircases up to the next floor, that he prefers the “left or sinister side” – as passages between worlds accords with Jean Cocteau’s use of mirrors in his intensely similar Orphée (1949).

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Eventually the truth of Jacqueline’s situation begins to emerge: through Mrs Redi she became involved in a group of Satan worshippers known as the Palladists (based on a French society of Satanists rumoured to have practised in the 1800s), and because she told her therapist Judd about them, they’ve declared she must die. The Palladists are hardly however a shocking cult, but a collective that runs the gamut of bohemian oddballs, bored socialites, saturnine malcontents, homosexuals, and the physically damaged. They give a face both to the overwhelming anxiety manifesting in the darkness that crowds the edges of the film, and also suffer from it themselves, and have adopted one method of trying to feel they master life and death. Judd and Jason even move in the same social circles as the Palladists, amongst whom Redi, Mr. Brun (Bard) and one-armed hostess Natalie Cortez (Evelyn Brent) seem to be the senior members. Jason is canny enough to bring Mary and Gregory within close proximity of the coven on a hunch. Judd seems like an ideal Palladist, but he rather stands distinct from them, too intelligent to fall for their folderol, too interested by their strangeness to ignore them, and too scared of what they might do if provoked. Brun expostulates at length the peculiar dichotomy at the heart of the society’s sensibility, its insistence that anyone that breaks its oath of secrecy must die, but also its pledge to non-violence. The only legitimate way they can, then, punish Jacqueline for her transgressions is to force her to commit suicide, but failing that, a few members are willing to go further, not because Jacqueline broke their rules but because she could possibly expose and embarrass them.

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The notion that Jacqueline joined the group for erotic as well as emotional and spiritual stimulation percolates below the surface as you’d expect from a 1943 film and yet nudges me constantly, apparent in Frances’ suggestive worship and unconcealed love for Jacqueline (“The only time I was ever happy was when I was with you!”). Redi’s husky-voiced ambiguity is also telegraphed, giving a particularly piquant charge to a scene in which Redi enters Mary’s apartment to warn her off the search for Jacqueline. Mary is caught naked and dripping wet in the shower, with Redi’s silhouetted form glimpsed through the curtain. The prefiguring of Psycho here is unmistakable, although less violent, the note of erotic threat less immediate than a big knife but no less unsettling for the naïve and vulnerable girl. Redi makes a mistake, however, by doing this, because she informs Mary that Jacqueline was in fact the prisoner in the secret room, and she killed August in fright. This fact gives Jason the inspiration to finally pressure Judd, who’s been hiding Jacqueline since she escaped that night, into letting him, Mary, and Gregory take her into their care.

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Jason’s tracking of Judd through a skeletal studio version of the Village offers stark, lunar-surface alleyways and blankly silhouetted, shadow-play windows, islets of warmth between oceans of dark. When Judd finally does lead the trio of searchers to Jacqueline’s door, she proves to have now lodged in some mysterious abode, descending into a deep focus frame with peculiarly numinous effect, her waiting cohort of would-be friends and protectors gathered in the foreground. Lewton’s films were usually too starkly budgeted to offer the kind of oversized Expressionistic effects found in Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau’s early work or in Rowland V. Lee’s delirious Son of Frankenstein (1939) with their carefully contrived and constructed games with space and architecture as mimetic canvas, and besides Lewton was usually after something a touch subtler. Here Robson captures something closer to the French 1930s template of “poetic realism,” where more realistic environments were carefully manipulated to create expressive settings, here managed on the back-lot sets with an almost theatrical minimalism. Robson was following on from Tourneur’s work, and pointing the way forward to the similar mix the most visually vivid noir films would sport within a few years. Many of the personnel who worked with Lewton, including Robson, had indeed worked on Orson Welles’ costly but deeply influential works at the studio, and indeed in many ways Lewton and team found practical applications for much that Welles had helped evolve.

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Jacqueline’s “return to life” however proves disorientating: taken to Jason’s studio, she recounts August’s killing in a spellbinding moment, with Robson tracking his camera in slowly to her wan and haunted face, and then finally her eyes, a shot that summarises, for me, the essence of Lewton’s achievement and perhaps indeed the genre. Where before she had ministered silence to hold the abyss at bay, now she confesses with words but those eyes say more about abysses she’s seen into. As tawdry as the Palladists are, the terrors they’ve evoked for Jacqueline after a life of frantically seeking sensual experience have pushed her to the edge of sanity, of liminal awareness, which with her morbidly fixated nature she feels experiences with all the acuity of a Dostoevsky character. At the same time, Jason, realising his romantic hopes are fading as Mary is gravitating more to Gregory’s paternal charm, tries to hint, by way of his extended Cyrano metaphor, to Jacqueline that her husband is in love with her sister. A dance of attraction has been in motion behind the scenes, between the carefully calibrated types: Gregory as upholder of order, Jason as protean creator, Judd as guardian of the psyche and healer, with Mary and Jacqueline, objects of their affections, as mirroring siblings, who embody Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, in William Blake’s parlance.

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The dance ends unsatisfyingly on one level: it’s hard to believe Mary would fall for Gregory, if only because, like too many of Lewton’s heroes, he’s played by one of RKO’s usual, deathly dull leading men, in this cause Beaumont, who would later find his role comfortably numbing us all as the patriarch of Leave it to Beaver. It does make sense on a psychological level, as Gregory has presented to both Gibson girls the ideal of the settled, paternal male, and through him an illusion of familial solidity. Jason, denied the girl, is rewarded with renewed creativity and also in discovering his accord with Judd, who proves to actually have been a benefactor, protecting Jacqueline and Jason from harm by life’s crueller facts. When he explains that Jason’s long-ago sweetheart, the one he saw Judd with, is now irretrievably insane, “a horrible, raving thing,” he recognises that Judd has been his friend all along. Judd’s own admissions to jealousy of Jason’s accomplishment with his first book gives way to his scepticism over his new work: “the time is out of tune,” he says, for such a romantic artist in a bleaker time. This touch reflects the peculiar status of Lewton’s films, their blend of darkness and light, homey emotionalism so nimble but frail in contrast to overwhelming evil, which marked the producer’s sensibility out of place in ruder environment of Hollywood, and yet came closer than almost anyone else to recording the psychological undertone of his era: The Seventh Victim, after all, was made in the midst of World War 2, and if any epoch could shake a person’s faith in common humanity and yet also offer many proofs for it, that was the one.

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As Tourneur and Wise went on to make some definitive films noir, Robson’s different touch would become clearer as he would make some excellent works situated rather at the nexus of noir with urban drama and social realism, like Champion (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1956), whilst fervently emotional melodramas amongst like Peyton Place (1957), From the Terrace (1960), and Valley of the Dolls (1967), coherently extend the female-centric sensibility he could adopt, apparent here and in his follow-ups for Lewton, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam (1946). Like Wise, Robson essentially became an all-round artisan who could be relied upon by the studios even as they floundered: it’s hard to imagine a film more diametrically opposed to the delicate horrors of this film than Earthquake (1974), Robson’s second-last work. The melancholy effect of The Seventh Victim is strong and genuine, especially considering that Lewton had used it to express his own mortal anxiety: he would die aged 46, whilst Gage would be killed in combat in the Philippines a year after the film was shot, and Brooks would die young from alcoholism.

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It’s remarkable, considering how dense and suggestive the narrative of The Seventh Victim is, that the film only runs a fraction over 70 minutes. The sense of compression is leavened slightly by the artificial effect of Mary and Gregory’s romance, although their couple’s last scene together, as Gregory asks Mary not to look at him as he both declares his ardour but also states his intent to deny it for Jacqueline’s sake, is delicately lovely and only needs a more convincing context. Judd and Jason’s rebuke to the Palladists awkwardly approaches a note of standard-issue piety Lewton usually artfully avoided. But this is both more complicated and simpler than it seems as it bears out a consistent aspect of the Lewton series, a belief that sometimes the most complex things are summarised best by the simplest words, especially matters like human interdependence. Judd offers the Lord’s Prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses” – with a direction to actually consider what it implies in retorting to Brun’s respect for “Satanic majesty and power” by implying his belief is far cornier, with the implication that, to quote another Donne poem, no man is an island, and that the Palladists, rather than finding exclusive power, have instead left themselves tragically cut off from the only things that make life bearable.

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Apart from these stumbles, the last fifteen minutes are remarkable, as Jacqueline, brought out from the shadows by her friends, proves to have only been made vulnerable to her enemies. Kidnapped from Mary’s rooms, she’s kept by the Palladists in Cortez’s place, browbeaten by the gathering into drinking a cup of poison, with Robson’s framings teeming with Dutch Master-like faces looming out of chiaroscuro lighting, and Brooks with her nemesis, the glass, looming before her, voices of encouragement, alternately bullying, seductive, and despairing, whilst Jacqueline resists with cool boredom: “No, no, no…” When she finally does raise the chalice to her lips, Frances knocks it from her hands, an act of mercy from a friend moments after Frances was hysterically imploring her to drink. Jacqueline is released, but one of Palladist goons who had helped spirit August away now stalks her through the dark streets in perhaps the most epic of the many sequences of anxious midnight wandering in the Lewton series. Like Mary in the subway scene, Jacqueline finds herself utterly alone in the midst of the great city. She can’t appeal to the oblivious passers-by to protect her from the almost abstract threat that pursues her, the stalker’s face gleaming deathly pale as he looms out of shadows, building to a climax when Jacqueline edges her way along a wall in trying to escape a blind alley, only to feel the coat of her pursuer, lying in wait for her. A hand grasps her wrist; a knife flicks open.

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Jacqueline is only saved by the sudden eruption of a coterie of actors from their theatre’s rear entrance: one of the male actors grabs Jacqueline up, offering to buy her a beer and a sandwich, and spirits her to safety. These folk are more than actors; they’re like an explosion of the life essence itself, emerging from doors with the Comedy and Tragedy masks painted on. The irreducible linkage of the two faces lies at the heart of The Seventh Victim’s obsession with mortality. Jacqueline cannot follow the actors into the tavern to share their Bacchanalian love of life, wandering away instead back to the Romaris’ boarding house, where she encounters one of the other residents, who throughout the film has only been glimpsed shuffling from one door to another. This is Mimi, a withering, consumptive woman waiting to die, played by another Lewton regular, Elizabeth Russell.

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Just as Russell played the sinister foreign woman who mysteriously recognised her “sister” in Cat People, here she recognises Jacqueline as fellow lost soul, and states her intention to go out and have fun rather than wait for death, in a monologue that’s both chilling and pathetic: “I’ve been so quiet, oh so quiet, I hardly move, yet it keeps coming for me all the time.” The firelight from within her room casts infernal flickering on the scene. Jacqueline’s final realisation that Mimi will die anyway precipitates the seemingly off-hand, yet bone-chilling final moment. Mimi, dressed up, leaves her flat and moves down the stairs, only distracted for a moment by the odd sound of a toppling chair in Jacqueline’s room, the confirmation that Jacqueline has finally taken her last option. A throwaway touch here underlines the overtone of inevitable fate being met: where the Palladists had mentioned that so far six deaths had been listed for the six betrayals their organisation had recorded, so Jacqueline’s apartment is numbered 7. The final effect is tragic, and yet as a whole, like all of Lewton’s films, The Seventh Victim is peculiarly life-affirming: enjoy it while you have it.

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1940s, Action-Adventure, Historical, Women's Film

Forever Amber (1948)

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Director: Otto Preminger

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

Cinematic adventuring tends to be a macho occupation filled with derring-do for the hell of it, but Forever Amber depicts a different kind of adventure and adventurer at its heart. Amber St. Claire, eponymous heroine of Otto Preminger’s rollicking, deliciously colourful take on a female rake’s progress through the underbelly and high society of Restoration England, one forced to extremes to survive whilst determinedly indulging in a life outside the safety zone of normality, no matter the cost. Forever Amber doubles as one of the more striking crossbreeds of late 1940s Hollywood cinema, as Preminger combines the lush Technicolor expanse of an historical melodrama with a powerful dose of female-centric noir. At the same time, Forever Amber also belonged to a batch of films, including producer Darryl Zanuck’s near-simultaneous production Captain from Castile (1947), that revived the prestigious historical epic with new hues of darkness and complexity not found before World War II. Sexuality and class struggle, psychopathology and feminism percolate with feverish intensity under the surface of Preminger’s fast-paced and artful rendition of Kathleen Windsor’s hugely popular, dauntingly thick bodice-ripper.
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Forever Amber proved a wearisome project for Zanuck and Preminger, the latter of whom disliked the book and was far outside his comfort zone. The big-budget production ran into serious problems early in its shoot when the original lead actress, Peggy Cummins, chosen in a much-publicised Scarlett O’Hara-like hunt for a new actress, proved too inexperienced, and original director John M. Stahl, who knew his way around both strong melodrama and noir with films like Imitation of Life (1934), Magnificent Obsession (1936), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), was over budget and behind schedule. Both director and star were swiftly replaced. Preminger, for all his disaffection, was a smart choice to take over, however, as he shared at least one trait with Stahl. Perhaps the strongest strand in Preminger’s cinema, apart from his delight in controversial subjects and moral complexities, is his fascination for transgressive, even criminal heroines: certainly such figures recur in such films as Laura (1944), Fallen Angel (1945), Whirlpool (1949), Carmen Jones (1954), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and in degrees in several more of his films. That Preminger, one of the most dictatorial and caustic directors in classic Hollywood, had a rich and fascinating feel for maladapted feminine subjects is notable. Many of his anti-heroines attempt to twist the world to suit their own egos, but find they are impossibly outmatched. Amber (Linda Darnell) certainly fits the mould.
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Amber is left as a foundling on the doorstop of a rural Puritan family by the driver of a coach speeding to elude Roundheads in the midst of the Civil War. The coach is overtaken, the passengers lost to history, but Amber is raised in the secure surrounds of a Puritan squire’s household. Once she’s full-grown, however, Amber feels the boiling blood of a tempestuous and easily tempted nature and, far from struggling with it, resolves to leap in feet first when she encounters a cavalier, Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde). Bruce, along with his friend Lord Harry Almsbury (Richard Greene) and other confederates, are returning from exile and extended guerrilla warfare to claim rewards for service during the war, now that Charles II (George Sanders) has been crowned. Thrilled by these good-looking emissaries of the larger world, Amber contrives to follow Bruce and Harry to London, and despite Bruce’s misgivings, she becomes his lover.
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Winsor’s novel had been a huge hit because it captured something in the zeitgeist of the immediate postwar era, coinciding neatly with the United States circa 1946. Amber is the prototypical rebellious girl dreaming of wider pastures via media-informed images of beauty and esteem, maintaining a fervent secret fantasy life even under the stern and watchful eye of her adoptive father Matt Goodgroome (Leo G. Carroll), who whips her to keep her wilful nature at bay. Amber keeps a scrap of paper sporting crude illustrations of elegant ladies and tries to imitate their dress and posture by candlelight in the dark of night, cleverly adapting her modest nightgown into a revealing approximation of glamour. A billion daughters who had been to the movies were doing the same, and before the new repression of the 1950s kicked in, and the flux of the late ’40s comes through in the excitement of the Restoration, where everybody’s on the make. This is, of course, counterbalanced with a regulation moralism: Amber is driven by desperation to morally null acts and constantly attempts to manipulate situations for her own ends only to have her efforts blow up in her face. Winsor’s tale relied on a similar dynamic to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and its film version, the singular paradigm of such popular storytelling, in presenting an anti-heroine who continually ruins herself through her attempts to manipulate people and her determination to snare one special man, whom she wants but can never quite have because of his stolid conscientiousness.
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When Bruce and Harry join the long queue of loyalists seeking rewards, and they find themselves fobbed off and ignored by courtiers like Charles’ gatekeeper Sir Thomas Dudley (Robert Coote) and the King’s mistress, the Countess of Castlemaine (Natalie Draper), a former flame of Bruce’s. On a visit to the theatre, Bruce ventures into the royal box where the Countess is already ensconced to prod her for a remembrance. Amber, jealous, contrives to have the King catch them together: this works, but the upshot is that Charles calls Bruce to the palace late at night and grants him all of his petitions, including ships for his planned privateering ventures, in an effort to get him out of the Countess’ life. Bruce leaves some money for a sleeping Amber and quietly departs; Harry leaves the next day to his reclaimed family estates. Amber, now alone, soon finds out just how rapacious London can be, as her dressmaker Mrs. Abbott (Norma Varden) and her friend Landale (Alan Napier) offer to keep Amber’s money safely for her, and then of course steal it and testify at court that she owes them money. Amber is incarcerated in Newgate Prison, where she learns she’s pregnant with Bruce’s child, and befriends pickpocket Nan Britton (Jessica Tandy). She attends a debauch organised by the jailers with visiting gentlefolk on Christmas Eve, where she encounters imprisoned highwayman Black Jack Mallard (John Russell), who treats prison like a winter hideaway between arrests and escapes. He offers to spring them both.
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Forever Amber structurally mimics classics of picaresque literature like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Moll Flanders, taking its heroine through an anatomisation of society in a period setting. But it’s really a thorough-going product of the mid-20th century, following familiar templates for women’s films: elements of the story distinctly echo the Bette Davis hit Jezebel (1938) as a scheming woman accidentally creates havoc between two men and gets one killed in a duel, but proves herself redeemable by nursing the one she loves through sickness. It also has aspects in common with another ripe costume drama of the postwar period, the British film The Wicked Lady (1945), which similarly deals with quandaries of then-contemporary femininity through the tropes of period England, with the highwayman as the scarcely disguised avatar for an expert sexual partner freed from the rules of conventional society appealing to bad girls who want the same freedom. However, whereas Margaret Lockwood’s character in that gleefully proto-camp British film was an out-and-out sociopath, Amber only takes recourse in the gutter with Black Jack due to circumstances. When she escapes with Jack, he takes her to his base of operations and proves to be in thrall to a dark matriarchy, for Mother Red Cap (Anne Revere) is the head of a ruthless shadow capitalism that quite literally only puts value on humans as far as they can generate profit.
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Amber is forced to work in league with Jack in rolling drunks to pay for her infant son’s keep. But Jack is soon killed in a battle with lawmen, and Amber, fleeing through the grimy, vertiginous streets in a deliciously visualised sequence of quasi-expressionist colour, takes refuge in the house of Captain Rex Morgan (Glenn Langan). Morgan conceals Amber and makes her his mistress, arranging the perfect legal protection for her by getting her a job as an actress, as all actors have been made wards of the Crown. Whilst Amber resists the entreaties of Charles, when she learns Bruce has returned, she immediately runs to him and gives him a chance to meet his son. But Bruce is less than thrilled when he learns that Amber’s attached herself to another man, and even less thrilled when the territorial Morgan challenges him to a duel. Forever Amber is thus sustained by a narrative dynamic that sees Amber eternally torn between material gain and her love for Bruce, which overrides all concerns and constantly results in self-sabotage: Bruce is insufferably self-righteous at many turns, repeatedly spurning Amber, at first for fear of corrupting her and then because of her willingness to get by using every means at her disposal.
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Winsor’s novel was a loaded project to take on, condemned by the Hays Office even before the film rights were sold, but of course, therein also lay the challenge and potential reward of a success d’scandale. Underlying the film’s half-hearted moralism, which accords accurately with an underlying eye for the double-standards of both 1660s England and 1940s America, is gleeful celebration of Amber’s bed-hopping and survivalist, social-climbing cunning, constantly provoking the intensely egotistical, proprietary conceit of the men she hooks up with, but always tellingly remaining independently minded regarding where she places her loyalty and affection. Black Jack and Morgan, who is killed by Bruce in their duel, give way to the Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Haydn), an icy, aged patrician who collects beauty like others collect paintings: shades of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” enter the film as it’s hinted Radcliffe may have had his last disobedient wife killed. Radcliffe approaches Amber initially when she is still working on the stage, and, after Morgan’s death and Bruce’s furious departure, he returns to offer Amber marriage. The union could make her immensely rich upon his death, but this requires living with him first, a dicey proposition. Radcliffe’s chill English brand of brutality is spelt out as he beats his Italian servant Galeazzo (Jimmy Ames), a veteran of the Earl’s residence in Italy where occurred his first wife’s untimely demise. And so Amber reaches the ultimate destination of her experiences, as the most sovereign of ladies tethered to the most ruthlessly controlling of men, one who takes the prevailing social tendency to reduce human being to property to a logical extreme: too old to provide her with any physical affection, he nonetheless demands perfect fidelity.
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The story’s underlying vein of noir brought out in the film’s second half is given special piquancy in its resemblance to noir tales that revolve around female protagonists, including Laura and Whirlpool, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door… (1947), Joseph H. Lewis’ My Name Is Julia Ross (1946), and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1951), all of which include a heroine entrapped by controlling and destructive men. Amber fatally offends her husband when, hearing that Bruce has returned to London yet again, leaves their wedding reception to track Bruce down. She finds him at the dock, but Bruce quickly keels over, stricken with plague. Amber undertakes his care, bribing a soldier to let her take him into an abandoned townhouse, a shadowy cavern that becomes a battle zone of life and death. Thanks to Amber’s hardiness and grit, including killing Mrs. Spong (Margaret Wycherly), a hired nurse who tried to kill Bruce and steal his valuables, Bruce recovers, only to be confronted with Radcliffe who arrives looking for his wife.
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If there’s a major fault with Forever Amber, it probably lies in part with the film’s troubled production and the resulting pressure to turn a profit from a whopping investment, something it didn’t quite manage. The film moves a touch too quickly at several points, especially its marvellously melodramatic climax, as if the filmmakers didn’t quite have time to piece the film together properly. But in spite of the fact that Preminger later described this as his worst film (very hard to swallow, especially in a career that also includes Hurry Sundown,1967), the director’s usually restrained sense of style is a great part of the pleasure of Forever Amber. Preminger, like Orson Welles, had been a stage director before entering cinema, and like Welles, had an interest in using camera mobility to imbue a sense of theatrical space, which would give way in his later films to a rougher and readier interest in realistic location work. His camera direction is fluidic, sustaining some dynamic shots in weaving about the sets tracing movement, whilst also offering a diagrammatic sensibility in the way he positions actors, evoking Renaissance painting with a theatrical tinge that Preminger sets up in one of his droller scenes, in the early playhouse scene with the players enacting Romeo and Juliet in similarly blocked poses, launching into dance-like duelling which they break off momentarily to bow at the royal box before recommencing. Interpersonal dialogue scenes are rendered less usually in the familiar over-the-shoulder two shot than in squared-off diptychs, triptychs, and group shots reduced to ritualised forms, as in the moments before Bruce and Rex’s duel, where the seconds spread out into geometric positions in front of which the two duellists cross in slashing movement to balance either wing, all before a dreamy, fog-gnarled approximation of a parkland setting.
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Amber was shot by Leon Shamroy, arguably the first great visual poet of colour cinematography, having contributed superlative work to Zanuck’s other productions, like The Black Swan (1942). Here, working with “Technicolor Director” Natalie Kalmus, Shamroy creates the film’s saturated visual palette, swinging from poles of candy-coloured foppery in the daylight to dark-flooded, cleverly lit and expressive recreations of a tangled, medieval London about to meets its cleansing reckoning in fire. His saturated blues and inky black dotted with pools of brilliance from fire and lamp, and the Hogarthian confines of Newgate, Mother Red Cap’s house, and the plague-stricken city of night, all offered with painterly care in source lighting and tonal lustre.
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Amber’s stint as an actress is inevitable, as she’s already played many roles to survive, and a note vibrates through the whole film that it’s really a long-shot metaphor for the exigencies of survival in Hollywood. Certainly, deliberately or not, Winsor’s original tale rests on a sensibility informed by the common fantasies of a largely female readership, much of which would inevitably have included success in the Dream Factory. Just as Amber fantasises about a swankier life, practising her act by candlelight early in the tale, so does she tackles her various parts, in thrall to powerful men but also using them deftly, as a protean being. Both Zanuck and Preminger would have affairs with ill-fated starlets, Bella Darvi in Zanuck’s case and Dorothy Dandridge in Preminger’s, that would echo this story, and star Linda Darnell constantly placed herself in bruising conflict with the hierarchy of Hollywood since rising from bit parts to play alongside Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand (1941). Darnell, surprised when she was rapidly transferred onto this film after preparing for a lead role in Captain from Castile, was a talented and stunningly good-looking actress, possessed of a certain truculence toward the studio system’s attempts to reduce her to a glamour-puss, and usually typecast in parts that relied on her darkly exotic looks. There was an irony in her landing Amber after Zanuck, Stahl, and Preminger had placed emphasis on getting a natural blonde like Cummins or Lana Turner for the part. Darnell doesn’t give her best performance here—three years later, in Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, she showed her true mettle—but Forever Amber was her greatest star moment.
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Inevitably, Amber is drawn into Charles’ orbit again in the theatre and as Radcliffe’s wife, presenting a tempting morsel to the King at a dance, after Charles has just broken off with Castlemaine and where the bored and restrained Amber makes it plain she’d very much like to be Charles’ next concubine and Radcliffe resists with stern resolve, a full-on macho pissing contest with Amber as the stake taking place under the genteel phraseology and strained politeness. Radcliffe’s patience with Amber finally burns out, aptly on a night when the Great Fire, blazing in the background, comes weeping towards Radcliffe’s city mansion. Radcliffe sees a chance to rid himself of another problematic spouse, and tries to lock her within the house to die in the flames, only for Nan and Galeazzo to come to the rescue. Preminger sweeps in for a dramatic close-up of the Italian servant’s face, transmuted into a mask of wrath, as he marches over to Radcliffe: in a delirious moment of violent revenge, Galeazzo picks up the Earl and hurls him bodily into the fire that’s consuming the house, before he, Nan, and Amber flee ahead of the fiery collapse, concluding a brief but effectual rebellion of the underclass that completes a circular movement from the blaze that consumed Amber’s birthplace in war at the start to this fiery consummation.
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Forever Amber is too hampered by it concessions to punitive morality to really be a feminist work, especially in the film’s concluding phase, in which Amber is emotionally blackmailed into giving up custody of her son to Bruce and loses favour with Charles after being his mistress for a time. But it’s arguable the film reflects the problems of being an adventurous female in the era far more accurately than a more liberal depiction would, and the film never entirely abandons a winkingly mischievous attitude to its sexuality. Bruce, who has since settled in America and returns with a bride, Corinne (Jane Ball), has become a big enough prig to fit in with any Puritans in the New World. He approaches Amber to convince her to let him take their son back across the Atlantic to let him grow up in a more morally fecund environment than the British upper-class (he has a point). But his American-born spouse proves to be a better sport. As Amber tries another of her tricks—bringing Charles and Corinne together so the King will seduce her and sunder the Carltons’ marriage—Charles spots her ploy and pleasantly sends Corinne on her way. He posits as she leaves, “What if we hadn’t both realised we were both the victims of a plot, if you had simply been my guest here tonight, what might the result of been?” to which Corinne replies with fearless good humour, “It’s a pity we shall never know, your majesty.” Amber fails doubly, as Charles feels disillusioned by Amber’s plotting and reveals his own peculiar pathos in having to settle for approximations of love when his social role was predetermined, and so commands Amber to leave court. It’s made clear that Amber won’t be falling on hard times—she has Radcliffe’s fortune and quickly has Dudley calling dibs—but as Bruce takes away her son and she’s faced with exile from the pinnacle of her dreams, Amber is left a tragic figure. Her tragedy is of someone who liberated herself from the repressiveness of her society but not from its deeper hypocrisy: the tendency to reduce human being, even loved ones, to playthings and properties.

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